Co-driver Aaron Johnston was the best of the Irish competitors on an exciting but challenging second round of the World Rally Championship.
This year’s Rally Sweden moved north for the first time to a new base in Umea, driving on ultra-rapid stages that are among the fastest the championship has ever seen.
A record ten Motorsport Ireland competitors tackled the season’s only all-snow event with Irish representation across all four categories attached to the WRC.
Tyrone man, Johnston, finished fourth overall alongside Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta in their Toyota Yaris Rally1.
The pair only started working together on last October’s Rally Finland and last weekend’s result was their best-ever as a team.
Takamoto was full of praise for Johnston’s efforts over the weekend.
“From Saturday onwards especially, I felt so comfortable in the car. In the Power Stage I tried a big push to get some extra points for the team and took two points, which was good even though there was room to improve. But the most important thing is that we finished the rally. Thanks to Aaron as well: He did a really good job during the weekend.”
The Japanese/ Irish crew leave Sweden in sixth place in the championship – one position ahead of the only all-Irish crew in the top division: Craig Breen and Paul Nagle.
The M-Sport Ford World Rally Team members had a rally to forget, two collisions with the unforgiving Swedish snowbanks on Friday all but ended their hopes.
They re-joined on Saturday under SuperRally rules only for the emergency cut-off switch on their Ford Puma to fail late in the day forcing a second retirement.
The team salvaged one World Championship point on Sunday’s Wolf Power Stage but dropped from fourth to seventh in the championship standings.
The fastest time on the event’s 12th stage was a highlight in an otherwise forgettable weekend for the crew.
“A relatively disappointing weekend for us in Sweden, after the great result in Monte we were looking to build on it again and get some more good points for the championship. Unfortunately, the error we made on Friday put out any hopes of getting a good result, but nonetheless, we improved as the weekend went on; we had a stage win on Saturday which is great, our first stage win for the team,” said Waterford man Breen.
“We definitely have a lot of things where we can improve for the upcoming events. We’re looking forward to getting our heads down and getting focused on Croatia, which is coming up very soon.”
Josh McErlean and James Fulton were another crew who were deprived of a good result by the notoriously unforgiving snowbanks. They were also forced to finish the rally under SuperRally rules after an off-road excursion on Friday ended their promising run.
They finished 13th in the WRC2 class after running in the top ten before their mishap. However, their recovery drive netted them fifth in the Junior class that runs alongside the overall WRC2 category.
The Hyundai i20 crew are also competing under the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy banner.
“Of course, it was disappointing on Friday, but the important thing was to learn from it and adapt. I think we did that really well and I`m encouraged by the way we used our heads over the remainder of the rally. I know there is much more speed to come too,” said McErlean at the Umea finish, who is 22 and from County Derry.
“There is more to come for sure.”
“It’s still a little surreal to think I`m actually here competing at Rally Sweden and it’s been a truly amazing experience. My thanks must go to the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy, PCRS Rallysport and all our partners for their support over the last few weeks to give us a robust start to the season.
Privateers Eamonn Boland and MJ Morrisey suffered a crankshaft pulley failure on Friday. They re-joined the fray on Saturday and recovered to finish 35th overall and fourth in the Masters’ WRC 2 category in their Ford Fiesta in what was their second WRC start so far this year.
Junior World Rally Championship (WRC3)
Sweden was the first round of the 2022 Junior championship.
The all-Fermanagh crew of Jon Armstrong and Brian Hoy were victorious in the category after an event long battle with rising Finnish stars Lauri Joona and Mikael Korhonen. Just 2.7 seconds separated the crews after the pair locked horns on the snow and ice for three hard days.
Armstrong competes under a Motorsport UK licence but he was full of praise for his county man Hoy who is a Motorsport Ireland competition licence holder.
“I can’t believe it, to come here and win is crazy, I thought a podium would be good, to take the win is something else. Me and Brian worked really hard, got on really well and the notes have been really good, it’s been easy to commit to the notes as they were really consistent. What a start to the championship,” said Armstrong.
William Creighton and Liam Regan scored their maiden Junior WRC podium on Rally Sweden, the Belfast men kept a steady pace all weekend, to take third in the category.
The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy backed crew proved themselves to be talented Tarmac operators during their debut season in 2021 but during Rally Sweden the Irishmen underlined they will be a force to be reckoned on other surfaces during this year’s campaign too.
“I`m really happy with this result considering my lack of experience on this surface and to come away with a podium on the opening round is a very positive sign indeed,” said a delighted Creighton who is the current Junior British Champion.
“Our pace was consistent all weekend and a stage win shows we could dial up the speed when necessary but to keep that up all weekend would mean we would be on the limit with huge potential for a non-finish. A podium is a perfect start.”
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