What’s the News?
Trackdays.ie are back with another of their extremely popular car track days at Mondello Park on Monday 20th of March.
Following their last two sell-out days, the next track day will run to a similar format on the 2.2-mile full international circuit at Mondello. The event runs an ‘open’ pit lane which means that drivers taking part can come and go on track whenever they like, for as long as they like, which makes for an easy-going atmosphere.
Where Trackdays.ie events differ from other track days is in the details. The company is run by experienced racers, Stephen Kershaw and Rob King who bring a wealth of Motorsport knowledge with them. Their goal is to turn the humble track day into an experience not to be forgotten. With that in mind their track days include all sorts of benefits and add-ons you wouldn’t normally expect find such as free lunch and all day refreshments, free tuition from their team of championship-winning racing drivers-cum-instructors, professional photography by brianwalshphotos.com – seriously, go check out his work, it’s pretty impressive.
They also have partnerships with big brands like Mobil 1 who usually come to the party with really cool merchandise to give away. The icing on the cake though has to be the DIY crisp sambo’s! On top of all this, the trackdays.ie website is fast becoming the go-to resource for track day related info and well worth a browse around.
Who’s it For?
Anyone with an ounce of petrol running through their veins really. Complete beginners and experienced track day veterans are catered for. A common misconception is that you need a fast or flashy car to take part – not so. Pretty much any car in good roadworthy condition can take part without the need for any modifications.
No car? No worries!
If you don’t have a car but really fancy having a go, you might be interested in their Arrive & Drive Packages. The car you’d be driving is the Trackdays.ie Ek Honda Civic which is a fully prepared, ex-Future Classics race car. It’s fitted with a tuned D15B SOHC VTEC engine producing just over 130bhp. That might not sound a lot, but combined with its light weight stripped out interior, uprated brakes and suspension and sticky track tyres it’s certainly quick! As you’d expect with a race car the Trackdays.ie Civic is fitted with all the necessary safety equipment such as multi-point weld-in roll cage, Bucket seats, 6 point safety harnesses and plumbed-in fire extinguisher.
For more info visit www.trackdays.ie or contact organisers Rob King 086 6042184 or Stephen Kershaw 086 8170009
Word association is a fabulous thing, and entirely subjective to personal taste, education or interest. It’s the natural reaction of bringing any number of random thoughts to the forefront of your mind at even the slightest stimulus. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and its study can tell all manner of things about a person. Play word association as a petrol head and it’s likely to conjure up vivid insights into car culture at large. Say Honda to someone with a lust for all things JDM, and chances are the word Civic will pop up much quicker than something like Prelude or Stream, but then other words follow on as the association runs deeper. In a typically Japanese sense of rigid formality, two other 5 letter words have become synonymous with lovers of Honda’s humble economy car, they being Osaka and Kanjo!!Even Better is this Kanjo Civic
On the face of things, Osaka appears to be just like a number of other large Japanese cities. Built around a large port similar in size to Yokohama, the City has swelled as people flock to live and work in a true Economic hub. With a population of 19 million, second only to Tokyo, Osaka seems rather mundane. Attractions run to a few amusement parks and museums, as well as art galleries and sports teams, but shopping is one of the largest draws. It’s always seemed to me that Osaka is Japan’s fashionable hub, where individual style plays a large role for locals. Yet, at night, Osaka is home to a totally different attraction that is secretive, illegal and intoxicating in equal amounts.
Circling the heart of the city is the Hanshin Expressway, an almost 9 mile stretch of road elevated above the city streets as an orbital route for weary commuters. Think of it as Osaka’s M50 and you get the idea. During the day, the road is clogged with countless thousands of people on their way to and from the city centre, but once darkness falls, it becomes the playground of the Kanjo Racers!
As a race highly regarded for its very meticulous approach to structure and organisation, the Japanese sure know, almost better than most, how to just disconnect from the monotony of life and go out and find pure enjoyment. The size and variety of the domestically produced vehicular output means this escape can be seen in all manner of quirky Japanese ways of enjoying car culture. The Bosozoku guys get that buzz from massively over the top styling and excessive noise, as well as ever pushing the boundaries of camber and sensibility. While this might never have caught on elsewhere, imagine what the few guys out sliding their Corolla’s around mountain roads in the 80’s would have thought if you said their quest get away from it all would turn into a worldwide mainstream sport with professional teams and drivers. While drifting and tuning in Japan are designed to show off, the Kanjo is at the other end of the spectrum.
