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There’s a distinct beauty to the first real blast of sunshine for the year, the initial feeling that perhaps we may actually get a Summer in Ireland for a change. As the evening drags on basked in glorious shades, people seem happy. Strangers make conversation about the weather, not remarking as normal on a bleak dreary Irish day but rather commenting ‘God its fierce nice isn’t it’. Natural pessimism remained with the typical retort often being ‘I hope it lasts for the weekend’, but you could twig you were in the right company when another would chip in with ‘It’ll be fierce hard on Tyres”. See, as the glorious sunshine beams down, I find myself of a Friday evening stood in the stable yard of Killarney Racecourse. All around, the stunning natural vistas of mountain peaks stand draped in a yellow glow, but it’s horsepower of an altogether more exciting kind that has drawn me here, and the ever-wonderful Rally of The Lakes.

I’ve gushed before about the beauty of Killarney, and truth be told it feels as if the town was hand built to cater for all manner of guests. Being the May Bank Holiday Weekend, throngs of large busses ferry the masses of Tourists around the sights. Everything seems to be within reach for guests, such is the amount of spots you encounter coaches frantically looking for parking to offload their party of overseas visitors. The sunshine naturally helps, as the town radiates in the fine weather. Ice-cream shops become licenses to print money, while the doors of Pubs are thrown open and customers spill out into outdoor seating. Added to this is the influx of the rally brigade, making a 25th pilgrimage to Kerry for the May weekend. While the wonderful Historic Rally in December may be an incredibly popular event, it is dwarfed significantly by the size and scale of the crowds drawn to the Lakes each year.

A rally weekend generally begins for me on the day of the event, although more and more so I’m finding time to get down the day before to take in the build-up and excitement before the crew’s head for Stage 1. For Killarney though, preparation started much earlier. Like last year, I became quite aware of how little knowledge I had of the stages that are staples of the Lakes experience. While 2017 saw me make a first visit to the Tim Healy Pass, I’d heard soo much gushing that I knew it was finally time to check out the true Beara stages, Cod’s Head and Ardgroom. A fortnight before the event I went for a spin and fell in love with a part of Ireland I had never been before. I’ll come back to it in a while, but my god Beara is incredible.

Scrutiny before an event is a great way to get both up close and truly under the skin of a lot of the rally machinery. In a change from previous year, this took place in Killarney Racecourse which was ideal. Not only for the amount of space available for crews to unload cars, but the sheer beauty of the backdrop that adorns the Racecourse. The peaks of the National Park stretch as far as the horizon, and with a genuine warmth in the air its magical. It was sunny here as well for the Historic scrutiny but being early December, it was decidedly colder!!

The cars filter through somewhat at random, home built challengers side-by-side with the latest and greatest Factory built machines. The Eves brothers Kevin and Corey had their pair of AE86 Corollas in line together. Corey’s car, with the rather appropriate 86 door number, is typical of a competitive level car within a class, with the main aim for the weekend being to beat similarly powered machinery. Under the bonnet lay a surprise, as the silver rocker cover deceptively hid the fact that a Honda B16 engine powers this Corolla, with the Vtec lump reverse engineered to cater for the RWD setup. In front though, Kevin’s car is on a completely different level to his brothers. Powered by a 2.5L Millington Diamond engine, this machine is built to win! Kevin is the reigning Irish Modified Champion, a series designed for rally cars that perhaps fall out of the original Manufacture homologation specs, so the home for all the wild side of Irish Rallying. It wouldn’t be a great weekend for the Eves’ though, as both would retire on the first day.

Once through scrutiny, the next big task for many of the crews was to put on a show for the masses in Killarney Town Centre. While you may see elsewhere in the world that events put on vastly expensive Super Special Stages that draw the crowds, in Ireland we simply appreciate the opportunity to get up close to the drivers and cars. Scrutiny and the subsequent Pairc Ferme are generally off-limits to the Public, so a Ceremonial Launch is of the best way to make a rally feel a part of the community. No matter which event you go to though, you would struggle to find a bigger crowd at any start ramp than in the Kingdom. The locals flood out onto the narrow streets to welcome their hero’s, with plenty of local crews taking the chance to cross the ramp in front of family and friends. It’s not every day that a bunch of rally cars are able to take over a busy shopping street on a Friday evening, and it was clear to see how well the invasion was received.

As the crowds soaked up the sight of the cars ticking over in the sunshine, a rather noisy burble grew from the back of the pack. Casting my eye down, it was pretty obvious that this was no Honda Civic or Ford Escort, but something a lot more special. The closer I got, the more potent the noise. Peeking through the crowds, a familiar blue quarter panel appeared into view. Amongst the buildings, an echo grew as Kevin O’Donoghue’s BMW E30 snaked through the bemused onlookers. It’s truly incredible to experience the noise this car makes, thank in the most part to the engine that lies under the bonnet. Developed from a Saab unit, Motor Design Sweden have pieced together one of the wildest sounding N/A Four Cylinder I’ve come across, with three litres of capacity designed to tackle rally stages. Kevin continued through the line until he reached the Escort of son Colin, who would be taking on the Junior rally the following day. It’s one thing seeing a Father and Son crew compete alongside one-another, but more impressive as they both crossed the line to start the rally in special machinery.

