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!
Cold. Very very cold. And Tired. Very very tired. Huddled for warmth, wrapped snug in a thin duvet and a plethora of blankets, the urge is to dismiss the intrusive phone alarm, acting as an unwelcome distraction from the desire to remain in a state of unconscious, accepting your body’s urge to regain some much-needed sleep that had been neglected all trip. Pulling myself from the bunk bed already fully clothed, cold dampness fills the surroundings. Windows, rendered translucent by a thick layer of ice, give a guide that that the sun is yet to rise. Sliding open the door, an icy breeze hits me in the face, and the view consists of snow piled feet high against steep rock faces. The air is thick with the smell of dying fires that have provided warmth all around, yet notably thinner than normal at this height. The silence is pierced by the bark of an un-quenched 5-Cylinder Volvo, and you remember that you’re parked a matter of meters from the Col de Turini in late January. Welcome to the Monte Carlo Rally!
Much has been talked about in recent times with regard the belief that endurance and challenge had appeared to have ebbed away from Modern Rallying, but come Sunday evening, it was obvious that Rallye Monte Carlo is a gruelling event, and that was only from a spectating view! Five consecutive mornings came, with the desire to watch rally cars being pushed to their limit being the sometimes only objective for the day. Having made my first trip to a WRC event exactly a year ago, it was pretty certain, in my head at least, that the traditional season opener would feature in my 2018 plans. Having only experienced two days last year, living out of a Renault Clio, this year was going to be done properly and in as thorough a manner as possible. Ryanair bargains sorted almost 5 months in advance, a week in the South of France beckoned. The following is a personal journey chasing the world’s most exciting rally!
Monday & Tuesday
In Ireland, the majority of events are wrapped up in a single weekend. Bar the larger championship events, Scrutiny and Recce takes place on a Saturday, with the competition confined to Sunday. The Monte is a whole other spectrum in this regard. As we sat in Dublin Airport on Monday afternoon, our social media channels were swamped with live pictures of crews out making notes over the rally route. Meanwhile, the service park was awash with scenes of cars coming and going, undergoing final preparations and the various team hospitality premises taking shape. Feet on French soil, natural course of action was to grab a few refreshments, and before long a right crew of Rally fans were to be found in the nearest Irish Bar!! Next morning, as the sun shone on a beautiful Mediterranean January morning, we picked up our transport and accommodation for the week, an Indie Camper Fiat Ducato. Obligatory detour into Monte Carlo for a bit of sightseeing and the obvious lap of the F1 circuit, the Sat Nav was set for the mountains, primarily 3 hours north to the town of Gap.
Nestled amongst some intimidating Alpine peaks, Gap lies 3 hours from Nice, roughly halfway between it and Grenoble. The French Autoroute makes the journey easy, if somewhat dull, although anyone planning on heading to the Monte in the future should be aware of the large Toll’s along the way. The M50 charge seems reasonable when you roll up to a barrier and see €16.50 shoot up on the screen. Once in Gap though, the only true destination was Service Park, the beating heart of any event. Under darkness on the eve of the opening salvos of the year, cars sat looking pristine and ready to rock, as mechanics applied the final touches or gave a wipe of cleaning sprays. A calmness hung in the air, almost as in that odd moment before a storm is about to hit. A 10-minute drive and we set camp in the rough for the 1st night.
Less than a handful of kilometres from the Service park, the Shakedown stage gives teams the opportunity to get a running into their cars at proper rally pace before things kick off properly the following day. The short 4km blast had everything, from tight twisty sections to flat out arrow straights, but this year was different to 2017. Firstly, the crowds, which were massive last year, seemed somewhat more subdued. The natural answer for this was the general excitement for the public debut of the 17-spec cars that existed a year ago had somewhat passed, yet most locations were still very busy. Also, compared to 2017, the Shakedown was completely devoid of any semblance of Snow or Ice.
The whole stage was a proper fast flowing stretch of Dry Tarmac which was indicative of how most of the event would be for the crews. Usually in bursts of 15-20 minutes between tire and setup changes, we got to experience the top crews blast past over a two-hour window as the sun set. By the time the stage became available for those outside of FIA Priority 1 (ie. WRC crews), it was complete darkness. First day of action ticked off, the natural destination was back to Service at which we made camp for the night, bedding down to the crackle of exhausts and the whine of Sequential gearboxes coming and going to all hours.
The opening day of the season is always exciting, no matter the sport. A sense of anticipation is palpable in the air, as everyone begins on a level plain with all manner of dreams and ambitions for the year. Walking around service as the sun began to rise, excitement began to emanate through each and every person you talked to. Cars were being loaded onto trailers for the long spin back to Monte Carlo for the start ramp, and almost devoid of any other spectators, this sprawling mass of awnings, power tools and rally cars felt almost serene. As the crews headed in one direction, we headed towards what way, in reflection, to be the greatest rally experience I was to ever have. I like to get to a stage nice and early to minimise the walk, but at 1pm the trusty Ducato rounded a tight right hander and we set eyes on Rallying Nirvana. The first competing car would be tackling the route at 11pm!!