Much like those mad men that gained notoriety racing at huge speeds around Tokyo’s Wangan Expressway in the 90’s, the Kanjo is mired in secrecy and all that goes on happens very much in the shadows. At the dead of night, countless drivers take to the Loop and make it their racetrack, with other cars becoming no more than obstacles to be navigated around. The Honda Civic has become the ultimate weapon of choice, as the nimble front-drive hatch has become engrained in Kanjo folklore, as countless hockey mask wearing driver’s use every last drop of V-Tec power to become the fastest. This is pure lunacy, and naturally law enforcement takes a very dim view on these antics. Stories go that cars can appear to race week after week in all manner of new paint schemes to avoid detection or to conceal the identity of the driver.
The Kanjo is an expression of style and a massive, noisy two fingered salute to the system. These guys are sticking it to the man every time they enter the slip road under the glare of the street lights. The cars themselves are as un-apologetic as the people involved, with pure function taking precedent over form. While some of the few available pictures of the Kanjo racers may depict well maintained Civics of a variety of generation, the reality is these cars are often hacked together simply to go fast, and fit and finish up close can certainly leave a lot to be desired. Then again get up close with any drift car and it’s usually the very same story, where owners know that getting the car to perform far out ways aesthetics.
But while we could daydream for hours of Civics buzzing around darkened Expressways with limiters bouncing off tunnel walls, the reality is that we lie nearly 9000 miles away on the other side of the world. Us Irish share a lot with our Japanese brethren, both island nations not overly fond of their neighbours and boasting centuries of unique heritage. We have soaked up the automotive offerings from the land of the rising sun unlike almost anyone else, with countless square plated imports roaming our streets on a daily basis, from mundane people carriers to high performance weapon. But here I am standing on the docks in Cork on an overcast Sunday looking at possibly the most anticipated arrival to our shore in quite some time!
To see a Kanjo inspired Civic is generally very cool, as their distinctive race car style and large rear wings are a sight to behold, but actually getting up-close with a genuine one is a rare treat. As I said earlier, these cars are built to race, so many are pushed until they can give no more and then the carcasses are picked over for any re-useable part. Seeing a complete car leaving Japan is uncommon, but when Domie Morey spotted this in the JDM auctions he knew full well that this was the ultimate Honda to add to long history of cars from the brand.
The thing that grabs you visually from any distance is the vibrant colour scheme and the distinctive Motul Oil livery. First seen on the 1987 JTCC Honda Civic, this colour scheme has adorned some of the most successful racecars to have taken to the likes of Fuji Speedway or Suzuka. This car is an EF model Civic, and the paint work is just that, actually, properly finished paint. Everything about this car is designed to stand out, and that is certainly achieved as countless heads turn to look as we get through the shoot.
While the paint scheme steals all the attention, the bodywork it adorns is pretty much bog standard and exactly as it left the factory 27 years ago. Each corner is adorned by 16 inch BuddyClub P1 wheels finished in what appears to be the same bright white as the car itself, while another P1 sits in the boot showing signs that it has seen action at some point.
Inside, sparse would be a kind description. Devoid of any manner of sound deadening or carpet, Domie reluctantly declares that it’s quite a rattly and noisy place to be. In true racecar-spec, the interior floor genuinely looks like it was painted with a roller brush, and little if any care was taken when what appear to have been a screwdriver or hammer was used to hack a hole for the roll cage through the dash. While the passenger is given nothing more than a flimsy looking original seat, a properly mounted Bride LowMax along with a Sabelt harness keeps the driver pinned in place, with the response from the front wheels fed through a Fujitsubo Racing steering wheel.
Pop the Motul liveried bonnet and there’s certainly no wheezy 1300cc Single Carb unit lurking beneath. Sitting proud is the much vaulted B16 lump, ultimately regarded as one of the greatest affordable performance engines of all time, and while the full internal spec is unknown, there are clues all around the bay that give rise to this Civics savage acceleration. An all new larger Mugen head is an obvious sign of work done, as is the Cusco strut brace and aftermarket ECU, but delve deeper and you find a stainless Jasma manifold and other details.
Listening to the Civic both at idle and flying past, you would very easily be mistaken for thinking there was nothing connected to the end of the manifold, and truthful there isn’t much! A complete straight through is routed beautifully under the car, with a Jasma back box sitting out the rear. Full BC coilovers at every corner keeps the EF planted to the ground, and it appears that they can only adjusted lower when Domie investigated.
While we may have countless more expensive or quicker cars that have rolled off the boats from Asia, all it took was a single camera phone picture of this car from Dublin Docks that sent the Internet pretty much into a frenzy. There is nothing out there that ties together a unique style, a story and a sense of hard-core driving and manages to pull it off. Most don’t understand it, but like everything in car culture, just appreciate it for what it is. Ireland need more nutters like Domie, who in a good way dedicate themselves to a certain style and aren’t afraid to make their dreams a reality and bring some of the coolest cars ever seen to these shores!!
