Irish Rallying is in an odd position at the moment, it’s fair to say. As our national involvement at the highest levels of the sport Internationally continues to hit a succession of highs, the story on the home front has been pretty much a continuing tale of lows. Off the stages, it seemed as if financials would cripple the sport, and keep cars locked up for the year. But, as light always follows dark, St. Patrick’s Weekend always brings the Irish Rallying community to Clonakilty, and ready to kick off the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC) was a jam-packed field for the 40th West Cork Rally!
Anyone with an interest in rallying in this country may have spotted an anomaly near the end of my last paragraph. West Cork as the season opener? Remember what I said about low points over the Winter, well it felt at some points that there may well be not action at all this year. The main constraint placed upon the sport was from the ever-increasing cost of organizing an Insurance policy to cover Rallying for the year. It was touch and go for Motorsport Ireland to even find a Broker, and naturally the increased cost would have to be borne by the competitor. The prospect of increased costs had a domino effect then when it came to events, with many having to seriously question the hope they had of running events with the continued spiral of expense involved. Birr used every ounce of effort to bolster their entry, but others announced cancellations. The ALMC pulled their event, but it was the decision by Galway to not run their International Rally that put the issues in a spotlight.
The ITRC is the country’s premier Rally Championship, so to lose the seeming ever-present blast around Galway lanes as a season opener was a shock, but such was the size of the issues going on elsewhere with the Championship that it was merely another problem tacked onto the list. After 3 years, Clonakilty Blackpudding proudly stepped down as title sponsors of the ITRC after three great years. As a Brand, they clicked with the championship, thanks in no small part to their long-standing connection with the West Cork Rally, run from their home town, as well as the active role in the sport maintained by the Twomey family. In November, word broke on the newly re-branded Dance To Tipperary ITRC.
Now, while Clon Pudding is a staple of the supermarket shelves and a recognizable brand, Dance to Tipperary were a complete unknown. Bar the sight of their names on the side of Frank Meagher’s rally cars in the late 90’s, DTT have little if any presence in Ireland. A Celtic-Dance band based out of London, now sponsoring an Irish Tarmac Championship? Things just didn’t stack up.
Updates were expected, but never came. The vibrant array of ITRC updates seen across the various Social Networks dried up overnight, while questions remained un-answered over and over again regarding TV Coverage, Event Promotion etc. Killarney Historic, the Opening Round of the Historic Championship, passed by without as much as a mention across official ITRC channels, while the much-anticipated yearly media day in Mondello was scrapped, replaced with an un-publicised launch in an Armagh Hotel. Media were not invited! January and February passed with nothing more than whispers. Nobody had declared Championship ambitions bar Eugene Donnelly in his shock Autosport appearance. Yet, come mid-March, as eyes turned to Round 1 of the Season, it seemed as if Tipperary had danced off into the sunset. Without a Title Sponsor, but with the return of the excellent Social Media and TV crews as before, it was properly time to get excited about the 2018 season.
West Cork is a real treat for rally fans. Based out of the picturesque town of Clonakilty, surrounding all around by stunning coastline yet barely 40 minutes away from the heart of Cork City. It’s often said of events that stages lie close to the host town, but nowhere is this more true then here. Scrutiny happens in Clonakilty Car Care at one side, while the Arrival Control of Stage 1 is barely 300m from the bustling heart of the Town, and as first stages go, it’s a treat!
The blast into Ring village, the dart right across the bridge at Kitty Macs, the flat left along the water’s edge, the inland hairpins and the iconic swing left at Ballinglanna are all classic West Cork sights, but to tie all those moments into the opening Stage is a real joy for the crews. Starting on the edge of Clonakilty, the opening third of the stage follows the coast, in most spots barely more than a stone wall separating cars from the ocean. A swing inland brings the crews uphill into some tight and technical stretches of road, before dipping back down to the coast again before the end. With a tight schedule of events going on Saturday, and with my time limited to a single stage, it would always be Ring that would entice me!