As all the pomp and ceremony took place down in Casino Square in Monaco, the proper rally fans were sitting up in the mountains. The rally starts, rather spectacularly, with a brace of uber-difficult mountain Stages run in the darkness of Thursday night. While Sisteron, the opening test, is truly historic, it was the tight and twisty hairpins at the start of the second Bayons-Breziers stage that was our destination of choice. A succession of four tight switchbacks, The Turnstiles as they are called, are stunning in day light, but are on another planet spectating wise once the sun goes down. The initial research suggested a 2km walk uphill would greet us, yet in reality we parked, thanks to some sweet talking of some French Gendarme, less than 200 m from the natural arena. Never before have I been in place exactly five hours before the first car was due, but such was the size of the crowds and the desire for spots, it felt almost sensible. Of course, perched on the side of a French mountain on a Thursday evening, we would find a crew of other Irish fans. As the beer flowed and darkness set, fireworks, speakers and smoke bombs became the norm. When Sebastian Ogier and his Fiesta came into view though, all hell broke loose. This was an assault on the senses the like I have never felt before. I took no camera to the stage, mainly as I wanted to truly experience the evening, but it was impossible not to record the scene!
Due to the lateness of getting off the Thursday night stages, the traffic and the grief of dealing with tight French backroads not designed for the invasion of a spectating circus that the WRC attracts, it was well beyond 3am when we parked up, and set our alarms for 6.45am! The town of Barcelonnette will always have a special place in my heart, as it was exactly here that I got to experience the WRC for the very first time. Wandering through the tight and twisting streets, it all felt so familiar and welcoming. It could have been the sleep deprivation, but I’ve never enjoyed a nap as much as the one I got in a ploughed field once a spot was found just beyond the town boundary. By now, we had learned of the incredible drama and events of the previous nights stages, where countless crews had hit trouble on patches of ice and lost masses of time, but stage side it matters very little. Cars pass in a matter of seconds, and with stages sometimes lasting over 20 minutes, its impossible to decipher time loss or gain in the flesh.
As is my in-built desire to try and get as many angles as possible when shooting a rally stage, I’m a nightmare to go to a rally with. While my gear is battered and truly bargain basement compared to others, many must come away with galleries chock full of the exact same images. I try different things, move around and experiment on a constant basis. I travelled to Monte Carlo with Brian and Den O’Connell, two massive rally fans and competitors themselves, but I often left them to go wandering. Before long, I was atop hills, near the apex and even across the road, while still at the same corner.
The size and breath of any WRC event makes it almost impossible to hop between stages, so we simply took in the two running’s of every stage we visited. For the second loop, we moved back to the town centre Fountain I had stood on a year previous and took in the spectacle.
While the eleven full blooded WRC cars are the main attraction, the rest of the field is chock full of over a hundred other crews each competing alone the same route. All weekend, we made a point of hanging on to support the two Irish crews of Eamon Boland/ MJ Morrissey and Enda McCormack/Colin Fitzgerald. I know we must have been invisible to the crews, but its great to get a chance to wave the tricolour at our own!
Saturday morning was an odd experience. The plan all along, after three days of watching cars on Dry Tarmac, was to experience the spectacle of a proper Monte and have the crews slithering about on Snow and Ice. The Ski resort of Ancelle offered, we though, the best opportunity to live this scene, as a Ski Lift was laid on for spectators to bring them to the top of a mountain where the stage crossed a ski slope. Driving up the night before through freezing fog, the cleared roads reinforced our belief that this lift would be the only route to seeing cars on snow. Parked up at what we believed was the correct spot, we drifted off to sleep thinking we had only a 10-minute walk and a lift to get to the stage, yet we awoke to two odd realisations. Firstly, two feet of fresh powder had fallen the night before, making the roads completely white and treacherous, and secondly, we had parked barely 10 metres from the stage itself, nowhere at all near the ski lift. Result!
Ski gear in full use, ankle deep in snow and full of excitement, the first car to greet us was Craig Breen. The Waterford man had had issues the previous day with the brakes on his Citroen C3, meaning that he had the disappointing prospect of two days sweeping the snow-covered roads. The WRC Citroen scrabbled for grip that just wasn’t available in its Tarmac setup, an issue that is such a staple of the Monte Carlo rally and part of its challenge. As the road cleared, speeds increased, although anyone that ventured off the main tire tracks were still prone to sliding, and the roadside snow banks were being used in a way akin to Sweden.
Oddly, for a ski resort in late January in the Alps, the sun began to shine, as in properly shine. Layer after layer began to be discarded as the temperatures soared. The van read 13 degrees between stages, and even higher afterwards. As the snow melted into slush, crew really began to excel in the conditions. Where the first run was a cagey and cautious affair, the second run was full blooded and at speed. All around, the clouds opened and the scenery on all sides came into view in spectacular fashion. Taking in the surroundings, it was incredible watching rally cars charge across such beautiful vistas, although at times it did mean standing ankle deep in an icy cold river to try and get the best shot!
