All eyes were on the south east of the country for the opening round to this year’s Valvoline Irish Forestry Championship with a number of young and upcoming stars taking the start in the new generation R5 cars the competition would be fierce. One such crew would be the successful pairing of Sam Moffett with Bailieborough man James Fulton who would made the switch from his regular driver Josh for the day.
The switch was working well as Moffett and Fulton would take up the lead of the event over the course of the morning stages building on their pace as they went on in the slippery conditions up in the forests of the Comeragh mountains. After the opening 4 stages of the event they would hold a slender 5 second lead over Josh with two runs over the long Gurteen stage to come. This year the complex would be due to hold 2 24km stages but with a later running car crashing and partially blocking the road the second run of the stage would be shortened to 11km for safety.
Further back in their own tussle would be the rare Escort Cosworth of Pauric Sheridan and Sean Brunton who would continue their learning curve as they get to grips with life on gravel for this season in the PS Contracts car. A good run over the opening stages would see them 36th overall during the lunchtime halt and with the WRC of Adrian Hetherington leading the class the best they could hope to achieve would be a fine 2nd unless misfortune was to befall the leader. With 2 stages to run they would up their pace and start to climb the leader board before finishing the day 29th overall and 2nd in class.
Back in the race for the lead it would be Josh who would launch the first wave of attack taking 11 seconds off his brother to turn the tables with a 6 second lead with the shorter stage to run. With it all to do Sam and James would throw everything they had into the final stage with a wide line through a corner costing precious tenths of a second they would come to rue this moment of over exuberance as they would stop the clocks 5 and a half seconds quicker than the rival Moffett car but it wasn’t enough with Josh holding on by just 0.6 of a second after 43 minutes of competitive driving. Second place was not to be sniffed at in this company as Sam and James would still return home ahead of 3 times British Rally Champion Keith Cronin and reigning Forestry Champion Desi Henry.
In the two wheel drive battle it would be a day of heartache for Thomas Wedlock who would be navigating John Gordon around the forests in the 4 door escort mk2. Like the 4 wheel drive race it would be an all-star line-up and with the pace hot and heavy it was anyone’s to win. Opening their account with a 3rd fastest time the pair would push on with the demise of Shane Mc Girr’s differential and take the lead of the 2 wheel drive race at the lunch time halt. Disaster would befall the pairing on the next stage though as there were some awful noises coming from their rear axle by the end of the stage causing them to just drive to the end of the stage and limp to service. The slippery conditions would take their toll on another differential but with that the lads got it changed and continued into the final stage where bad luck would strike again this time in the form of an engine failure really spelling the fact that it wasn’t to be their day.
Mickey Conlon and Ciaran Mc Phillips would demonstrate why they are the men to beat when it comes to the business end of the championship each year by opting to play the long game and settle into a good steady pace that would keep them intouch with the leaders but safe from the stresses and strains that could lead to mechanical mishaps. 4th in the two wheel drive battle was a comfortable place to be in the early running and with the front runners starting to drop off with issues the pair would swoop in and take up second place in the championship stakes to guarantee a good haul of points where others where gathering bills.
The next round of the Valvoline Forestry Championship will be held in mid-March in Cork.