Rather than Champagne being put on ice for the celebrations at the end of the Jim Clark International Rally in Kelso today, it’s more likely a crate of Guinness will be required after three Irishmen dominated the opening day.
The normally quiet roads which meander through the Borders were turned into Britain’s fastest rally stages as the area hosted the biggest single motorsport event of the year.
A counter in the British Rally Championship, as well as the Irish Tarmac and County Saab Scottish championships, the event is the only rally to be held on closed-off public tarmac roads.
It was Ireland’s Tim McNulty, driving his Subaru Impreza World Rally Car, who dominated proceedings being fastest through seven of the opening 10 stages. His consistency allowed him to open a 20.4-second advantage over the Impreza of fellow countryman Eamonn Boland with Dublin’s Gareth MacHale back in third, a further 55.2s adrift in his Ford Focus WRC.
“We took it fairly steadily through the opening stage, but with hindsight we could easily have been 10 or 11 seconds quicker,” McNulty explained. “But we’ve built on that and managed to keep it fairly steady right through the day. We’re not doing anything spectacular, just chipping away and opening out the lead.”
In the battle for the British Championship, which none of the three leading Irish drivers are registered for, there was disappointment for defending champ Guy Wilks.
Having won the opening round, the Pirelli International, the Darlington driver was on course for maximum points — and lying third overall in the event — when the propshaft on his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9 broke midway through the day’s fourth stage, the six-miler at Eyemouth.
Worse though was to follow. In an effort to nurse the car through to the end of the stage he punctured the fuel tank which resulted in the car being severely damaged when it ignited. Though neither Wilks or his co-driver Phil Pugh were injured, the blaze caused the cancellation of the stage as fire crews doused the flames.
Wilks’ retirement elevated former British champ, Welsh-based Manxman Mark Higgins into the maximum points position. The 2005 Jim Clark winner, driving his TEG Sport 2006-spec Subaru Impreza for the first time, heads into Sunday’s closing six stages fourth overall, 2mins 15.8s behind McNulty and more than a minute ahead of his nearest rival. But his lead could have been greater.
“On the second stage I asked for a two-minute gap at the start because I was starting behind Phillip Morrow,” Higgins explained. “I caught him before the stage finish and it certainly cost me a few seconds.”
Morrow had a day to forget. The Lisburn driver rolled his Mitsubishi Evo 9 on the first stage but managed to nurse it to the end despite being badly damaged and without a front windscreen.
Hours later, on his second run through the 16-miler at Abbey St Bathans, his car caught fire after plastic fell on to the car’s exhaust. After Higgins and a number of other crews stopped to help extinguish the flames, he again managed to limp to the end of the stage. His car though finally gave up the ghost two stages later.