Winter is such an odd time. All the glory and success of the last year is parked in a corner, cars are rolled into garages, spanners earn their keep and generally everyone presses a big reset button. As the days shorten to nothing more than a quick blast of sunlight and the roads descend into a grimy hell, plans are a-brewing. year is the very same. Be it tinkering with new parts, dealing in new cars or even deciding on which events & championships to attack, the rally community keeps ticking over at a ferocious paces. Rumours swirl of who has placed orders on the latest machinery while the various graphics shops only whet the appetite with snippets of new liveries. But then it’s time for Galway Internationl 2017, the talking and shadow boxing is over, the cobwebs are rubbed off and it’s time to launch full tilt into 2017.
A traditional curtain raiser, the Galway International is the opening round of the Irish Tarmac Championship, as well as a number of smaller regional championships, and has long been the place where the masses could cop eyes on the latest cutting edge rally machinery as they got their first blast on Irish Tar. Scrutiny on the Friday was long the go-to spot for all the unveilings, although the rise of the internet makes any surprises almost common knowledge before the covered trailers are cracked open for the first time. Sitting with the coveted No. 1 on the door was Garry Jennings in his Subaru Impreza S12 WRC. Last year’s winner, Jennings has become a sporadic sight on the stages, although watching him at full, often very sideways, chat is special. Although now quite an aging car against its rivals, the Scooby is still an incredibly potent package.
Right behind Garry on the road were a pair of Fiesta WRC’s of Declan Boyle & Roy White. Although none of the WRC men were eligible to score championship points, each came West with strong desires to perform well and get mileage on the cars before tackling the National Series. White, last year’s National winner was on the pace right from the start in the older Fiesta, but it was Boyle in the 2015 spec car that was neck and neck with Jennings at the head of the time sheets early on. Unfortunately for Declan, he seems to always either end up at the head of the pack or suffering from problems, with very little between them. This time around, his Galway charge would end on Saturday afternoon with an engine issue that couldn’t be sorted in Service.
Being the 1st round of the ITRC meant that all those with title aspirations crossed the start ramp, led by last year’s runner-up Alistair Fisher, driving a new Ford Fiesta R5. A string of similar cars followed with the Moffett brothers Sam & Josh in a pair of distinctive R5’s, Stephen Wright was in another and Stephen McCann debuted a high revving S2000 Fiesta. A surprise late entrant was Robert Barrable in yet another R5 Fiesta. Robert was one of the first people to embrace the new-era of cars, when he bought a Skoda Fabia S2000 in 2011, winning the West Cork, and even pushed Craig Breen right to the edge at the 2015 Circuit of Ireland, but this was a return to the stages after 20 months away.
Also towards the front, all manner of new driver and car combo’s got a first outing. Aaron MacHale had swapped an S2000 Fabia for last year’s championship winning Citroen DS3 R5, although his event would come to an end on Saturday. Paul Rowley had gone the same route from a Skoda to a Citroen, while Brendan Cumiskey had traded the Fiesta for an R5 Fabia. Joseph McGonigle was pushing the lovely Maxol-liveried Skoda hard all weekend, while Johnny Green had a redesigned DS3 yet there were eyes looking elsewhere among the International field.
Towards the end of last year, Ford WRC outfit M-Sport announced their involvement in a brand new junior rally programme revolving around the Fiesta R2 National. Based on a 1L Turbocharged Fiesta, and sounding distinctly like a Porsche, this is a route designed to get younger drivers onto the ladder of progression through the sport. While there has been no talk of who has committed to the idea as of yet, Jon Armstrong, a regular competitor at Junior WRC level, was sent out to put on a bit of a show in the all new car, and that he certainly did!
Now, when getting ready for the trip to Galway, there’s two things to expect. The first is that there’ll be new cars to ogle, the other being that it’s going to be cold, and damp and very muddy!! It’s just the way it is. Stonewalls turn black from wheel spray, and standing on Stage 1 it’s clear that nearly every car is scrabbling for any semblance of grip on the shiny tarmac. It seems a real battle to get power down, and the rear-wheel drive modified crew only highlight this. A once solid roadside bank becomes nothing more than a collection of mud and shards of Ford Escort rear lights as all manner of approaches to a slow hairpin right turns into an arse out show for the masses of spectators.
The National section of the rally encompasses all manner of modified machinery, but is naturally dominated by fast Escorts. Gary Kiernan, Damien Tourish, Pat McHugh and countless others were pushing hard all weekend, with the battle for the spoils ending with 1.6 seconds in Kiernan’s favour. Liam Howlett was his ever sideways self when passing on SS1, but alas it was yet another meeting of Big Red and a solid ditch that would end their run on the second test. The distinctive pair of BMW’s of Eugene Meegan and Richard Whelan added a bit of variety, but it was a Corolla Twincam of Kevin Eves who grabbed the final podium spot.
