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A Welsh WRC Adventure

A Welsh WRC Adventure

Darkness and noise! Utter, total, smothering darkness. Pure blackness the like of which I’d never imagined before. Torch light barely pierced its gloom, hiding everything around. A glimmer of misty rain ran against my face, but without being able to see it before my eyes, I couldn’t tell if it was real. A dense forest atop a steep valley, daylight had been beaten into submission. And there was noise. Not natural woodland sounds like the creak of branches underfoot or moving wildlife, but a demonic roar that echoed through the tree’s. Minutes passed at will as the cacophony of pure mechanical aggression grew louder. Turbo charged chirps and flutters briefly interjected, but this was flat out, continuous movement, approaching at what seemed like an un-natural rate. Then we entered ‘the light’.

To experience a full-blown World Rally Car has, since their inception in the late 90’s, always been a special occasion. The ultimate machine designed to take on a truly staggering variety of terrains as quickly as possible, WRC cars are the pinnacle of production based motor-racing. In Ireland, we embraced the breed, and soon became home to a plethora of these rallying monsters, and many events boasted WRC entries numbering almost 20 at the pinnacle of the Celtic Tigre. While we have fallen from those heady heights, many still remain on Irish soil and often compete with notable success. For all my years growing up watching Donnelly, Nesbitt, Boyle et al wrestle these machines around narrow lanes, I’d never experienced the full-blown experience of a works car driven by the best in the business. 2017 has been the catalyst I needed though.

In January this year, I bit the bullet and headed for the snowy mountains of southern France for Rallye Monte Carlo. I gushed at the time of the spectacle, I made mental plans to get to place like Poland or Finland and I came away spell bound. As the season passed, I fell into a malaise. I was more comfortable watching the action on TV, or dates simply clashed, and thus I was pretty resigned to my sole WRC adventure for the year. Wales, the traditional curtain call to the season, had often flirted with my attention, but so did its many downsides. Watching footage year after year, all that came off the screen was cold, rain and a lot of mud. This year though, a calendar change had brought the rally earlier, the weather prospects were better and it fell on a long weekend. No brainer, right? Well work got in the way….or so it seemed!

About a week before the rally was to kick off, changes in work lifted a holiday ban in place for that time of year. Rally GB entered my head, but I dismissed it. The comfort argument reared its head, as did a number of local events on the same weekend, and so I cooled my jets and buckled up for the weekend. But I made a vital mistake. Thursday evening, just as the crews were heading off for Stage 1 of the event, I had a sneaky look at ferry prices. Like an addict on the scrounge, I said I’d let the expensive price warn me off…..but it didn’t. At about a days’ notice, I was heading for the forests for another date with the World Rally Championship.

The following day(s) was one of the oddest/draining/exciting days of my life. 44 hours of no sleep, 600 miles driving, a red-eye ferry, 6 cans of Red Bull, a stale Croissant, 7 miles of walking, 3 changes of socks and a huge, un-nerving smile. That’s what it takes to be a rally freak!!

Back tracking slightly though, Friday was a blur. The working day became an empty nothingness, all productivity side-lined with excitement for the weekend. The two-hour drive home was pretty much the same, although the thought process was slightly interjected with rational thoughts of what all to take. Car thoroughly packed, a short hop to Dublin Port and across the Irish sea saw me landed in Wales at 5.30am. I should have slept, taken rest or the like, but there was a forest to get to, and barely 2 hours later, the faithful daily driver touched gravel for the first time. Rain gear engaged, cameras locked and loaded and a high energy liquid-breakfast, the madness began.

