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Dean Raftery and co driver Aileen Kelly took their maiden NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge victory on Saturday’s second Ulster Challenge Rally, on an afternoon when an unusually high attrition rate saw only five crews reach the finish.

Steven Smith and co-driver Daniel Johnstone were rewarded for their heroic, seven hour repair efforts on Saturday night to take second while the ‘Challenge’s other registered Irish crew, John Byrnes and Paul Murphy took the final podium spot.

The second NGK BRCC event was all action from the moment the cars completed the first, with three crews having to work through the night to get their cars ready for Saturday morning.

Championship leader Russ Thompson worked into the early hours with his team and that of Ross Hunter to replace the sump he cracked on Friday’s second stage, while next door to Thompson, event one winner Hunter was replacing the broken gear linkage that had threatened to cost him Friday’s victory.

Further down the service park, Smith was also burning the midnight oil replacing the broken gearbox in his Peugeot 206 with one sourced from a local scrapyard.

The efforts of the three groups meant that as the stages got under way, ten of the 12 registered runners headed out to the first stage Sloughan Glen, a stage that graced the Irish World Rally Championship round in 2009.

It was here, on a stage regarded as one of the most technical on this year’s ‘Challenge roster, that Richard Sykes retired his Citroën R2C2 after crashing out in a big accident that saw the car well off the road with a heavily damaged front end.

While the driver was able to extract himself from the car, co-driver Simon Taylor complained of lumbar pains. Taking all the due care necessary after such a heavy impact, the pair summoned the stage medical teams to provided assistance with Taylor being taken to hospital in for precautionary checks.

After the stage was cleared, the early pace was set by Ross Hunter, who was looking to build on his Friday win and close the gap to the top of the championship further. His time of 12:55.2 was the benchmark for the 13.81 miles.

Right on his gearbox though, was Galway’s Raftery, a mere 2.9 seconds adrift and looking an ominous threat to Hunter’s hopes of recording an Ulster double and taking his third win of the campaign.

The threat was made manifest on the next stage after the Irishman completed the test 14.2 seconds faster than Hunter and take an 11.3 second overall lead.

For the rest of the challenge field, the stage was less plain sailing. Thompson overshot the road at a junction on his way to the third fastest time, Smith hit a telegraph pole, damaging his radiator while Aaron McClure damaged his suspension and drive shaft after hitting a rock off road.

As the cars headed into service, Gareth White was seen stranded on the road section to see the total number of retirements over the course of the two events reach four. It was a total that would continue to rise over the rest of the afternoon.

First to attempt to join the list of retirees was Friday’s winner Ross Hunter on stage four, Carran Bridge. Nursing a handling problem after hitting a chicane bale on the St Angelo spectator stage, the Scotsman had a sizeable collision with a telegraph pole, causing serious damage to the front left of his car.

While he was able to conduct a running repair by the roadside and get the car to the end of the event, the organisers deemed Hunter to be over his allotted time, removing him from the overall classification.

At the same time further back on the road, Thompson and Murphy were the next to fall victim of the fickle finger of fate. The pair ran wide on the first junction of the stage with the car’s rear end stepping out, colliding with an unidentified roadside obstacle and damaging the brake pipe.

After undertaking so much effort to get the car onto Sunday’s event, the crew decided to try and get to the end of the stage using the handbrake and gears in place of the damaged braking system. A mile further down the road however, the left rear wheel sheared off, leaving the duo no option but to park up and call it a day.

Speaking after returning to the service park, Murphy expressed his and Thompson’s feelings of disappointment at how their rally ended.

“It’s just gutting! Everybody involved with the car gave so much to get it ready for today to see it all fall away because of a little slip is devastating. We owed the guys so much more than this and we’re both genuinely sorry to all of them as it could have been one of those great results we all celebrate together. We will have to make it up to them in Yorkshire.”

By now, Ulster Challenge 2 was starting to look like an event no one wanted to win and there was a real sense of incredulity when on the last stage, Fiesta SportChallenge leader Chris Wheeler became the event’s final retirement.

In scenes reminiscent of Carlos Sainz’ infamous retirement from Rally GB 1998, the 19 year old’s Fiesta ground into retirement with a gearbox issue within sight of the flying finish of the final spectator stage at St Angelo airport.

In the face of all this carnage and calamity however, the beaming, smiling face of Raftery was quite happy to take the win, coming home with a one minute and forty second cushion.

In second place, RC4 winner Steven Smith nursed his Peugeot to a season best result while the Challenge’s other registered Irish crew, John Byrnes and Paul Murphy, finished in the final NGK BRCC podium spot.

The pair in the Honda Civic finished fourth on the road, two seconds behind local crew Jonni & Sarah McDaid after adopting a steady approach to the day’s stages to maximise their championship points haul.

As the McDaids were ineligible for championship points, Byrnes and Murphy took the awards for third to bounce back from a troubled Friday where they were plagued by a fuel starvation problem.

Their Ulster Challenge 2 score sees them take an eight point lead in the combined RC2 RC3 class.

In the Fiesta SportChallenge, north west pairing of Aaron McClure and Tom Woodburn secured top honours with a well recovered fifth place after their morning accident. A result which sees them regain the championship lead from Wheeler.

The NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge now moves to Pickering in North Yorkshire for the Trackrod Challenge Rally over the weekend of September 27th and 28th.

For more information on the NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge visit http://www.rallybrc.co.uk

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