Further down the pack, countless personal battles raged from those looking to take class honours to Art McCarrick simply wanting to finish a rally for the first time! His C-Sport Civic was among a number of rapid Honda’s being pushed hard, and Declan Boyle’s son Michael debuted his newly built EG Hatch. The choice to get left-hand drive is a serious statement of intention as the young Donegal man looks to be gunning for Marty Gallagher or Will Creighton in homologated R2 machinery at some point.
Following a rally can be easy enough, and all it takes is a decent sense of direction with a map and in no time you can be running from stage to stage, buy when taking pictures, I prefer to go deeper into a stage and stroll away from the busy junctions. Where’s the fun in standing at a bale chicane, when a mile down the road you have a personal view as the cars come over a blind crest into a 200m straight. Its bliss as cars fly past inches away at over 100mph, a rare sight on wat is definitely one of the tighter and twistier rallies. The stone lined roads seem a myriad of junctions and turns, and the relative flat landscape makes standing water a definite issue.
The Historic Championship, which kicked off last December in Killarney, was sparse on competitors but certainly didn’t lack in spectacle or commitment. A pair of German visitors brought along some beautiful sounding Porsche 911’s, while Galway’s Frank Cunningham had jaws dropping with his BMW M3, but it was a familiar Escort battle between Ernie Graham and Gareth Lloyd setting the pace. Graham took the win this time, but expect plenty of dicing between the pair all year.
The weather, cold but mainly fine on Saturday, came into play with a vengeance on Sunday morning. Ice covered the stages, and the first loop was cancelled on safety grounds. Coupled with a stage shortage caused by a disgruntled resident, the Sunday blast turned into a sprint to the finish. After being pushed early on by Boyle, Garry Jennings had plenty of breathing room once his rival retired. A very controlled drive saw the red Subaru crossing the winner’s ramp yet again with nearly 60 seconds to spare. Roy White brought his Fiesta home in second to secure a WRC 1-2, but he only had 8 seconds to spare over Ali Fisher. Although 3rd, Fisher heads to Clonakilty in a few weeks with maximum Championship points before Round 2 the West Cork Rally. Sam Moffett got second, while Barrable has committed to further events after finishing 3rd in the championship runners.
And so we’re off. 2017 is go, we have the first big event of the year in the books and now it’s time for planning all over again. No matter where in the country, a rally will be close at some stage, and the merry band of drivers, crews and fans will descend no matter the time or weather!
For many the thought of owning a fast road car or track car is a distant dream. We simply don’t have the means to spend thousands of euros per year for a few days of track time and don’t have the discipline to spend hour after hour in a cold shed inevitably fixing what we broke at the last trackday. As if that wasn’t a big enough barrier to motorsport, in this country we only have one real race track (Mondello) if you don’t count karting tracks and for the majority of people, it takes hours to get there and back. Yet somehow, we are motorsport obsessed. We have some of the world’s best rally drivers and drifters. We have tonnes of great cars on this little island, and thanks to technology we can now get into motorsport in our own homes which I am going to tell you how to get into sim racing and set it up.
Of course racing games have been around for years and years, but it wasn’t until the release of gran turismo, a game which single handedly ignited the imaginations of the mainstream and exposed us to real driving simulation. Of course gran turismo wasn’t the first, but in ireland we didn’t all have PCs to play formula 1 or indycar games. We were really poor in the 90s. And yes, looking back, the physics in the early gran turismo games were pretty terrible. Right up to the latest gran turismo, the physics still aren’t amazing in my opinion. But once you understood the physics, it was a relatively realistic driving simulator and for many of us, the closest we would ever come to driving a real car on a real track. However, in recent times a new generation of simulation is taking hold. We’re no longer happy with compromise, we want it to be real. And we expect it to be difficult. We want to shave milliseconds off of our friends’ best laps and now more than ever, we are customising and investing in our setups so that we can be better and faster.
We have lots of great options available to us in this world of HD, 4K, next generation consoles and relatively cheap personal computing and many people wonder how they can get on the ladder of real simulation. So let’s dive in. I’m going to assume here that you already have a HD (1080p) or 4K TV or 1080p+ monitor, so that’s excluded from any prices I may mention. I’m also going to concentrate on a handful of games: Assetto Corsa, Dirt and Project Cars. Let me also go on record in saying that there are currently no realistic drifting games for consoles. So if all you want is to pretend to be James Deane or Mad Mike then I would skip straight to the PC section, unless you care more about the screenshots than you do about the driving experience.
