The 2022 Donegal International Rally is finely poised after the first day of action, with Callum Devine leading British Rally champion Matt Edwards by just 5.8s seconds.
Alastair Fisher lies third overnight but already some 29.1s cut adrift of the lead battle.
Having not run since 2019, the buzz and anticipation for Donegal’s 50th anniversary event was palpable. Not even some light showers of rain on Friday morning could dampen spirits.
However, that moist weather did compromise the morning for two of the pre-event favorites, Sam and Josh Moffett.
Both Sam, running a Ford Fiesta WRC in amongst a bunch of R5 and Rally2 cars, and his Irish Tarmac Championship-leading brother Josh bolted full wet tires on, hoping that the overnight and morning rain had clung onto the stages.
But the first set of stage times showed the error in their ways. While Devine blitzed it to set a time 7.5s quicker than anybody else, Josh dropped 14.3s in his Hyundai i20 R5 and Sam a further three seconds.
As the Moffetts struggled, Devine, who won the most recent Irish international in Killarney, was flying. Now fully at one with his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 on his third event in the car, he won all three of the morning’s stages to build an 8.4s lead.
Edwards hit back in the afternoon, with his Citroën C3 Rally2 fastest over the second pass of Dooish Hill – albeit by just 0.1s. Though he dropped half a second on the next test, he took a strong 2.9s to firmly apply the pressure onto Devine.
For his part, Devine admitted to taking “no risk” on the final stage of the day. His time loss sets up an epic race heading into Saturday.
“I just went as hard as I could this morning and maybe I just showed less caution than everybody else. As once stage one passed it was back to tenths between us,” Devine told DirtFish.
“I wouldn’t say we’re at any advantage. All it’s really done is put us first on the road,” he laughed. “It’s going to be a tight battle and I’m looking forward to it. It’s the weekend we look forward to every year so we’re enjoying it and at least the weather’s getting good now, so hopefully it stays like this.”
Edwards meanwhile felt second place on his first Donegal, first event in a C3 and first event in any four-wheel-drive car since last November’s Ulster Rally was “what I was hoping for but not what I expected”.
“I’m really happy, I’m really enjoying it,” he told DirtFish.
“The car is obviously really good, working really well but we’ve been crashing out quite heavily over the compressions and because it actually physically hurts, you don’t want to do it,” he added.
“And we need to get it a bit more precise for the faster stuff, so although it was good today I think we need to make sure everything’s right tomorrow so we don’t get left behind.”
Third-placed Fisher described his Friday as a “funny day” where “he just didn’t quite have that edge”. But with Edwards not registered for Irish Tarmac points, Fisher is well placed with championship leader Josh Moffett behind him.
Aside from his tire blunder and a strange collision with a park bench before starting the rally, Moffett’s day was a clean one. He trails Fisher’s Polo by four seconds.
Meirion Evans is fifth overall, declaring himself happy with his driving. He leads a pair of Fiesta WRCs headed by Sam Moffett and then Declan Boyle.
Desi Henry is the highest placed Fiesta Rally2 in eighth overall, ahead of 2012 and 2015 Donegal winner Garry Jennings.
Jennings executed an impressive comeback after stopping in a farmyard on SS4 to let Henry past when his Fiesta R5 suddenly died.
Kevin Gallagher heads the two-wheel-drive runners in 10th place overall but has only 1.7s in hand over fellow Darrien T90 GTR driver James Stafford.
Eamonn Kelly and Cathan McCourt were the two major casualties. Kelly was forced to stop on SS4 when the turbo on his VW went, while McCourt damaged the front-right wheel on his Citroën against a wall.
Contesting his first-ever rally in Europe, Max McRae – celebrating his 18th birthday – lies third in class in his Ford Fiesta Rally4.