Before the start of this season, much had been made of the new direction taken by the championship organisers with regards vehicle regulations. The fan’s wanted more aero, more noise and more speed. What the FIA did though, rather oddly, was grant all those wishes. The new cars are truly mental, have more wings than a Boeing and go like stink. It’s been a spectacular year with 7 different drivers taking wins, and every manufacturing tasting victory champagne. The fans have backed the new breed as well, and the queues to get to the stages is testament to the success that 2017 has been. Arriving 3 hours before a rally stage in Ireland, the course would still be open public road for at least 90 more minutes, yet here I was parking up 3 miles away on an approach road littered with cars and vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

I have mentioned it several times throughout the year of the variety of cool road-going metal you find following rallying. People that spend their weekends off standing in grass ditches are of course exactly the type of people who would see no issue driving their often-pristine vehicles into some pretty rough terrain. As the early morning fog lifts, both from my head and the surrounding mountains, I pass a pair using a hefty Group A lamp pod affixed to a Lancia Delta Intagrale as a tea tray, while others emerge from the rather opulent, and uber-low accommodation afforded in the back of a Volvo 850R. The pair of Daihatsu 4-Trac’s look at home here, more so than poor Peugeot 306 Rallye, named more in recognition of flowing French tarmac than rutted Welsh tracks. Then though, there are car owning hero’s that take cool to new levels. The retro car bubble has seen the price of Mitsubishi Lancer Tommi Mac’s absolutely skyrocket, yet here in the midst of a muddy forest I found one of the possibly cleanest I’ve ever witnessed. For all you true JDM nerds, the car arrived in the UK in recent years…….as a Grade 4.5!!

The organisation side of an event as large as Rally GB is one I’ve never experienced before in the rallying world. An excellently detailed rally guide provided stage maps, locations and viewing point information making the route planning incredibly easy. Arriving to the stage, large areas were designed to cater for the influx of spectators that descended over the weekend. Perched in place on Gartheineog, I had actually thought I was on a totally different stage but there’s the tiredness, it was time to wait. Bang on 9.40am though, the first shots of anti-lag rung out, and a sideways Citroen came into view, emerging sideways from around a stack of logs. A chase helicopter hovered overhead, adding to the atmosphere. Disappearing up a long fast right up a hill, this was it!

As the order is run in reverse on days 2 and 3 of a WRC event, the speed is always gradually building. While Khalid al-Quasimi may have looked quick, more and more passing cars allayed that thought. Bunches of fans awaited their respective hero’s, with a plethora of international flags being waved with vigour as they blasted past. The Tanak fan-club, decked in Estonian garb, made their presence felt, as did the many Belgian and French followers of Neuville and Ogier. A small smattering of Irish fans made sure their support for Kris Meeke and Craig Breen was acknowledged, but the home fans were out in force for one man in particular.

North Wales is a traditional hot-bed of rallying talent, with the famous sons of the region having names that read off with distinction. Dai Llewellyn, Phil Collins, Phil Mills and Gwyndaf Evans have enough titles and tall tales to fill a decent sized book, but the latest hero in the making is Gwyndaf’s son Elfyn. Hailing from Dolgellau, surrounded by rallying mecca’s like Sweet Lamb and Myherin, it wasn’t much of a leap to see him get behind the wheel of a rally car. A quick rise through the ranks had the young Welsh man becoming a full-blown WRC driver with M-Sport in 2015, perhaps too soon in most regards. Struggling to find his feet, a step back to WRC2 and the British Championship in 2016 was a re-invigoration, and this year he partnered with tyre brand DMack to drive the 3rd M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC. A string of good results had the public interest peaked, but the Friday of Rally GB had seen utter domination. 6 fastest stage times saw the Welshman at the top of the leader board, and the fans came out in droves. In one of the most dominant drives I can remember, Elfyn Evans led from Stage 2 right through to the finish, cheered on by nearly 100,000 home fans relishing in seeing not only Elfyn’s first win, but to witness he and Dan Barritt becoming the first ever Welsh crew to win their home World Championship event. It was a special weekend all round for M-Sport, with them winning the Constructor championship, and Ogier becoming the 1st Ford driving Champion since 1981.