Before any car was to cross the ramp though, a poignant gesture was made to remember the late Dougie Hughes. For over 40 years, Dougie would have been the voice of many start and finish ramp ceremonies, an MC who lived and breathed Rallying in Ireland. When news broke of Dougies passing, he was remembered fondly by the rally family all over the world, and his friends in Killarney & District Motor Club honoured the man with the release of doves into the night sky.

As the evening began to fade, I left the ramp and parked up for a look at the various cars cruising around the town for the weekend. We don’t have large fluid motoring lifestyle events like Worthersee or large cruises in this country, so a Rally Weekend in Killarney or Letterkenny is as close as we get. People make a point of heading down south not only to show off their own car, but to meet others doing the exact same thing and to take in the atmosphere. While the argument will be raised about how few of these people travel with even the slightest interest in the Rally or simply to cause trouble, the vast majority I talked to, many faces you seem to only meet at the Lakes, seemed to have made the spin to enjoy a weekend with other petrol heads. Although the town did at times feel littered with scrappy Lexus IS200’s, many with a straight pipe exhaust that would pierce solid rock and a CB aerial large enough to contact NASA, there were plenty of gems amongst them.

Of all the car’s around town though, I still think I caught the absolute pinnacle on Friday evening. Sat on a garage forecourt watching the sun set, an unfamiliar shape drove past. My eyes felt deceived, but when the car pulled in past me a minute later, I knew I had to take a closer look. Shimmering in its silver glory, this 1975 Toyota Celica TA22 is a rare machine anywhere in the world, but to find one in Ireland is exceptionally rare. A new arrival to these shores, imported less than 2 months ago, this car hasn’t arrived like soo many others from Japan but rather the sunnier climes of Australia. The car had been bought and restored by the owner in Oz, and when the time came to arrive home, it was natural he says that the Celica would be put into a shipping crate destined for the other side of the world. Opening the sweeping bonnet revealed a Carb’d 1.6L 2T engine, finished to an incredible standard that matched the level of the car. Inside, it truly is exactly like stepping back into 1975 with brown vinyl covering every surface, bar the addition of a newer steering wheel and radio, as although it didn’t look like it, this Toyota was doubling as the family car for the night. As the sun set, I grabbed a few pictures pretty much right where I met the car, in the back of a petrol station. Into darkness I had to go, and the sat-nav was set for that magical Beara peninsula.

Lying what feels like about one million miles from anywhere, Beara juts out into the Atlantic while straddling the Cork/Kerry border. Stunningly beautiful, it’s a place that remains unspoiled from how nature intended. Nearly two hours from Killarney, the road to Allihies is long and twisty, the majority of the mileage clocked up in complete darkness devoid of anyone else on the roads. I’d said to a friend that I’d found a great Air BnB right on the stages, but little did they know that my thought of luxury accommodation would be a duvet in my spacious Peugeot 207. Travelling this way guarantees the best spots on some the most in-accessible locations that stages pass through and has the added benefit of tuning out of my usually hectic world for a few nights, coupled with some stunning vistas to wake up to. On a cold Saturday morning on Irelands southern-most tip, fog rolled in off the sea, rain covered the now-slick tarmac, but excitement built in the air.

By 11am we were go, the first crackle of a Ford Fiesta R5 bouncing off the sea cliffs and drowning out the crashing waves. First on the road would be Sam Moffett, last year’s winner, who was aiming to guide his Combilift liveried Fiesta to even more success in 2018. After claiming a clean sweep of Championship wins last year, his fiercest competition this year has appeared in the form of brother Josh in an identical Ford. The surprise by the time the cars reached Cods Head, having completed the iconic duo of Molls Gap and Healy Pass, was that both Moffetts appeared to be off the pace, which was being utterly dominated by Robert Barrable in yet another M-Sport R5 challenger. Fighting for tenths was par for the course for the brothers Moffett, but Barrable has started at a pace that saw him lead by nearly 25 seconds at the end of Day 1.

The other big story that grew as times appeared online was the speed of Rob Duggan in the MK2 Escort. A former British Junior Champion and Billy Coleman Award winner, Duggan is an incredible driving talent. While his JWRC dreams may have faded for now, Rob has made a huge push to get back enjoying the sport. He reminded us all of his talent with a dominant win at the Killarney Historic Rally, but starting in the rain surrounded by cutting edge 4wd cars would surely show up the Killarney man? Hah! Third fastest OVERALL up Molls Gap was a sure signal of intent, and it was clear by the pace the red Escort skirted along the Beara coastline that we had a man on a charge before our eyes.