After a day in the sun, we made our final call into Service, just in time to experience the madness of what a rally cars arrival can truly be like. We passed the M-Sport awning and crowds stood 10 deep in preparation of hometown hero Ogier, but we kept going to the Toyota service area to witness the reception for Ott Tanak. Previously an M-Sport driver, the Estonian changed team during the off season, although his pace wouldn’t make that obvious. Blisteringly quick from the start, the Yaris had become intuitive in his hands and he was truly pushing the World Champion’s Fiesta to the limit. As the car rolled in, the masses parted almost in a biblical way, and the tide crashed back in within inches of the rear wing to great cheers and waves. Over at Citroen, even after a number of hard days, a huge cohort of Irish fans stood to cheer on Breen and Dungannon’s Kris Meeke upon their return to service.
Cold and tired, as I said at the top, was the mood of the day come Sunday. Perched 1600m above sea level though, its hard not to feel a sense of excitement walking down past the sea of motor homes and tents as the infamous stretch of tarmac, barely 100m long, looms into sight. Some rally stages hold legendary status that has transcended through the generations, and right near the very top of any list sits the Col De Turini. It just isn’t a Monte without the Turini. Leaving Gap in the evening sunshine, it would be nearly 4 hours before we joined a convoy of vehicles at the base of the climb. Access is solely by police escort, so although progress is slow, it allows time to take in each and every corner. Here’s where Sainz went off, here’s where Latvala ran wide. Every inch has history, none more so than the Col itself. While perhaps not as spectacular in the daylight, it still has such historical significance.
As a parting shot for an already difficult event, the two KM’s over the highest part of the Turini was caked in thick black Ice, totally at odds with the bone-dry tarmac lower on the climb. Again, the crews struggled to deal with the changes they were experiencing, so passage over the top was done so with extreme care. That the crews knew of the situations to expect was definitely down to the Ice Crews who drove the stages two hours before the competing cars, each working to record stage conditions and relate information back to drivers and co-drivers about what to expect.
While the majority of crews came through unscathed, some lower runners were caught out and made excursions into the snow banks, much to the enjoyment of the massive crews. While everyone comes to see the WRC stars, I have a soft spot for the R2 guys running at the back of the field. Screaming FWD cars being pushed to their limit
is never short of spectacular in my book and seeing a plethora of French Tarmac spec Peugeot 208’s and Renault Twingo’s is my idea of a good time!
And so, as the cars passed over a now damp and slushy Turini, they disappeared out of sight for the final time. Worn out, drained and exhausted after five full days of chasing across France watching rally cars, it was time for home. Back to Nice and camper returned without a scratch, it gave us a few hours to reflect on the week and look forward to the season ahead. Seb Ogier ran away in the end, as he always seems to do on the Monte, but Tanak, Latvala and Lappi all showed how strong a team Toyota have put together. Hyundai has a disastrous run of luck, but Neuville and Mikkelsen showed incredible pace that will stand to them all year. Elfyn Evans had a solid event alongside Ogier in the M-Sport Ford, a promising outlook for their desire to retain the manufacturers crown won last year, while yet again Citroen are made to look confused and without a properly set-up car. Breen was unlucky with the Brake issue on Friday, and although Meeke stunned everyone with the power stage victory, all does not seem well in the Gallic camp. It’s a long season though, with plenty of bumps along the way, but WRC 2018 is go, and the Monte kicked things off yet again in style!!
Do you ever get a sense of being overwhelmed? Everywhere you turn, more and more clambers for your attention. Its an assault on your senses, an invitation to run around wildly and ultimately leave a tinge of reflection and regret seeing all that was missed. I’d felt that way before, namely at Worthersee, but to have all this confined into a roofed space was a step up on the exciting factor. As many may know, I am a racing car geek, almost obsessive, and as such, any event that brands itself as THE racing car show, it was about time I ticked it off the list. Autosport International, it seems, is something I really wonder how it hasn’t been on my calendar before, as it is truly mega!
Starting long before dawn and ending close to the early hours, it was vital to give a day trip to Birmingham the maximum amount of time. To have done things any other way would have been criminal, as ASI is soo packed full of visual goodies and opportunities to get up close and personal with cars and motorsport technology that even spending over 9 hours on site I was left with thoughts of cars that went unseen, and in one case a car I caught a glimpse of in passing but couldn’t find again!
The largest draw personally this year was the opportunity to cover the official 2018 Launch of the World Rally Championship. With the action kicking off in the snowy mountains surrounding Monte Carlo in late January, the NEC brought the vast WRC community together to kickstart proceedings. All the Drivers, Teams and more importantly Cars were presented to the masses, every move surrounded by a media scrum from every corner of the globe.
Once the covers had been pulled off the four be-winged stage rally rockets, the drivers became the attraction, with a litany of cameras and microphones following their every move around the show floor. I have idolised the WRC and its stars my entire life, so to be in the presence of some of history’s greatest drivers was an incredible opportunity, even more so when a chance stroll into the media centre to grab some refreshment coincided with the arrival of the various teams into the most informal setting imaginable. Chats and tea atop a selection of sofa’s, this was the human side that is often un-seen once the helmet goes on at stage start.