The trusty console
“But my friend says you need a PC to play real simulation games”. Your friend is wrong, although consoles do have limitations which i’ll get into later, they have many advantages. Firstly, you’ll pick up a new Xbox One or PS4 for around 300euro. That’s a lot of bang for your buck. The average game will set you back €70 when it’s hot off the press. That’s a basic (by today’s standards) simulation setup for under the €400 mark. Which one is better? that’s entirely up to you and how you want to use it. Xbox will give you access to the Forza series of games which are visually stunning but leave a lot to be desired from a sim racing point of view.
Gaming seats and cockpits
This is where most get creative. If you have the space, finding an old bucket seat and some wood or metal to nail or weld together is all part of the fun. If you don’t have the space, there are still plenty of options. Basic steeringwheel and pedal stands are available from around €100 from Wheelstandpro. Playseat has some great offerings too. For stuff like this i would keep an eye on adverts.ie and donedeal.ie because bargains do pop up on a regular basis. Everyone’s setup tends to be different. Some people have entire dashboards and even passenger seat setups.
VR – Virtual reality is taking over.
You’ve probably heard of the Occulus Rift or the HTC Vive. Virtual reality involves wearing a large set of goggles almost like a sleep mask. The amazing thing is that when you move your head around, your in game head also moves. This allows you to properly focus on that apex or look out your side window as you try to correct or maintain a slide. It is a truly amazing gaming experience available on PS4 (Playstation VR) and PC (Occulus, HTC Vive, etc) but as of yet, Xbox One lacks proper VR support. Albeit amazing, it’s not without its flaws. In my personal opinion, it is like going back to a single screen gaming experience. I find that I lack peripheral vision and can’t spot that car trying to undercut me unless I look both ways before making every single move. But that’s not my biggest reservation, I find it awkward that the hands i see in game aren’t my actual hands and my handbrake and gear shifter are in a different place in real life which leads to occasionally reaching in the wrong place. Not to mention that a gaming session that lasts a few hours is tasking as headsets aren’t light and are strapped pretty tightly onto your head. I’m not convinced about the technology yet, but admittedly haven’t spent enough time with it.
For years there has been a snobbery from PC gamers towards consoles and most who make the transition to PC gaming don’t tend to go back to consoles in a serious way. This snobbery stems from the amazing community that has surrounded PC gaming for years and years. Without getting into details, on PC you can get drifting mods for Gran Theft Auto and even drift with strangers online who also have the mod. The biggest barrier to getting into PC gaming is the lack of knowledge around configurations and specs. You can buy a console and all games for that console will run on it, but on PC your game will always only look as good as your system allows it to. On PC you can (with the right knowhow) create your own cars or trucks or even busses and import them into pretty much any game. People have even managed to take models from Forza (Xbox exclusive) and port them to Assetto Corsa and rfactor.
There I go mentioning rFactor again. If you’ve looked it up you’ll probably notice that rFactor is a game from 2007 and was never meant to be a drifting game. It’s a competent racing sim, but with unbranded cars and horrible graphics out of the box this somehow became the drifting game of choice for the past 10 years. They even came out with rFactor 2 but if you want to drift, rFactor 1 is the one to go for. It all sounds glorious but there is a downside. rFactor takes quite a bit of tweaking to set up, and even at that, when you go to one of the few online lobbies, odds are that most of the cars wont be visible due to the vast number of mods and adhoc way of simply dragging and dropping files into your cars or tracks folder. You will spend a lot of time simply asking other what cars they have and where they got them, and should never go on the assumption that any cars are widely available. It is slowly becoming a community of elites and being replaced as those modders gravitate towards Assetto Corsa and Project Cars.
That said, when it comes to drifting there is only one match made in heaven for an entry level sim drifter and that is a heavily modded rFactor on a mid to high end PC. To give an indication of costs, a 500euro second hand PC will most likely run rFactor without issues. That’s a sweeping statement of course and it’s best to consult someone who knows about PC specs before forking out. A good steering wheel as mentioned above would be a Logitech g25 or g27 (around €150 second hand). They are very popular and widely available second hand. Settings are very easy to come by for these wheels too. Then there’s the cost of the game: rFactor will cost you $25 or so and the mods are free if a little hard to find and keep up with. Get yourself involved in some of the facebook groups around sim racing and drifting and you’ll quickly learn the lay of the land. Let’s not beat around the bush though. Although PC gaming is the ultimate in home simulation, it requires effort and dedication and if you’re not paying attention you can completely disable your game by mistake and need to start again from scratch. The end product is worth it though and I would advice simply taking a copy of someone’s setup who has already done all the hard setup work.
