George Collister and Janet Craine blasted their Mitsubishi Evo 3 into a slender four second lead with a stunning run on the last of the opening nights nine stages of the Black Horse Finance Stages Rally.
Onlookers expected a close battle, and weren't to be disappointed with no fewer than four lead changes across the night.
Hot favourite Rob Watson wanted to push hard from the start in his Vauxhall Nova kit car. 'See if we can catch anyone out before the pace gets high', was the view, and despite finding the Baldromma opener wetter and more slippery than he expected, it was still a good enough performance to grab a three second lead.
Taking an early second place was visiting driver Dave Pattison (Evo 6) and last minute recruit to the notes Rob Fagg, with Mark Cubbon and Jonathan Turnbull (Evo 7) third as conditions suited the four-wheel drive machines.
However it all went wrong for Pattison on the very next tests in Glen Roy when a turbo hose popped. 'Thirty seconds gone, and then we couldn't get it sorted before stage three at Dog Kennels, so another half minute there too' explained an exasperated Fagg.
As the crews arrived in service Waston and co-driver Bruce Craig had forged an eight second advantage over Collister, with Cubbon just one behind that and Donny Gill (Evo 2) an impressive fourth.
Cubbon though hit fastest times on stages four, five and six to grab a two second lead over Watson after the second loop, with Collister only five of the lead himself. Battle on!...
...or maybe not!. All the drivers were talking of drying roads and slicks became the option for most as they headed out for the final three tests of the night. However while they were on the roads to the first of them back at Baldromma the heavens opened.
Cue George, who had taken a tyre with more cut on the front at least, and it worked to his advantage, as he powered through Glen Roy fastest and then simply smashed the opposition to pieces on the final Dog Kennels test, when grip on the opening part of the stage was at an absolute premium. He took eight seconds out of Cubbon and an amazing 19 off Watson to establish the overnight lead.
Mark isn't a mile away either, just 12 ticks behind the top spot, so it's all set up for a real battle tomorrow.
The Saturday leg starts from the TT Grandstand at 10.05am for the final nine tests. The three stage loop starts on Marine Drive and the Old Castletown Road before heading to Grenaby, Ronague and Round Table (Collister's home patch) for the next. A stage at The Gate, St Marks, Ballacorris and the Clanna Road completes the set. The loop is done three times, with service in between at the TT Grandstand, where the leading crews are due to finish the rally at 2.45pm.
Collister led overnight last year only to crash out on the opening run of Saturday morning. Can Mark Cubbon and him keep the pressure on Watson throughout a long, tough day?
The presentation of awards for the event will take place at the Union Mills FC clubhouse on Saturday night, from around 8pm. It is free entry to all and the organisers would particularly like to invite everyone involved in organising the event, in whatever capacity.
Minister of Tourism and Leisure will continue his rallying ‘apprenticeship’ on the event. Following on from a run on the shakedown stage of Rally Isle of Man in July, tomorrow he will co-drive the ‘0’ car on the final loop of three stages, after which he is set to be on hand to congratulate the winners.