While the WRC was the largest draw, elsewhere the success of rallying was to be seen elsewhere dotted around the various halls. Now numbering over 250, it was no surprise to see quite a few M-Sport built Ford Fiesta R5’s in attendance, promoting everything from WRC2 campaigns for the factory built car, through to British Championship backing. Other R5 machines decorated the Rally GB stand, but it was the first public sighting of the VW Polo R5 that certainly drew the most admiration.
No mention of rallying at Autosport International could be made without mentioning the surprise none of us had an idea of expecting. To a certain generation of Irish Rallying fans, Eugene Donnelly is a name synonymous with success. A five-time Tarmac Champion, The Genie was our hero wrestling the glorious Toyota Corolla and later the Skoda Fabia WRC cars around the lanes in a way nobody else seemed able to match. Over the past 10 years, Donnelly has left the sport bar the odd run in a McGeehan MINI, but here, 20 feet from the new 2018 WRC cars, a beaming Eugene stood next to a white Hyundai i20 R5, and proclaimed his return. Nobody, save a very small handful, knew of the plan, but The Genie is on for a return, aiming to contest the ITRC over the next 3 years. Start dusting off the Jackets!!
While the Rally world was represented well from a cutting edge and modern standpoint, the crew from Den Motorsport made sure to remind us all that there is truly no more special a car to attack the stages then a properly built MK2 Ford Escort. The Northern Ireland based preparation company has become a go-to spot for anyone serious about building the Ultimate Escort, and the pair on display offered two differing ideas of Ultimate. Both red, making it harder to distinguish, the first car is the epitome of a Class 14 car that is the highest level available in Irish Rallying. Powered by a 2.5L Millington Engine, pushing out roughly about 350 BHP, these cars are built solely to deal with the unique demands of bumpy Irish Tar. The be-winged Escort is on another plain though. Designed to be used for Hillclimbing where the rules are a little more relaxed, the powerplant pumps 650 BHP to the rear wheels, while an abundance of aero add-ons aim to keep the car as planted as a wild beast may be!
Moving from my little rally world, the BTCC stand celebrated 60 years of men in Touring Cars crashing into each other at a variety of British Circuits. In terms of Circuit Racing, it is nigh-on impossible to beat decent Tin-Top racing thanks to the close action and sheer variety of cars involved in the action. To celebrate the anniversary, Touring Cars of yesteryear such as the Rover SD1 and Alfa Romeo 155 sat side-by-side with the 2018 crop such as Rob Austin Racing’s all new Alfa Romeo Mito.
As if having an official stand wasn’t enough for Touring Car junkies, dotted around the show were some other notable vehicles. Many may have missed it, but down in a rather cold corner, pretty much as far away from the main action and amongst an owner’s club gathering sat a proper legend, a BMW E36 SuperTourer. Complete in a beautiful Bastos livery from its attack on the 1995 Spa 24 Hours, this car is from an era of Touring Car racing unlike any we may ever see again. Production looking vehicles were turned into track weapons, costs were extortionate (think about £1m per car per year) and the action was incredible. The modern-day equivalent of this philosophy of Extreme Touring Cars is the DTM series in Germany. Rather typically for a show like ASI, a brace of cars sat in the middle of the floor, as if just left for us to stare at. No stand, no advertising and no ropes, just 2 stunning race cars sitting for us to come and look in awe at.
Drifting is the largest growing Motorsport in the last 10 years, and its only natural that the sport would find a home at a show like ASI. What may seem surprising to those looking in from the outside, is that much of Europe’s drift scene is spearheaded by a crew of Irish, led by Dave Egan. Starting with the IDC, and following on with the BDC and Drift Masters, the Zeigen crew have brought drifting to a level of professionalism it always strived for, and the plans in place for 2018 are testament to the bravery of Egan and others to push the envelope continually. We’ll discuss the 2018 season at another time, but if you want to draw attention to your stand, few cars sucked in the masses like Aidan Walsh’s V8 AE86 Corolla. This thing is barbaric on full throttle aimed at concrete walls, so to see it gleaming under show lighting is a testament to the build. Next to it, Baggsy’s air-ride S14 was there to represent the BDC, although it was Baggsy’s other toy than was catching more eyes. Built by Abbey Motorsport for a Monster Energy video, the Skyline GTR has a presence already, but the addition of large fenders, a V8 and a turbo the size of a small child is sure to draw attention.
In the live action arena, it fell on local drifting talent to truly put on a show for the masses. Coming off without the year of his life, James Deane was using ASI to debut the latest incarnation of his Falken Nissan Silvia S14, and he had company from one of his many Protégé’s, 14-year-old IDC Semi-Pro champion Conor Shanahan, debuting his all new Link Energy livery for 2018. Rubbing walls, spitting flames and hitting limiters, this was a chance for many new faces to experience exactly what many of us know is the spectacle of drifting!
To go into detail of everything on display at ASI would take too long, so I’ll leave with a collection of images. Anyone with even the slightest interest in race cars seriously needs to make the trip at least once, and with the NEC within a 5-minute walk from the Arrivals area at Birmingham airport, there’s no excuse not to make the hop across in 2019! There was another side to the show though, and don’t worry, I’ll be looking at the Performance Car Show in time. Expect wild paint, over fenders for days and strong opinion in that post!
