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.