As the car’s continued to pass, I began to move around in search of angles. It’s something I do so instinctively, and I’m sure I’ve annoyed plenty of marshals and officials in the process, but I can’t live with the thought of having albums chock of the same picture repeated ad-nauseum. Rallying, as a motorsport, is one of the most difficult to photograph I believe, as it’s a case of having one-shot to get the picture. The car is often in sight for only a handful of seconds, and the threat of that car going off the road and not being seen again for the day is a very real prospect. The room to try anything other than straight up shooting is often very small, but the freedom of not being under commercial pressure to get shots allows the chance to try things out. In a single spectator viewing pen, I was able to make at least 9 different photo views, but maybe that’s just my lack of fear for the welfare of my budget gear that I place it in plenty of mad places.

After the main body of WRC cars had passed, the next cohort was that of the WRC2 runners. Made up exclusively of R5 cars, this is a championship and level utterly dominated by the Skoda Fabia R5, although the Ford Fiesta R5 is not soft competition. Designed as a hot bed for developing talent, the GB entry was very much a who’s-who of future rallying stars that perhaps may only be known to the truly hardcore as of yet. The likes of Teemu Sunninen, Eric Camili, Ola-Christian Veiby and Tom Cave have future’s ahead of them if opportunity allows, yet this year has been a case of trying to catch Pontus Tidemand. The Swede, and his Skoda, have been the class of the WRC2 season and have proved almost untouchable across the year. An interesting entry though in Wales was a young man by the name of Kalle Rovanpera. Barely 17 years of age, this fella is special. He emerged onto the radars about 9 years ago with a clip of him sliding a Toyota Starlet around a finish lake. Those counting on your fingers, this guy was in Rally cars since the age of 8, and has been on a meteoric rise this past number of years. When you father is a WRC event winner and all-round cult hero Harri Rovanpera, I guess it’s a case like the Evans of talent running in the genes.

Behind those again was the battle for R2 victory, the first major stepping stone into World Rallying. Yet again, it’s the venerable M-Sport and Ford Fiesta package that is a true benchmark, although in Wales the only sole Works car ran wild. Chris Ingram and the Opel Adam R2 have been a formidable pair in 2017, pretty much sweeping the boards in the European Rally Championship. In Wales, the diminutive Adam romped home with over 12 minutes to spare over the opposition. From an Irish viewpoint, both Will Creighton and Marty Gallagher put in some great times all weekend, but a succession of issues hindered both their runs. With the limited opportunities to experience Gravel in Ireland, it’s a huge confidence to both to see the signs to be able to push on loose surface.

As the final few cars passed through the second running of the stage, it was time to make shapes for the famed Welsh night stages. An hour of walking, a swift removal of mud soaked clothing and a 40-minute blast later, I had a chance to relax. Sleep? Nah, I had the initial batch of photos to sort through, phone to charge and a head torch to check for signs of life. Meeting a few friends from home, as dusk descended we strolled into the woods. What happened next was, to me at least, one of the single greatest car related things I’ve ever experienced.

As I said at the top, when the dark came in, it took hold. Being from a City, I have a rather sheltered understanding of the true darkness of night, but armed with head torches, reflective coats and lamps, navigation was hard. A blisteringly fast section at the bottom of a valley was picked from the last ebbs of daylight, and the territory was marked with a succession of Irish flags planted in the ground. Listening attentively, the first whispers of a 1.6L WRC engine note rung out through the trees. I had grown up watch countless videos of rally days of yore, encapsulated by the timeless mystique of engine notes roaring through the trees of a Welsh forest at night. All those cliché’ d tales of hoards of bobble hatted nutters standing in the rain to see Roger Clark in a sideways Escort or Walter Rohrl in a snarling Audi raced through my head as I finally felt a part of the mystiques. I may have also been wearing a bobble hat!

