Niall McGonigle wins opening round of NI Forest Rally Challenge

Niall McGonigle scored his first career win in the opening round of the Northern Ireland Forest Rally Challenge

NIALL McGonigle ended his long wait for a first career victory in eye-catching style at the Northern Ireland Forest Rally Challenge opener by prevailing in a final stage shoot-out with Caolan McKenna.

Trailing the Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 of Vivian Hamill and Lorcan Moore by two tenths of a second going into the last special stage, McGonigle used all of his local knowledge to overturn the deficit.

After thirty competitive miles, McGonigle’s advantage over Hamill at the conclusion of Saturday’s Samsonas Fivemiletown Rally was less than three seconds – a result he said felt “really special”.

“I never thought the day would come when I would say I have won this rally and I’ve a lot of people to thank for that,” said McGonigle at the finish.

“This man beside me [navigator, Caolan McKenna] and the entire team – they have all done such a fantastic job in order to make this result possible.

“I don’t think words can describe how winning a rally feels, especially the first one,” he added.“

Saturday’s pace was hot right from the word go and we had no choice but to try and go flat out right to the very end. Vivian and Lorcan made it really hard for us right up until the very last stage.”

The Ford Fiesta R5 crew of Derek Mackarel and Darren Curran quickly settled into third place at the Omagh Motor Club meeting and made it their own to finish ahead of the more powerful Class 11 cars of Irish Forestry champion Ryan Caldwell (Skoda Fabia) and Gareth Mimnagh (Ford Fiesta).

Meanwhile, Kris Meeke triumphed on the first round of the Portuguese Rally Championship at the weekend by more than a minute to kick off his title quest in convincing style.

Navigated by Irishman James Fulton, and driving a Team Hyundai Portugal-backed Hyundai i20 N Rally2, the Dungannon native steamrolled the competition by going fastest on nine of the 11 stages, including the end-of-rally Power Stage to bag three bonus points to round-off a perfect weekend.

“It was great to start the season with a win, for Team Hyundai Portugal,” said 44-year-old Meeke.

“I have an even better feeling compared to last season with the i20 N Rally2, enjoying a rally with fantastic stages.

“I had never done the Seixoso when I raced in the World Rally Championship, and it was also the first time I had driven in Luílhas in these conditions.

“These are some of the best stages in the world and I have to say I have not enjoyed a rally so much in a long time,” he added.

“As for the win, I tried to maintain a margin of safety over my rivals and it worked out pretty well.”