There’s a compromise, but it’s gonna cost you. Get yourself a well specced gaming PC. Something that is custom built and around the €1,000 mark. Compared to console gaming, that’s a lot of money but you are buying a PC that’s also capable of lots of other things than just gaming. Then once you have your PC, get a steering wheel. Again, the Logitech models mentioned above are quiet and durable and easy to modify and upgrade. Then finally, buy Assetto Corsa for racing and/or drifting and buy Dirt if you’re into rallying. By all means, experiment with project cars, Automobilista and countless other racing sims out there, but Assetto Corsa gives me those Gran Turismo butterfly feels that i had back in the late 90s when all I thought about was cars and that girl in my class. It has lots of cars out of the box, and lots of downloadable car packs which are simply stunning and extremely realistic. It’s very easy to get access to mods as the community is growing and growing. Not to mention the fact that the game is constantly being updated by the developers and kept up to date using the steam portal. The quality of the user created mods makes them almost indistinguishable from the native cars that come with the game. Assetto corsa is also one of the few games I’ve ever played where you can drive the same car for time attack or drift without changing the game mode or car setup. It’s the best of all worlds and looks fantastic.
To summarise, this is only a drop in the ocean when it comes to the world of sim racing. There are real online races for tonnes of real life money. And I haven’t even gone near hydraulic setups or the fact that some of the top drivers in f1 and rally and drifting have sim setups similar to what i described above which they really use for training. There are even competitions where they take sim drivers who have never driven real cars in a race and they put them in real cars to duke it out on track. At long last there has been a cultural shift in the gaming community as well as the motorsport community. A breakthrough in a way. I think that Ireland is ready to embrace sim racing at long last.
If you are interested in SIM racing please feel free to join the facebook group dedicated to sim racing in Ireland: Sim Racing/Drifting Ireland where the members will help you get set up on whatever platform you’re interested in.
That fist faint whisper of an exhaust note in the air just does it for me. Excitement takes over, as the growl grows louder. You know what’s coming, yet waiting for the first glance of headlights is infectious. Today is different. I’m perched on the wall of a very old looking natural well, right in the heart of a picturesque French alpine village. As the sun has risen over the past hour, the beauty of the surroundings become more apparent. Houses look hundreds of years old, and a winding narrow road looks designed for cars of a bygone age. But that noise in the air is no wheezy 2CV or Renault 4, because in a flash, the ancient stonework is truly reverberating. The Monte Carlo rally is in town, and this is unlike anything I’ve seen before!
To see a world rally car at full chat is something everyone needs to experience at some stage, but to see them on the knife-edge through real world environs like this tiny village is just blowing. As the roar becomes deafening, the DMack liveried Ford Fiesta of Elfyn Evans is flung around the hairpin below with the deftest of flicks and is now heading straight towards me at quite a rapid pace. The wall lined road is barely wider than the car, but with incredible precision, a flick to the left sees the car dart past the gable end of a house and across the town square to the even tighter adjoining road. There is no let-up in speed here, and after all that excitement waiting for the first car, Evans has come and gone from sight in less than 5 seconds. Mind suitably blown, and that’s only 1 car in!!
Every sport has its iconic events, those that have withstood the test of time and have their own distinct history spanning decades. Rugby has the Triple Crown, football has the FA Cup, but to Rally folk, the name Monte Carlo just sends tingles down the spine. The Monte just stirs the emotions unlike any event in World Rallying. Every period of significant change in the sport it seems can be cross-referenced to tales of heroics in the icy hills above the Principality. Rally’s earliest pioneers tackled the treacherous Passes in ordinary road cars in a time where adventure was the ultimate aim. In 1964, Belfast’s Paddy Hopkirk guided his tiny Mini Cooper to victory, and thus cemented the cars legendary status in the motoring public. The Group B era is remembered through tales of Lancia’s mid-stage tire changing decisions, or the utter dominance of the Peugeot 205 on the twisty mountain stages. The Monte is almost dripping in history, and 2017 was aiming to be classed as one of the best.
As I wrote in the preview last week, 2017 had all the hallmarks of being great before the off, and it lived up to that in spades. The all new breed of WRC cars saw stages for the first time and in the flesh, spectacular is what comes to mind. More power, more aero and much more of a sense of occasion. More than just the new cars, the driver line up also gave a glimpse at how open this year should be, with the top talent spread evenly among the various teams, with no single team hogging the best a-la VW the past few years. Everything built to a crescendo Thursday night when the countdown hit zero, yet it was less than 10 minutes before the sobering reality of what this year has in store hit home.
