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Daniel Barry and co-driver Martin Brady got their bid for the 2009 Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge title off to a flying start when they won this weekend's opening round on the Bournemouth-based Rallye Sunseeker, finishing just 2.8 seconds ahead of series newcomer Simon Hughes, who was accompanied by 2007 Champion co-driver Patrick Walsh.

Since it first started on this same rally in 2001, the Evolution Challenge as earned itself a reputation of being one of the most competitive rally championships in the UK - and this year's round one did not disappoint. Ten Evo Challenge crews started the event, which although is less than the championship is used to, did not detract from the intensity of competition, with just a few seconds separating the front-runners all day and the lead changing five times.

Making things even more interesting was the appearance of drivers from outside the UK and Ireland. These included 2008 Swedish Evo Challenge Champion Andreas Magnusson and runner-up Hans Erik-Weng, plus the re-appearance of Icelandic Rally Champion Daniel Sigurdarson and Barbados driver Neil Armstrong.

As is traditional with the Rallye Sunseeker, the event began with two runs through the host town's botanical gardens and along the sea front. However, an accident meant that these popular spectator stages had to be abandoned and therefore, the competition began in earnest on Saturday morning.

The day was to feature 11 stages in Ringwood and Wareham Forests and first to set the pace was Barry. However, an intermittent problem with the car's anti-lag system saw him lose time during the first four stages and, when crews arrived at the first service halt, time sheets showed Nik Elsmore in the lead, albeit just half a second ahead of Barry.

Only a further 0.9 seconds back was Hughes, who was making an impressive Evo Challenge debut. Magnusson was next and admitted he was off to steady start, having not driven his Evo since the final round of the Swedish series in September. Switching from the Irish series to the UK for this season, Owen Murphy was in fifth, but hampered by a car that was handling as if it were rear-wheel rather than four-wheel drive.

Next was Weng, who also stared cautiously, this being the first event in his brand new Evo X - and the first time Mitsubishi's latest version of the Lancer had been seen rallying in the UK. Another ex-Irish Evo Challenge front-runner Alan Carmichael was disappointed to find himself seventh, but knew that most of his time had been lost when his intercom had failed during the morning's stages.

Armstrong was eighth of the Evo runners at this point and was clearly enjoying his first ever rally on British soil - albeit quite different to the conditions he is used to when rallying in the Caribbean.

More unfortunate was Evo Challenge regular Jonathan Sparks, who retired after exceeding his maximum lateness during the road section on the way to service. But by far the worst luck of the day was reserved for Sigurdarson, when his car's rear differential broke just a few 100 yards into the first stage of the day.

Four of the next loop of five stages took place in Wareham Forest and saw Elsmore drop back, last year's runner-up putting his loss of pace down to pushing too hard on what was a softer surface. Seeing his rival's speed reduce, Barry edged ahead on stage seven, but admitted he had taken his eye off Hughes' times and on stage nine the series debutant took the lead.
Surprised not to be in front Barry fought back, but a repeat of the earlier anti-lag issues - plus an overshoot - in the final two stages meant that it was a neck-and-neck battle to the finish between him and Hughes. Just behind the leading pair a fight was also going on for third. Magnusson had now found his feet and was flying, recording the fastest Evo Challenge times in both SS12 and SS13, which was enough to nudge him ahead of Elsmore by 4.4 seconds.

Murphy was fifth, still having to cope with a car that went sideways at every opportunity, which did little to help his progress, but a lot to entertain the spectators. Carmichael got quicker as the day progressed, but could not make up for the lost time in the morning, whilst Armstrong was seventh and delighted to get to the finish, reporting he had thoroughly enjoyed his new experience.

In contrast it was disappointment for Weng when his new car's turbo lost it's boost in the final stage and, not wanting to do any more damage, he decided to stop rather than try to make it to the finish. However, his team was delighted with the potential the Evo X showed.

"It's great to have won the first round of the Evo Challenge - and to finish fourth overall", said Barry. "We had a great battle all day and it was very close at the end, although the problems with the anti-lag system made it harder work than it should have been. However, it's just the start we were looking for and there's no doubt we have an exciting season ahead of us."

From an initial field of 80 cars, the overall results saw four Evo Challenge competitors finish in the top ten and the first six home were also the first six Group N runners. The Evolution Challenge now moves north for round two, the Border Counties Rally, which takes place in Kielder Forest on 21st March.

The 2009 Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge is supported by Mitsubishi Motors UK, Ralliart, Pirelli tyres, Sunoco fuels, JR Motorsports, Speedline Corse wheels, Carbone Lorraine brakes, Walkinshaw Performance, Sparco racewear and PIAA lights - who sponsor the junior award for under 25-year old drivers.

Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge Round 1 - Results
1 Daniel Barry (Enniskerry)/Martin Brady (Navan) 58:43.0
2 Simon Hughes (Abergle) /Patrick Walsh (Aberystwyth) 58:45.8
3 Andreas Magnusson (Sweden)/Henrik Hulterskog (Sweden) 58:57.8
4 Nik Elsmore (Coleford)/ Craig Drew (Bream) 59:02.2
5 Owen Murphy (Cork)/Dai Roberts (Carmarthen) 1:00:01.9
6 Alan Carmichael(Ballymena)/Ivor Lamont (Ballymena) 1:00:52.6
7 Neil Armstrong (Barbados)/Max Ferri (Barbados) 1:03:36.8

Retirements
SS3 Daniel Sigurdarson (Iceland)/Isak Gudjonsson (Iceland) Transmission
SS6 Johnathan Sparks (Glastonbury)/Chris Davies (Abergavenny) OTL
SS13 Hans-Erik Weng (Sweden)/Roger Gunnarsson (Sweden) Turbo


Championship position after round 1

Drivers
1 Daniel Barry 12
2 Simon Hughes 10
3 Andreas Magnusson 8
4 Nik Elsmore 7
5 Owen Murphy 6
6 Alan Carmichael 5
7 Neil Armstrong 4

Co-drivers
1 Martin Brady 12
2 Patrick Walsh 10
3 Henrik Hulterskog 8
4 Craig Drew 7
5 Dai Roberts 6
6 Ivor Lamont 5
7 Max Ferri 4
 

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guy who finished 7th was over the moon about it.
 

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I know Dan Barry,and he is one hell of a competitive driver,but I can't help thinking once first round runner up Simon Hughes gets some more miles under his belt he could emerge series winner at year end...
Of course you can't discount Evo series regular Nick Elsmore,he is not always the fastest out there,but with steady consistancy he could sneak through and take the honours...he almost did it to us last year, both Nick & our driver David Bogie finished on the same points for the championhip win,and we only took it by our team being the winners on the first round ...

After these 3 drivers I don't think anyone else will be threat other than Irish driver Owen Murphy if he gets used to the stages on this side of the water.

Unfortunatley this years series looks like it will be depleted in competitor numbers,probably only half a dozen drivers will appear on a regular basis on future rounds.And after a few rounds once it is apparent a overall championship win is not possible there will be even less appearing.
 
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