A year is a long time, but in reflection, it is nothing more than a well-orchestrated collection of events, routine and emotion. We spend the clear majority of the year fixating on points in time, forthcoming proceedings and reflection on moments passed and only come the end do we pause and look at what has transpired. I’m exactly like everyone else, in so much as I’m always trying to get to more places, see more things and meet more cool people, all while fitting in a full-time job, a social life and seeing family and friends every so often. In the past 12 months though, I have pushed myself to follow my obsession, and experience more and more of the automotive world I only dreamed of before. Some of these experiences I shared with you on this site, with 27 published articles and countless pictures revolving around my rambles, but only now can I look back and reflect on how mad 2017 actually was, and share an insight into all I did and saw over the past 12 months, and take a chance myself to chronicle what was an action-packed period.
January 2017 was an exciting time in a number of ways. On the 1st day of the new year, FreshFix.ie went live after an absence of nearly four years’. I had grown up addicted to automotive content, and my regular teenage internet surfing was spent hopping from Bebo and MSN to Speedhunters, AutoLifers, PistonHeads and Freshfix. It was on those pages that I learned so much about the crazy depth of the automotive world, and hearing of an imminent relaunch, I chanced my arm at possibly getting an article or two published on the all new FF. On launch day, I got to see photos of mine published for the very first time, that of the Kouki Monster Nissan Silvia S14, shot in Oranmore in Galway.
Over the next few weekends, January was spent close to home, checking out some events that are a great way to ease into a new year. A local vintage run is something that happens in every corner of the country, pretty much all year round. While not everything on display may excite or interest me, it’s a great way to pass time in the company of some older car-nuts, who will happily impart wisdom and stories upon us youngers. January also got me to Watergrasshill for the first time, this time for a New Year’s sprint, bringing together all manner of goodies from race and rally, and I managed to take a look at Eric Calnan’s famous Peugeot 106. Speaking of rally though…..
Late January saw the first ‘big’ outing of the year, and the very first international coverage I brought to FreshFix, an abstract look at following Round 1 of the World Rally Championship, Monte Carlo. The Monte was an event long on my dream list, something I always wanted to experience. I am a gluten for the romance of icy French mountain roads, the Col de Turini and the allure of the fastest rally cars on Tarmac. This year was the one I vowed to take risks and welcome adventure, so with no more than a sleeping bag, a camera bag and a rucksack, I headed off.
Having overcome the trials and tribulations of my jaunt to the continent, next stop for me at least was anther opening round of a Rally series, this time Galway International kick-starting an all new Irish Tarmac season. Galway is pretty much always wet, muddy and cold. Would you believe that in 2017, it was exactly all those things!! The traditional launch pad to a year, Galway will be sadly missed from the 2018 calendar as the event simply didn’t have enough financial backing to run next year. This is a worrying trend in rallying, one not unique to Galway, and a lot of thinking is needed to try and figure out a sustainable future for the sport in Ireland.
Mid-February came with an icy chill in the air, but the second Sunday of the month brought my first visit to Cars & Coffee. The most informal of all car gatherings, C&C is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, a group of cars parked up while their owners drink coffee and talk about cars. Its such a great social side to the car scene, where everyone is there for the love of cars, and a great place to pass a few hours on a Sunday morning. Before the shortest month passed, I also got a chance to shoot one of the most unique cars seen in Ireland this past few years, a full-blown Kanjo EF Civic, fresh at that stage from the Far East.
March arrived in a whirlwind of rain and storms, and what better conditions to take a day out and drive to the top of a mountain. The Vee in Co. Waterford is a jewel of a piece of road, complete with hairpins, flowing bends and undulating straights. Away from civilisation, this ribbon of tarmac is a mecca for drivers, and the prospect of Tea at the Vee was enough to coax a few hardy souls out for an afternoon’s spin. The regular Cars & Coffee meet saw me for a second time as well, which wouldn’t be the case for much of the rest of the year!
Come St. Patricks weekend, the only place I ever intend to be found is in Clonakilty, home at that time to the West Cork Rally. The picturesque stretches of Cork coast surrounding the town come alive for the weekend to the sound and vibrations of the best the ITRC has to offer, as well as remaining the ultimate Clubman rally at the very same time. My West Cork was dominated by Time Keeping Duties, yet I still managed to take in the scenic treat that is the opening Ring stage. This would also sadly be the final time I would see the iconic Yellow Escort of Donal O’Brien flying past me stage side. Donal was known not only for his exploits on the rally stage, but for his involvement in local autocross and grass racing, and it was he who had run the New Years sprint in Watergrasshill. Donal sadly passed away in a traffic accident in May, yet his Ford Escort was there to guide his final journey having been rebuilt after a large off in Clon.
March ended for me with a visit to Ultimate Drift in WGH, seeing the month out with some local grassroots drifting, a part of the sport I have professed my love for on these very pages.