Rallying, as a spectator sport, is about as free-spirited as they come. If you want to watch the stages, then pitch yourself up on the ditch and that’s you sorted. Simple as that. But things are never quite that easy, and unfortunately, we are in the midst of a serious spectator safety issue worldwide at the moment. It is impossible to have every inch of a rally stage manned by marshals or security, so a serious onus is on spectators, and media alike, to know the dangers, and choose their vantage points with that in mind. Unfortunately, on Thursday night a spectator didn’t think safe, and was killed while standing right on the outside of a quick, icy bend. Haydon Paddon could do nothing as his Hyundai ran wide and rolled, but the actions of the fan, and their quest to get GoPro video’s cost a life and put a dark shadow on the start of the event. But alas, the show must go on, and on it went.
If reading any of the coverage online before the event, Dungannon’s Kris Meeke was too many people their favourite to take the rally win. The Citroen had been flying in testing, and the mix of man and machine looked perfectly balanced. Everything looked bright, and after the first few stages on Saturday the C3 WRC was up to second. But fate and sentiment plays no part in motorsport. An innocent looking left kink was attacked just a few miles an hour too quickly, and an impact with the roadside bank sent the car spiralling into another, breaking the suspension and ending Meeke’s hopes in one go.
The Monte was showing it ferocious teeth all around as I sat watching and listening to all manner of live reports in Dublin Airport. Sebastian Ogier, reigning World Champion on his first outing in the M-Sport Fiesta, lost 40 seconds stuck in a ditch. Elfyn Evans done likewise, while all manner of crews were reporting spins and stalls. No other rally see’s crews in full Tarmac-spec cars tackling snow and ice mixed in among the dry winding Tarmac of the south of France. Toyota, back in the WRC for the 1st time since 1999, were watching their epically be-winged Yaris fly in the hands of Juho Hannonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, but Hannonen would also be caught out on the way into a hairpin and planted his Yaris firmly in a tree!!
As I landed in Nice, the crews were tucked up for the night, resting before the 5 stages that Saturday would bring. The stages were at a lower altitude, so there would be no heavy snow like Friday, but plenty of ice remained. That drive on Friday night opened my eyes to what is involved in following a rally of this proportion. Just shy of four hours is what it took to cover 170km to my chosen spot for the night. Corner after corner on twisting roads became mentally draining, and the brakes on the poor rental Clio were rightly squeaking by the time I hit the stages at 2AM. What hits you on approaching is the sheer volume of spectators already bedded down for the night. Lines of Campervans stretch for miles, but ignorantly driving on gets me a spot to park up no more than 10 feet from the stage. Wrecked, the only job was to roll out the sleeping back, drop down the back seats and get the head down for the night.
Three hours sleep was what I got, before the sound of anti-lag and straight through exhausts woke me. This wasn’t a string of Altezzas out messing like at an Irish rally, but here at 5AM the Ice crews were out driving the stages making notes for their respective drivers. When watching any rally on-boards, the thing that jumps out is the Co-Driver delivering a constant stream of notes that describe the road ahead for the driver so they can adjust their speed and line. While it is possible to purchase Pace notes from suppliers here in Ireland, most crews at WRC level create their own, during a period called Recce. This allows the drivers and Co-Drivers to drive the stages in road cars, and make notes. With the changeability of the Monte, Ice crews are a further backup. Sent out to drive the stage before it closes to traffic, Ice crews note any fresh areas of loose stones, slippery conditions or general things to look out for before relaying this back to the crew in service.
As I stood perched on my little wall, it became noticeable very quickly that there are subtle differences that you can pick up between the various cars as they pass. The standout here is the Yaris. Harking back to the heyday of the 90’s, the little Toyota squeals and bangs like a Group A machine, and the distinctive turbo blow off can be heard from miles away. It’s a JDM fan boy overload, and the fact the crew is strapped in with green Takata harnesses is spot on! The Citroen is obviously a product of the companies WTCC success in recent years, as it covers ground exactly like a Touring Car, absolutely pinned to the ground thanks to the array of diffusers and aero package. The Fiesta, with its outlandish frontal plane, seems to need constant steering as if never truly settling in a straight line, but this obviously aids the all-out style of Ott Tanak as seen by some serious sideways driving over the weekend. And then there’s the Hyundai. I noted last week how good the car looked in pics but in reality, it is beautiful. Looking a lot less weighed down in aero add-on’s, the i20 seems to just float as if the upgraded power is in constant battle with the downforce available. The way it moves around on tarmac is a sight to behold.
The Hyundai itself really caught a lot of us off guard. Thierry Neuville, the lead driver for the Korean’s, went off at a blistering pace from the off and held a massive lead entering the last stage on Saturday. A man who’s endured a lot of up’s and downs over the last few years, the Belgian looked cool, calm and collected. All was good until the right rear of his i20 Coupe ran wide and slapped a roadside pole. The control arm snapped, and all hopes of a Hyundai win were gone. While that lifted Ogier to an unexpected lead, more impressively it lifted Craig Breen to 4th overall. Anyone that watched TV coverage over the weekend may have been mistaken for thinking the Waterford ace was sitting at home, but he was truly flying.
