Connor McCloskey and Crawford Henderson from Northern Ireland got their double championship campaign off to a solid start with a 22nd place overall on the Galway International Rally this weekend.

The pair made their first outing in 2006 on an unfamiliar event but using the Mitsubishi Evo 8 that they had used in 2005. The Fisher Foundation Young Driver award winner arrived in Galway City with a sensible plan - get the first event of the Irish Tarmac Championship under his belt without any mistakes.

Seventeen tricky stages awaited the team and they were hopeful that their pacenotes would work well. "The recce was really good," said Connor, "but it is only the second time we've made notes from scratch and I'm quite apprehensive." He needn't have worried. Despite not testing the car before the event, the first stages went well although he admitted to taking a little while to get up to speed. "The stages are very slippery in places so we've been quite cautious." explained Connor. "This is the last time we'll be using this car and I'd like to finish with it undamaged."

In such a well supported class in this ultra-competitive championship the crew pronounced themselves reasonably happy with their eventual overnight position. At parc ferme in Galway the results showed them a creditable 26th overall and eleventh in class N4 with another 86 miles ahead.

Sunday dawned grey and cold and the rally's base moved to Ballinasloe, about 40 miles to the east of Galway City. "The tyre choice is easy in these conditions." said Connor at the short service before the first nine mile stage, "We've gone for the Pirelli dry tyre all round and the forecast means we'll probably stick with slicks all day."

Special stage nine was the first of three loops of three stages split by three services and the crew finished it having dropped ten seconds. A downhill square right caught out the young Mitsubishi driver who was lucky to avoid contact with the scenery. By the second service of the day they had found a rhythm and had got to grips with their new pacenotes. "We haven't made any changes to the notes after the first run through," said Crawford, "so presumably we got them right during the recce. Our goal is to make improvements as the season goes on, so getting our communications right in the car is vital."

By stage 13 of 17 the team were set for a cruise to the finish, having moved up the overall leaderboard to 23rd and 10th in class. They found themselves in a position with a large gap to the cars in front and behind, a point where concentration wanes and mistakes can happen. Stage sixteen proved the theory that cruising can be more risky than 100% commitment. Connor locked the brakes approaching a 5th gear right hander throwing the car sideways. "It was a big moment and I only just caught it," he said, "with just one stage to go it was a scare I really didn't need."

11.4 miles lay between the nineteen year-old and his first points in 2006 and at the end he looked like a very relieved lad. "Half way through the stage we came round a left hander and hit a rock in the road," recounted Connor, "it was a big bang and I thought we'd got a puncture. We carried on but when I braked before the next corner there was a massive vibration through the steering. The wheel is fine so I think we've cracked a brake disc."

The crew made their way back to the finish in Galway without further incident, delighted to have finished at all. Despite the scares on the final two stages, they took 22nd overall and retained their 10th place in class. Crawford calculated that they had improved to within 1.5 seconds a mile of the fastest crews over the course of the event, promising more to come with the new Mitsubishi Evo 9 on the Circuit of Ireland. The second round of the series takes place in the middle of April and if their plans work out, they should contest Rally Ireland as a shakedown next month.