As another month got crossed off my calendar, April brought with it the single busiest period for me. Things kicked off with a few local shows, including Rob O’Riordan’s OldSkool Easter Show. Rob is one of those people that we need more of in the car scene, someone who just enjoys putting on show’s simply to enjoy what will turn up on the day. Originating from a Toyota show which has spiralled to an unprecedented scale, Rob now organises various indoor and outdoor gatherings for retro and JDM machinery, as well as a series of summer evening outings designed to simply bring car people together for the love of cars.
Mid-April saw the trip to Belfast, for what is to me the best Car show we have to offer on this Island, GTINI’s incredibly impressive Dubshed. Held over two days’ in the vast Eikon complex, the show has evolved from being a strictly German Stance show into a much more varied affair encompassing all that is cool in the Irish car scene. I speak of my affinity to event even though I am not a VAG guy, nor have intimate knowledge of the various rare and expensive parts on display, but as someone who enjoys being around well executed and imaginative builds.
On the floor of Dubshed I laid eyes on a car I knew so well, yet in a new guise. Seeing the Akai Livery for the first time on Hickey’s MK1 Golf, who would have known what lay in store for us both. Before April was out, I lay in a deserted paddock of Mondello Park shooting the car for arguably one of the biggest tuning magazines in the world, Performance VW. I suppose the phrase Go Big or Go Home comes to mind when I think that I would do a first print feature for such a title, but it’s made all that easier when it’s a car and owner combo that you know so well.
April ended in a flurry of sunshine and pouring rain, as Killarney’s Rally of The Lakes was ticked off the list for the year. I made a special effort this year to get to try new things, so destination of choice this year to take in the Saturday action was the stunning Healy Pass. A scouting trip a few days before the event in the mighty Puglet opened my eyes to this hidden jewel of a road, and come rally time it certainly did not disappoint. Driving home that evening, after the Killmickalogue stage, I vowed to never go to a rally ever again such was how soaked I had got. That mood lasted all of about 20 minutes!!
May started with another collaboration with a fellow automotive outlet. I met Maurice Malone by chance on a rally stage a few years ago, and copped pretty soon that he eclipsed everything I thought I ever knew about Car-Geekery. An encyclopaedic knowledge of all things rallying and a penchant for fast Renault Clio’s aside, Maurice is an absolutely gifted motoring journalist, one of those rare breeds who can leave you captivated in a moment through the careful use of words and phrasing, adding soo much oomph to a story that you think here’s a fella who must have been a whizz at creative writing in school. In 2016, we started a little project on the CompleteCar.ie site, called Irish Icons. Essentially an ode to some of the best cars ever built, here we were coming face to face with Godzilla in the Dublin mountains. The article is well worth a read here.
As the days grew longer and the sun began to peer into sight, I spent a wonderful afternoon chasing a string of retro cars through the mountains of Kerry as part of the Anne Casey Joy Run. A charity event, this has become a go-to event for me the past few years, not only for the variety of cars on show, but to take in the stunning scenery that seems to adorn that part of the world.
Of all the events I had the pleasure of getting to this year, the North West 200 is still hands down the single most exciting of all. Speed, raw and un-filtered speed, passing inches from your face. To hear a bike at full tilt is an experience, but to fell and witness the sight of a pack of the quickest racing Motorcycles on the roads whizzing by at about 200mph is next level. It’s guttural, as your body takes a pounding from the wave of noise and air rushing past while you’re head seems unable to swivel quick enough to take in the action. Anyone that hasn’t been is missing out!!
June started for me with another first, getting to an Irish Hillclimb event. I had always looked on from a distance at these Men and Women pitting themselves against some of the country’s most technical and steep stretches of road, but to hear and feel the buzz of a single seat race car bumping and scraping along a back road was something else. It felt raw and old-school, a reminder of days when regulations may not have been as lax and race cars on the road would have been less problematic. The Imokilly sprint would not be my only Hillclimb, nor my last encounter for the year with the Stone Motorsport Drift Taxi!!
The third weekend in June is a date so fixed in my calendar at this stage, it’s like my birthday and Christmas wrapped up in one. As the year races towards its mid-point, the rallying world descends upon Letterkenny, in anticipation of the Donegal International Rally. The last remaining 3-day rally in the country, and still boasting the largest entry of all events in the country, Donegal is an assault on the scenes. The whole town comes to life for a weekend, welcoming the influx of car hordes unlike possibly anywhere else in the country. Accommodation is booked out months in advance, petrol stations overflow with cars, clubs boast queues hundreds of metres long, yet in the middle of all that we get the best rally this country has to offer. The stages are legendary, the stories and history equally so. The ultimate weekend??
July came with an all new show on the scene, the much-anticipated debut affair from ILoveBass with Districts. With a glut of shows now emerging, mainly across Northern Ireland, it important to have a unique feature to draw the crowds, and having a collection of stunning shows cars under the roof of a former DIY store was definitely a reasonably strong USP!
As work commitments increased, outing across the rest of July were limited to say the least. I managed to take in yet another Ultimate Drift event in WGH, and come the end of the month I got a WhatsApp to say that a Dubshed 2018 build was about to begin, with Ronan, owner of the Akai Golf, had picked up an extremely rare Fire & Ice MK2 Golf, left in some cattle shed for nearly 10 years.