As Citroen rush to get more C3 WRC’s built for the season ahead, Breen was sent out in last year’s DS3 in an effort to get stage mileage under the belt and to allow Craig experience the Monte in a world car. With the buzz around the new cars, Craig went under the radar, but holy god was he plugging in the times. Each stage saw more scalps taken as he crept up the leader board, added to that an ice cool head left Craig sniffing a podium place on Saturday evening. I got a lift from Craig’s parents back to the car after stage 13, after walking 5KM up a mountain to stage end, and they were rightly buzzing from his performance. Alas, the weather went against Craig on Sunday, but finishing 5th overall is a massive achievement for the young driver, so now eyes are on Sweden when Craig gets a run in a ‘big’ car.
Elsewhere, looking down the field brought a number of battles just as exciting as that at the head of the pack. A trio of Skoda Fabia R5’s, decked out in a very cool livery harking back to a Skoda entry in 1977, were regulars in the top 10, and the standout cars in WRC 2. Andreas Mikkelson was a class above and easily took the R5 bragging rights. Irelands Eamonn Boland had a solid drive all weekend, hampered by a few punctures but bought his Fiesta R5 home in 28th place. Elsewhere, all manner of R3 and R2 Clio’s, 208’s, Fiesta’s, C2’s and Twingo’s made up the rest of the field, with plenty of personal battles going on right down to the last car. Just getting to the end line is an achievement, no matter how long it takes to do it.
One of the more interesting categories within the rally is R-GT. Developed by the FIA over the past few years, the whole idea never fully took off as much as hoped, unfortunately. The class came about as an opportunity to get sports and GT cars back into rallying, and since its inception we’ve seen Nissan and Toyota dabble with their 350Z and GT86, but it’s been privately built 911’s that have been the mainstay of the class. This year, two French legends would do battle for RGT honours, with Romain Dumas in a 911 and Francois Delecour taking the wheel of the brand new Fiat 124 Abarth. Dumas took the glory, and although the class only attracted 4 entries, the sound and visual appeal of a 4 Litre Porsche scrabbling for grip on an Icy rally stage is worth all the effort!
A service park is always a busy place, but in the WRC it is a battle of the various teams to have the swankiest workshop spaces. Hyundai is the obvious kings around here, as their 3 story premises would be impressive as a building, but the fact it’s totally mobile is astounding. Here is the chance for fans to get as close as possible to the machinery, and as such the crowds are massive. Come Saturday night, once service was completed, it was southbound for both spectators and crews. 4 hours lay ahead, and the satnav read Col De Turini!
Certain stage names just have that ring about them. Iconic, legendary, epic. Think Molls Gap, Knockalla, Sweet Lamb or Ouninpohja and the Col sits right up there in the pantheon of dream stages. As you stand on this 200m stretch of road, your mind wanders to thoughts of McRae fully sideways in the Focus, Miki Biasion snaking the Lancia 037 through the snow or Tommi Mac roaring through in all manner of Evo’s. History here lies in the ground, and the buzz is in the air when I arrive at 11.30 the night before. Hundreds of campers line the approach roads, the smell of campfires fill the air and there is a constant rattle of fireworks. This is a special place and a true bucket list location. Standing stage side at 1700m up is so calm and quiet, but as soon as the cars start to blast over the top and fire off down the far side, flares and air horns take over. A French leader is the cause of much of the frenzy, but the influx of plenty of crazy Italians certainly helps.
As the last few stragglers pass on their first run, a light shower of snow falls. By the time the leaders come back a second time, it has turned to a blizzard. The perfectly dry road was now a white and slippery lottery for the crews. Flat out driving was replaced with distinct caution as the end lay in sight. Ott Tanak thought his dream podium finish was gone as he ran on 2 cylinders for Sunday, but he went balls out on the 6KM descent to the finish in the snow and took over 30 seconds and finished 3rd as a result.
All in all, Monte Carlo is an experience, unlike anything I’ve experienced. Everything seems ramped on anything we have in Ireland, from the massive distances to travel between stages, to the number of spectators out in the ditches. Witnessing the new breed of 2017 WRC cars was something I couldn’t pass up, and even the thought traveling alone didn’t stop me. Granted I truly roughed it for a few days and nights sleeping in the Clio, but that was an experience in itself and good god it got you the best access come the stage going live. What was a booking on a whim to see at least the start of the season, is now a serious bug to get to more Finland? Germany? Spain? Nothing booked……yet.