Rob wasn’t gonna have it all his way though, as a strong field of quick Escorts lined up for a crack off the local ace. Kiernan, Brogan and Collins and showed pace, but ultimately couldn’t live with the speed of Duggans rental car, although there were some hairy moments along the way. That was except for Barry Meade though. After an absence of a few years, Meade has made a welcome return to the stages as of late. As Duggan hit trouble with the Ford’s Gearbox, Meade pushed to grab any advantage available. Come the end of Day 1, a tenth of a second would separate the pair. You couldn’t even get an expletive out in that time!

While the trip south is a staple of the Lakes route, it was a real treat for the crews in the Junior Rally who got a rare opportunity to tackle the Saturday stages. While the main field entry may have appeared somewhat slack, the Juniors really done their part in adding to the event. Twenty-Four cars took the start, and the pace amongst the leading crews was truly electric. Visibly quicker than large swathes of the main field competitors who had passed through before, the sight of a Honda Civic being fearlessly ragged along a bumpy stretch of coastal tarmac is incredible to experience. Setting the pace from start was Jason Black in the Toyota Starlet, although Colin O’Donoghue was keeping the Starlet honest in his Ford Escort. Heading towards the last loop, Black flew past me at a serious pace, but unfortunately less than 400m down the road his event would end with a meeting with a wall caused by a snapped steering arm. After pushing hard all day, Colin O’Donoghue romped home to a popular local victory.

With the early morning gloom now most certainly replaced with afternoon sunshine and warmth, it was back into Killarney. While the town can be swarmed by a less than desirable crowd at times during the weekend, and soooo many Lexus IS200’s, its always nice to know where the better cars are hanging out. One of those spots is the AE86IRL meet that happens every year. It’s a chance to catch up with friendly faces, talk shite and look at some sweet Corolla’s. While numbers are slowly falling each passing year, the level that these little cars are kept in is always mind-blowing. For many, myself included, a Corolla GT Coupe is as much a part of the rally weekend scenery as anything else, and I still feel excited watching a clean ‘Cam pass by.

While the traditional ‘UK Spec’ style is still popular, we’re definitely seeing a growing presence of JDM style cars built to emulate the timeless early-00’s JDM look. A few other cars joined this rather select and quiet meet, including this incredibly sweet Nissan Silvia S14A, sitting perfectly on a set of Enkei wheels. Unlike most, this S-Body is not built to go sideways, instead it’s intended track purpose is to take on the Nürburgring, which it has on a few occasions. Sun setting, it was time to make shapes once again.

I’ve talked at length before about Ballaghbeama Gap, and how magical a stretch of tarmac it is. To watch a rally car almost slalom down the descent as the exhaust note reverberates off the valley walls is truly special. Ballaghbeama is also truly one of the most remote stages in Ireland, with access limited to a handful of small tight lay-by’s. One such gap between a waterfall and the road would provide accommodation for the night. Bunked down for the evening, with the panoramic sun-roof opened looking into a sky full of stars, this felt like the purest way of all to follow such an exciting event. Come morning, it was go time, and a 00-car pairing of an RS Porsche and a screaming F2 Almeira kit car was perfect recipe to shake off the cobwebs.

One of the quickest cars to pass, it seemed, was the oh so delightful Talbot Sunbeam of Owen Murphy. The multiple Forestry champion has a well-known history of some giant killing results on Tarmac in Evo’s and Skoda’s, but he has now built what he believes to be the ultimate Historic car to stick it to the Ford Escort dominance. Stick it to them he did, as after the end of two days Murphy would take victory by over seven minutes from his nearest rival.

The National battle that promised soo much on Saturday night just never really ignited on Sunday. Meade ran into problems early on, while many others decided to simply get to the finish. Gary Kiernan made a push over the closing stages, but the gap would prove just too much for the West Cork national winner, seeing Duggan cruise home with 45 seconds to spare. With victory’s for Colin O’Donoghue and Rob Duggan, Killarney had plenty of local success to celebrate in the May sunshine.

Alas though, there must be a man to take home the trophy at the end of the day. Robert Barrable gave his Fiesta R5 an almighty push, and took maximum ITRC points, but simply ran out of legs on the Sunday stages. Starting the day with a 25 second deficit, it was Manus Kelly who truly had the bit between his teeth. The Donegal man has made a habit of winning in the S12 Impreza WRC of late, and he had every intention of making the most of a rare trip South. Manus said on Friday that the weather ‘Felt like June’, a nod to his ultimate goal, and come Sunday evening the champagne must too have tasted like June, when Kelly aims for a third straight Donegal win.

As the Lakes came to an exciting close on Sunday afternoon, I was nearly already home. Three long days of traipsing through rivers and down banks, over ditches and past sheep is hard going, never mind the added hardship of living out of a French hatchback. But for the sheer excitement of the event, getting right into the action and living the buzz, there truly is no better way to follow a rally!!