The opening round of the Dunlop National Rally Championship was won by the Kerry crew of Thomas Fitzmaurice/Fionn Foley in a Subaru WRC.
In an absorbing tussle through all nine stages of the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel Rally, they finished 17 seconds ahead of the Cork/Mayo combination of Brian O’Mahony/John Higgins, also in a Subaru WRC.
Monaghan’s, Niall Maguire/Enda Sherry (Subaru WRC) were third – 44 seconds further adrift.
The Group N category was won by Robert Barrable/Dermot O’Gorman (Skoda Fabia S2000) and Frank Kelly/Liam Brennan (Ford Escort) took victory in the Modified section.
Fitzmaurice (Subaru WRC) made a great start and punched in the best time on the opening stage, three seconds ahead of both Brian O’Mahony (Subaru WRC) and Niall Maguire (Subaru WRC), who tied for second.
Robert Barrable (Skoda Fabia S2000) was fourth – eight seconds further behind and two ahead of the MG S2000 of Roy White. Colm Murphy (Subaru) held sixth overall.
Late entry, Garry Jennings lost front brakes and then stalled the ex-Donnelly Toyota Corolla WRC and became the first major retirement when it wouldn’t re-start.
Fitzmaurice also set the pace on the second stage while O’Mahony dominated the time sheets on the final stage of the loop.
At the Rathdowney service halt, Fitzmaurice held a seven second advantage, like all the other drivers he remarked on the extremely slippery nature of the stages.
A spin on the third stage illustrated the slippery conditions. O’Mahony took sole occupancy of second place with Barrable moving into third-nine seconds further behind.
Maguire stalled his Subaru on the final junction of the third stage, nevertheless, he held fourth, a mere second behind Barrable. Murphy slotted into fifth from the Mitsubishi of Sam Moffett, who was 27 seconds behind the Limerick driver.
Top seed, Kevin Barrett struggled in the conditions, a hard slick was certainly not the correct tyre choice.
Frank Kelly, who led the Mk. Escort brigade despite an overshoot and a full 360 degree spin on the third stage, was eighth overall. The Group N cars of Josh Moffett and Shane Maguire completed the top ten.
Meanwhile, Roy White crashed his MG S2000 out of the rally on the second test, a stage later, overseas driver, Steve Simpson, who had an altercation on the opening stage, went off the road and out of the rally.
The battle between Fitzmaurice and O’Mahony was intense over the second loop.
The Kerry driver increased his lead to eight seconds after Stage four even though he had a major moment. O’Mahony was quickest through the remaining two stages to trim the deficit to five seconds.
Maguire lost time with a puncture on the fifth stage but remained in third, albeit 27 seconds behind O’Mahony. Barrable retained fourth from Colm Murphy, who was probably the only driver looking for wet conditions.
Barrett was pleased with his performance through the second loop, he was sixth.
Sam Moffett was another driver happy with his performance, he admitted to being off the pace on the opening loop.
Meanwhile, Kelly continued to set a cracking pace in the Modified category as he held a 31 second lead over Mike Quinn.
The final place in the top ten was annexed by Josh Moffett (Mitsubishi). Declan Boyle (Escort) and Jonathan Pringle were just outside the top ten, the latter, seeded at 44 was worried about his Escort’s head gasket.
On Stage 7, Fitzmaurice and O’Mahony shared the same time but the Cork driver lost around eight seconds when his Subaru drifted against a bank as he exited an intricate junction.
Remarkably, the top three set identical time on the penultimate stage leaving Fitzmaurice with a five second advantage entering the final stage.
In a thrilling finish, tyre choice proved crucial as Fitzmaurice took victory by a margin of 17 seconds.
The 38-year-old, who netted his first win said, "I enjoyed the first loop, then I had a big moment on the fourth stage. I really nailed it on the last stage, I gambled on tyres and it paid off.
"This win didn’t come easy, Brian (O’Mahony) really pushed me to the limit, I was race fit from Galway."
Obviously disappointed, O’Mahony was still delighted to have got 18 Dunlop championship points. "I drove hard on S.S. 7 but then the tyres went off on the final stages, especially on the final stage."
Former triple champion, Niall Maguire was third and Barrable, who admitted the fast stages didn’t suit his Skoda S200, was fourth. Colm Murphy (Subaru) finished fifth.
Meanwhile, Kevin Barrett took the Dunlop 'Drive of the Day' award, he made the most improvement on his opening stage loop times.
Driving a 2.5 Vauxhall engine Escort, Frank Kelly dominated the Modified section. The top ten was completed by Sam Moffett (Mitsubishi) and the Escorts of Declan Boyle and Mike Quinn.
Kerry’s, PJ O’Dowd/John Young (Sunbeam) won the Historic category and victory in the Junior section went to Richard Moore/Richard Cleary (Honda Civic).