Pirelli TEG Sport crew Mark Higgins and Bryan Thomas took a lonely victory on this weekend's Toddsleap.com Ulster International Rally, the fifth round of the 2009 MSA British Rally Championship.

Their eventual winning margin of nearly three minutes from local youngster Alastair Fisher, partnered by Higgins' former co-driver Rory Kennedy, certainly does not tell the whole story though, as the event was full of intrigue from the start.

Higgins' main Championship rivals Keith Cronin and Greg Shinnors had begun well, posting times that made a repeat of the pair's year-long battle a definite possibility on the 127 mile event. But disaster struck for the Irishman on the final stage of Friday, going off the road while 14 seconds clear of triple champion Higgins.

The incident damaged the front of the car, but critically failing to finish the stage would have cost Cronin a ten minute penalty even if it were repaired for the Saturday re-start. This he and his team elected not to do, instead saving precious funds to take the fight to the final round in Yorkshire which counts for 1.5 points.

"It is a shame about Keith, but it still means that whoever wins in Yorkshire will take the title," Higgins reflected. "In some respects it was lucky that Gwyndaf [Evans] was fighting us for the event Group N win. Even though he isn't registered for points, it has helped keep our concentration.

"This rally is definitely one of the best in the British Rally Championship; the stages, the organisation - all brilliant."

Fisher's was a mature drive to second and he was pleased to have been close to the times of Higgins, even beating him on stage one. The young driver's development has been well planned and he proved here on home tarmac that he was certainly worthy of the Pirelli Star Driver nomination on the previous rally. An uneventful Ulster on the whole means he consolidates his third place in the Championship and is just one point away from Cronin who now lies second.

The battle for third place was probably the most unpredictable of the whole season so far, the place held by no less than seven different drivers throughout the event. After the opening stage it was amazingly Higgins who occupied the place, but Fisher soon slotted into place behind the Championship front-runners, staying in second after Cronin's demise.

Higgins' Pirelli TEG Sport team-mates Adam Gould and Seb Marshall took over the place briefly on Friday's last stage, but just 0.6 of a second split third to fifth places, Dave Weston Jnr and new co-driver Gordon Noble trailing the Revolution Wheels crew of Euan Thorburn and Campbell Roy by just a tenth.

Weston kept his head on Friday's first two unpredictable stages to take third, while minor overshoots and moments for both Gould and Thorburn dropped them a handful of seconds back.

Stage nine looked like being pivotal in the fight for third when Gould and Thorburn both crashed heavily. Although all four crew members were OK, third should have been safe for Weston, but he too hit a bank and bent the rear suspension, losing five minutes and elevating Jonny Greer and Kirsty Riddick as the fifth crew to hold third place.

Greer's hold on the position was to be short lived though, as suspected fuel pressure problems that had been causing a loss of power, turned into engine failure with just two full stages of the event remaining.

The place now fell to a front wheel drive car, that of Finnish hotshot Matti Rantanen and new co-driver Tuomo Nikkola. The little two litre Group N Clio would certainly have been an impressive sight on the finish ramp alongside Subaru and Mitsubishi, but it was not to be. The Finn, who had been inside the top ten and leading the R3 class all event, crashed heavily, but were thankfully uninjured on the very next stage; unlucky thirteen.

After it appeared that nobody wanted to take the final podium spot, even Rantanen's accident seemed to jinx the place as the crews who stopped to help were given their actual stage times rather than a notional one. This briefly left Weston back in third, but after a steward's decision, Team JRM Lico's David Bogie and Kevin Rae re-took the place that should have been theirs after the Finn's exit.

The Scot's event had been hampered early on when a turbo pipe came adrift, later spending some time in a field. But he was pleased at the finish, particularly as he was under some pressure from Marty McCormack who finished top two wheel drive and fourth overall in his Citro?n C2R2 Max.

McCormack's and Phil Clarke's Ulster Rally was near perfect affair, taking not only top front wheel drive position, but the excellent stage times and level headed approach also won the local Draperstown driver the fifth Pirelli Star Driver nomination.

Not content with a chance to win a fully funded drive in the 2010 British Rally Championship, the youngster also cannot be caught in the MSA British Junior Rally Championship. Even if he doesn't contest the final rally in Yorkshire will take the award at the Royal Automobile Club's Pall Mall headquarters at the glittering January awards ceremony, although he still needs to contest the final Citro?n Racing Trophy round in northern France in September to seal the Citro?n title.

Sixth of the British Rally Championship finishers were Craig Breen and Gareth Roberts who also took the Rally 3 class victory. But probably most important to the Irish youngster is victory in both the UK and Irish Fiesta SportTrophy Championships, sealed on stage ten of the rally. Having pushed for the win from the start, he was delighted at the service area, but realised that he had four more stage to go before the finish of the International event.

Another front wheel driver inside the top ten of the British Rally Championship finishers and winning the Swift Sport Cup and rally 1 class were Richard Sykes and Simon Taylor. Their R1 win was at the expense of Joseph McGonigle who had run at the front in his Honda, but transmission problems forced him out, leaving a smiling Sykes to take both accolades. They very nearly didn't make it though, gear selection problems early on, manifesting as a loss of second and fourth gears on the final stages.

The final class victors were the Graham brother Steve and Tony in their diesel Astra, the ultra economical and distinctive coupe finishing fifteenth, but crucially amassing enough points to take the 2009 British Rally Championship Diesel Cup. Their plan for the final day had been to try and complete all the mileage on one tank of fuel, a plan that nearly worked. With fuel lights flashing in the final eight mile test, Steve was forced to switch to economy mode, gasping to a fuel station on the final run back to the finish.

The 2009 MSA British Rally Championship now concludes next month with the International Rally Yorkshire on September 26.