August began with a trip to Glenroe, not to meet Mily and Biddy, but to take in the Limerick Hillclimb, yet another round of the Irish Hillclimb championship, and my first time coming face to face with the infamous Simon McKinley MK2 Escort, one of the most famous race cars in the country.
The next few weeks were spent close to home, with Rob O’Riordan’s evening spins filling a mid-week gap before a trip to Fermoy for the VAGE annual show, my 5th straight year making this show. The weather chose not to play ball, but that didn’t discourage a large turnout of cars showcasing all the best of the German car scene.
To close off the month of August, I managed to take in opposing spectrums of the Motorbike racing world, the highest echelons of the Ulster GP through to the ultimate grassroots level Roberts Cove Hillclimb. The Ulster was spectacular as expected, but I came away somewhat less excited than I had at the North West. The racing was great, but I didn’t seem to enjoy the day, perhaps due to the unrivalled access available at the ‘200. Roberts Cove on the other hand was a refreshing chance to watch guys, some on road bikes, push themselves in a way many can’t do very often. I had not got to much motorbike racing before this year, but the plan is to correct that even more in 2018 with plenty of dates pencilled in already, and a trip to a small Island off the Irish coast!
September brought with it one of the most unique events I attended all year, the very first Festival of Drift held in the Hub in Kilkenny. Taking all the usual elements of a traditional drift event, throwing them out the window and bringing in Chris Forsberg and Ryan Tureck to play hosts for the weekend was a brave move, but I for one at least found it to be a fantastic concept, and one I sincerely hope returns bigger and better in 2018.
As the month rolled by, very little got done as I was kept busy in the office job that pays for all my travel and adventures, but a sunny Saturday afternoon was spent with some iconic Hot Hatches for another Irish Icons piece, while the final weekend of the month was spent yet again hanging off a ditch, this time for the Cork 20, final round of the Irish Tarmac Championship. It was a season of utter dominance from the Moffett Brothers Josh and Sam, but it is the latter who will back on 2017 as a historic treble winning campaign.
October brought with it plenty of rain and cold, so the natural environment to spend long periods of time in those conditions would be trackside in Mondello right? I was delighted when Rob King from Trackdays.ie offered the use of one of their rental Honda Civic track cars for a first blast around the hallowed International Loop, but it would be just my luck that it would develop into a full-blown monsoon!
On the way home that day, still drenched to the bone and camera gear dripping wet, I took the chance to call into Stone Motorsport for a look, and experience what may just be the most impressive workshop spaces anywhere in the country!
The last weekend in October is always the Cork Jazz festival. The city comes alive, the streets buzz and it’s a great time to go out and enjoy. I had the weekend free of all distractions, ready for some fun, until Thursday night happened. Listening to WRC Radio, a quick browse online and a small bit of coaxing had ferry tickets bought to go to Wales the following day for Rally GB. It was a great call in the end, as to experience a full-blown WRC car tearing through the wooded darkness is a real highlight of 2017!!
November was the year’s quietest, especially when it came to me photographing cars. At the start of the month, I caught up briefly with one of the nicest Subaru’s in Ireland at Cars & Coffee. Plans are most certainly in place for a more in-depth look into this Impreza, as well as a feature look at this incredibly striking AE86 Corolla found lurking in a shed while checking in on the progress of Hickey’s MK2 Golf, which is soon to become a home to a 3.2L V6 Audi powerplant.
The month finished in Watergrasshill for even more grass roots drifting with Ultimate Drift, in what would ultimately be the series’ final event. It was also here that I managed to take a quick look at a pair of impressive Nissan Silvias.
December has been naturally hectic with all that the festive season entails, yet it kicked off in flying form with the Killarney Historic Rally, an event I have professed to be right up there with Donegal in terms of my favourite Irish rallies. Taking all the excitement of old-school rallying, condense and make use of some of the most spectacular rally stages in the country and you have a sure-fire winner. As if that wasn’t enough, Killarney and District Motor Club would also provide my final outing of the year, their yearly Autocross held in Tralee. Autocross is a side of motorsport I have ignored for a long time, but spend a matter of minutes in the company of the mental Semog Buggies, and it’s incredibly addictive!
2017, as you may have copped at this stage, was quite an incredible year for me, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts bringing you my rambling thoughts throughout the year. This is a passion project, done not for money or recognition, but just as an expression of my true love of all things automotive. Before the new year rings in, I already have Autosport International, Rally Monte Carlo & Sweden, a number of feature shoots and some behind-the-scenes penciled in, and who knows what else I will manage to fit over the next 12 months. Thanks to each and every one of you for the support all year, and here’s to an even bigger 2018. Cian.
