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Precarious Ulster stages mean ITRC race far from over

Less than two weeks since the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship’s penultimate round – the 2023 series is set to be decided on an interesting Ulster Rally.

The Ulster also returns to the British Rally Championship this year with M-Sport’s World Rally Championship crew of Adrien Fourmaux and Alexandre Coria making their debut on the Emerald Isle.

Fourmaux’s visit is a fascinating addition to a weekend that will have Ireland’s steadfast spectators nervously waiting to find out who will become the 2023 Irish Tarmac Rally Champions.

Holding a 14-point championship lead, Callum Devine and Noel O’Sullivan are undefeated in ITRC since winning its third round. Devine was in mightly form on the Circuit of Ireland – his win on the opposite side of Northern Ireland kick-starting what had been a misfiring Irish Tarmac campaign.

ITRC’s contenders must drop their two lowest scores and the championship finale offers a points-and-a-half tally of scores to add to the current standings.

That means Devine’s two championship challengers – Josh Moffett and Meirion Evans – can still claim the Irish Tarmac title if Devine finishes behind Ulster Rally’s top four ITRC-registered drivers.

In that case, Moffett or Evans would also need to pick up a maximum score on the Ulster.

Moffett was in a similar scenario 12 months ago and managed to cruise around Ulster’s nine stages to clinch the title alongside co-driver Andy Hayes.

Can Devine achieve the same end result this weekend or will he risk it with a desire to win his fifth Irish Tarmac event in a row and his first Ulster Rally?

“The Ulster is based on stages I haven’t done before,” said Devine. “It will be a new challenge for me.

“I want to win the Ulster especially with the BRC boys coming over – I would like to see if I have the pace to beat them.

“We’ll go for it through the first few stages at least to see where we are at.

“Nothing really changes for us, we’ll be going for a win but if that is out of the question then we will have to manage it.”

Whether or not Devine decides to go for a more controlled approach this weekend, there is no way he can afford to turn down his speed too much. A host of leading ITRC crews have entered the Ulster Rally with many holding serious ambitions for the event.

Aside from Moffett and Evans; Jonny Greer, Robert Barrable, Desi Henry, Cathan McCourt, James Ford, Gareth MacHale, and 2022’s third-placed finisher Jason Mitchell are all serious points-scoring threats.

As for last year’s Ulster Rally winner, Meirion Evans, he’s fully focused on driving his own rally this weekend.

“I look forward to the Ulster every year,” Evans told Rally Insight. “The stages are always good and very challenging.

“They are different from the rest of the championship and with its location changing every few years, stage knowledge balances out for the competitors.

“A repeat of last year’s result will be difficult with Adrien there but in terms of the Irish Tarmac guys, it would be nice to be the quickest of them.

“We’ll give it our best, we know the speed is there so we can go focus on the job and do the best we can.”

As mentioned by Evans, the 2023 Ulster Rally consists of tricky stages surrounding its Newry base.

Onthepacenote’s Killian Duffy can give us a better idea of the testing route that lies ahead on Irish Tarmac’s deciding round.

Slieve Roe (13.1 km) – SS1/3

Slieve Roe is a new stage for competitors. Based near Warrenpoint it is certainly going to be a challenge as the event’s opener. It is incredibly bumpy at the start before changing to more flowing characteristics.

There is definitely an opportunity for crews to make an early jump on their rivals at the start of the rally.

A gravelly surface will also test the drivers’ confidence through the stage’s initial sections.

Banbridge North (12.9 km) – SS2/4

Another 13-kilometre test for Ulster Rally’s competitors to sink their teeth into. The road is an undulating asphalt rollercoaster that will be a proper challenge of commitment.

The actual road surface is okay but if it rains then the stage will be like a bottle. Brace yourselves for a few of those infamous “shiny tar” calls.

Shinn Bridge (19.6 km) – SS5/8

Shinn Bridge is based on last year’s test but the route of the rally’s longest stage has changed.

Aside from that, there has been a lot of fresh resurfacing so crews will find themselves pinging through chip-ladden terrain just before the stage’s halfway point.

Shinn Bridge loops back onto the same resurfaced road towards the end of the 19-kilometre stage and back onto those chippings.

It’s a really hard stage to remember, it has a strange feel to it and is definitely a tough one for crews to face first thing on Saturday.

Tyrones Ditches (19.5 km) – SS6/9

Tyrones Ditches is identical to last year with a lot of corners waiting to catch out Ulster’s protagonists.

In true Ulster fashion, there are plenty of bumps and jumps to unsettle the cars with blind corners to test the drivers as well.

Mount Pleasant (13.4 km) – SS7/10

Another busy stage to wrap up the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. There is no let up through this hard-going tarmac test.

If the conditions are damp or drizzly it is going to be a really tough package of stages. It will be easy for crews to get caught out and with championships in the balance it is definitely going to test those nerves.

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Photos by D Harrigan Images

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