I know I harp on and on about the moment you hear the first car at an event, and how great it is, but to get the reverberations of a Ford Focus WRC car banging through the gears at full speed makes the skin tingle. There was a time, not that long ago, that the demonic howl of a 2-Litre WRC car was a natural soundtrack to events, but as rules and technology moved on, Donagh Kelly remains a visceral hark back to times gone by. Over 11 years old at this stage, the Focus’ continued presence at the forefront of time sheets shows just how well developed the car was from the beginning, even if it was often overshadowed in its day by the all-conquering Citroen C4. Alongside Kelly, WRC-car participation was limited to Declan Boyle in the 1.6 Fiesta, and the utterly beautiful Subaru Impreza S12 of Karl Simmons.
R5 is where things are at right now, with the price-conscious category now verging on being the single most popular in the history of the sport. Skoda and M-Sport have a combined output of over 500 Fabias or Fiestas, and a glance down the West Cork entry list highlighted the interest massively. Scrutiny on Friday evening, you would have been excused trying to keep track of the various Fiestas that were coming and going, with all those with Title ambitions seemingly sitting behind the wheel of an M-Sport built Ford. Eugene Donnelly brought out the Hyundai i30 R5 to play, but he was surrounded by the likes of 2017 Champion Sam Moffett and brother Josh, Daniel Cronin, Johnny Greer, Keith Lyons, Robert Barrable and Desi Henry.
While it’s the high powered, four-wheel-drive machinery that usually takes all the attention at the head of the field, its often mentioned that it’s the National section of the event that keeps spectators coming back event after event, filling junctions trying to catch a glimpse of a sideways Ford Escort and the like. It would be typical of West Cork, an event that thrives on being that bit different from the rest, that the battle between the three leading crews would feature none of Fords legendary offering. Instead, the pace was being set from the start by Welsh visitor John Dalton in the incredible Darrian T90 GTR+. When it comes to raw, visual rallying then its hard to match the sight of these Welsh wonders at full speed on dry Tarmac. Little more than Fiberglass and a Tube Chassis powered by a 2.5 Millington, this truly is the definition of a rocket. Even after five years away from the stages, John was able to keep 2017 ITRC Modified champion Kevin Eves and his AE86 Corolla at bay, yet he came up short in pursuit of another Millington engine car!
Gary Kiernan is a huge favorite amongst the National championship, known for his flat-out style, often pushing his MK2 Escort to the limit time and time again. For 2018 though, Gary has swapped the trusty Ford for the exciting prospect of all-wheel drive, not down the Mitsubishi Evo route, but with the uber-cool Proton Satria S2500, a Millington engined version of a previously homologated factory car. Besides the obvious teething issues to be expected with such a change of scenery, it wasn’t long before the Proton had a Darrian in its sight, and as the stages got slippy on Sunday evening, Kiernan pulled clear to take National honors.
The Sunday was an interesting day on the stages, as blinding sunshine and blue sky’s in the morning disappeared, instead replaced with snow and bitter cold. The change in conditions challenged the crews as they battled to make it to the finish line, and the prospect of picking up the legendary West Cork Rally Finishers mugs. Through the changing weather though emerged a set of blistering battles in the Historic and Junior sections. I was blown away almost immediately at first sight of Barry Jones’ freshly built MK1 Escort. Its genuinely not a stretch to rank it as one of the single most beautiful examples I have ever laid eyes upon, but here it was right before me hanging its rear quarter into a grassy ditch at full opposite lock. Utter Bliss!! At the end of Day 1, Jones led local hero Owen Murphy by less than 5 seconds, but it was the flying Sunbeam that would rule supreme in the end, taking an historic win for a Talbot in a section that has been dominated by Ford Escort. The Junior battle was tightest of all though. Colin O’Donoghue shocked many with his pace in the Killarney Historic, but proved that it was not a flash in the pan. Over the 6 Sunday Stages, the Killarney man lay liege on a field dominated by Honda Civics, and in the end fell barely 9 seconds short of Gary McNamee in his incredible Civic.
But, so it came to be, that after 14 testing stages, all manner of weather conditions, mechanical and technical issues, that for a fifth straight year, Donagh Kelly and his Ford Focus proved unbeatable in West Cork. Josh and Sam Moffett certainly put pressure on the Donegal man, but the added WRC punch proved decisive. With the way Championship rules have outlawed the likes of Kelly’s Focus from scoring championship points, it was clear to see that Donagh was here to simply enjoy the sport, especially an event he has made his own over the last few years. The championship now rumbles onto the UAC Easter Stages with a new sense of optimism. All the off-stage talk has been put to bed, issues forgotten for now as everyone gets on with enjoying Rallying!