The first weekend of December tends to have a rather festive feel to it these days. With the shopping chaos now starting earlier and earlier each year, come the start of the twelfth month the decorations emerge at a rampant rate. The children beam with excitement as the idea of the Toy Show finally hitting the screen after what feels like ages waiting, and the parents can tuck into a cheeky bottle of wine as a kickstart to one of the most self-rewarding months of the year. It’s a time of warmth and comfort in theory, but I’m watching the Late Late on an ancient looking screen, perched above the door of a rustic pub somewhere in the mountainous wilds of Co. Kerry. To rally folk, Christmas comes at the start of December, and it’s in the form of the Killarney Historic!
Now, it’s fair to say that Killarney is a significant hot bed of the sport, as is Kerry as a whole, with four Tarmac events each year, but Killarney, May Bank Holiday Weekend and the Lakes is the biggest deal. Crowds flock south each year for one of the country’s largest rally events, often marking the start of the Summer season. To the more hardcore followers though, and particularly those who long for a return to the days of old, the first weekend of December is cleared of all distractions and calendar clashes.
The Historics grew from a brave idea by KDMC to run an event with a strictly enforced age limit set on car’s available to enter. Setting the bar at Pre-1985, the entry is rather expectably chock full of Rear Wheel Drive, often sideways rallying hero’s, and is designed as a throwback to a time gone by now only experienced through grainy YouTube video’s and historic archives. While the spectacle may look similar, the reality of the modern world means that we aren’t treated to the week-long feasts of action that was somewhat the norm when these cars were in their prime, but Killarney has condensed all the elements needed to feel spot on.
I made my way into Killarney on a crisp Friday afternoon, typical of a December day, yet basked in rather un-seasonable sunshine. Scrutiny was an obvious port of call, an opportunity to get up close and personal with the machinery destined to tackle the iconic Killarney stages early the next morning. I was barely in the gate as an iconic BMW M3 grumbled off into the night, but right into his spot rolled the car everyone was hoping to catch for the weekend, Rob Duggan and the iconic 2.5 Millington Escort of Colin Byrne.
As the sun began to set, it was an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the golden hour in the presence of some of my favourite rally cars of all time. It was a blissful mix of my photography and rallying perspectives, and a treat for the senses.
Home, thermal gear on and car packed, it was time to set off. Much of the Killarney Historic appeal is built on the iconic stages available right on the town’s doorstep, none more of a draw early on a crisp morning than Molls Gap. The twisty ribbon of tarmac rising out of the town boundaries towards the mountains is a glorious place to watch rally cars in full flow, but I felt I wanted something different this year. As the droves plotted their way for Ladies View and the like, I struck for the ‘Other Gap’, and possibly Irelands most stunning stretches of tarmac.
High in the mountains, quietness reigns. Darkness is experienced on a level almost unmatched, with few if any signs of life dotted on the landscape. A small, rural bar, surrounded on all sides but foreboding peaks, is a natural hub of a remote community. Glencar feels like it’s a million miles from anywhere, and is as ruggedly stunning because of its surrounding. In the dead of night, my drive feels eerie and lonely. 90 minutes I drive down lanes after lane, not crossing paths with another soul. A phone screen, and its warm glow, keeps me company. Guidance is necessary in these conditions, and my destination is Ballaghbeama Gap.
Situated right in the foothills of Carrantuohill, Ballaghbeama is an anomaly. As roads go, it seems to serve very little purpose. Barely more than a car wide for the most part, the smooth tarmac snakes its way through vast expanses of true wilderness. To both sides, the eye casts over desolate yet beautiful scenery. Its absolute pinnacle is in the tight and twisty section, barely more than 2 or 3km long, in the middle that weaves through sheer rock faces. It has all the feel of the iconic twisting roads of Rally Monte Carlo or Corsica, and the second I drove it myself, I knew I had to see, feel and experience the spectacle of a rally passing through. I could gush about Ballaghbeama for hours, and rightfully you should add it to the roads worthy of a drive when you get a chance!
Reversed into a gap between a rock face and a waterfall, barely a few metres from the racing line, I bedded down for the night, yet again checking into Hotel de Peugeot to bring you all some pictures of Rally Cars. The crackle of a Mk 2 Escort road car was my wake-up call, and it set the tone. I couldn’t tell you about who was quick, who was leading or who was having troubles, as I had been off the mobile grid for about 12 hours up in the mountains, but I could tell you how glorious a sound a BDA engine makes as it reverberates around its surroundings. It didn’t matter a jot though, as I had a venerable playground to work with, working as many angles as possible. I climbed hills, hung off rocks, fell into streams and ploughed through bogs, yet loved every minute. The scenery wasn’t half bad either.
Come the end of the day, as the sun set, it would be the Duggan’s, Rob and Tara, who would taste the victory, leading from the off in a dominant display. More impressive was the utter domination of Denis Moynihan and Ger Conway in their MK1 Escort, taking an impressive win in the ‘more historic’ section of the rally. See I forgot to mention that didn’t I, that the single best part of Killarney Historics is that it plays host to a specific rally within, for cars which not only elicit the sight of rallying of old, but adhere to strict rules making them as close as possible in spec and performance of the glory days. While the Modifieds are something we are more accustom to with screaming Millington’s and the raucous bang of Sequential gearboxes, the historic section is the preserve of proper RS1800 Escort, straight cut Gears and all that is truly right in the world!