The nature of the stage meant that that the cars were audible on full chat for about 90 seconds before coming into sight, although saying into sight is being rather kind. A flash of white light would emerge to our left around a rising right hander, broadside in the road owing to the slippy condition. Gear’s number three, four and five would be dispatched with before reaching us, each accompanied with a distinctive bang. Without the faintest dab of brakes, guided by a blinding array of lights, the cars tore past at almost maximum velocity, sparks and exhaust flames as well as rocks fired in the direction of our vantage point. This was as raw a sensation of speed as I have ever experienced, a true case of maximum attack. Picking out the identity of the crews, never mind the car, was almost impossible in the darkness, with only driving style and car characteristics often being the only telling differences. Passing us, we had opportunity to stop, let out a number of expletives, and watch the show go on. The beaming lights snaked up the trail to our right before hitting the packed upper hairpin as the tree line became like a strobe light as countless camera flashes went off. Flares and fireworks filled the sky, and I felt ecstatic. It may have been the lack of sleep!

By 1am, I had set up camp for the night. Parked on the side of another forest track, bed for the night was a sleeping bag in the back of a Peugeot 207 as per my WRC norm. Any prospect of an early night was dashed by the arrival of more friends from Cork, and the prospect of a few beers pushed me through hours 43 and 44 of waking. The next morning, after all 4 hours of cold, cramped sleep, the stages were beckoning again. By that evening, I was no more than a shell. Although the stages and action were spectacular, I had enough. Plenty of pictures and lifelong memories in the bag, it was time to finally pull on the last change of clean clothes, pack up the car and make shapes for the boat home. Someday I might take a notion to go and follow the WRC in comfort, or even god forbid I might actually fully plan out attending an event, but for now I still adore the sense of adventure that comes with these types of escapades. As a final treat to myself, the route from Brenig to Holyhead encompasses much of the vaulted Evo Triangle, a mecca for proper petrolhead geeks like myself reared on the excellent publication. Mile after mile of flowing driving nirvana, snaking ribbons of tarmac that proved the final reason to grin after a rather epic weekend. So, Monte next year eh…….

 

Diaries of a Trackday Novice

Diaries of a Trackday Novice

Mondello Park will always maintain an incredibly special place in the car scene on the Island of Ireland. Being our sole dedicated racing circuit capable of holding international level events, it truly is a mecca for all manner of truly exciting and different motorsports pursuits. To each of us that have either entered through the gates or wanted to at some point, the legend of Mondello holds various states. Some reminisce of the day a young Ayrton Senna battled for Leinster Trophy victory, others remember the iconic roar of the Jordan F1 car as it wowed the crowds in the 90’s. The sideways escapades of James Deane have left visual clues on the tarmac, while the grass and ditches are littered with remnants of long forgotten duels and close battles. I’ve stood on the grassy bank around Turn One before taking in the action, and had my first major Photoshoot, that of Ronan’s MK1 Golf, in the pitlane, yet in all that time, I’d never got around to getting on track myself.

We’ve covered virtual reality Sim racing here on the site before, and we concluded that as a platform, the advances in technology allow us to experience driving circuits all over the world at a degree of realism never before imaginable. During the year I spent living in Austria, while not at Worthersee car show or studying, I passed hours dialling in lap after lap of Mondello on RFactor, picking up the racing line, braking points and road camber as much as possible in a virtual way. When Rob King at Trackdays.ie got in contact and offered the opportunity to experience it for real though, it definitely didn’t take long for me to send back an enthusiastic YES!

Launched at the start of this year, Trackdays.ie is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, in so much as it allows anyone at all the opportunity to come out and have a blast on the only International Circuit that we have. It truly is a case of ‘Run what ya brung’, but the emphasis is placed firmly on enjoyment rather than allowing competitiveness to take hold. I’ve long thought about doing a Track Day, but I just never felt comfortable in the idea of spending a day pounding around a track, while always thinking about the prospect of having a 3 hour drive home afterwards.

It’s an obvious issue, as not all of us have either the facilities or the resources to own a dedicated track car, nor transport it long distances to Mondello. However, Trackdays have this box ticked off in the shape of their fleet of EK Honda Civics’ and the well thought out Arrive and Drive package’s available. These track prepped cars are built for this environment, come kitted out with all manner of safety equipment and the packages can be tailored to include everything from Helmet hire through to professional driver tuition. If you have ever wanted to test the water when it comes to circuit driving, I’d struggle to think of a better way to do it. Before I was to take to the track though, I thought it wise to check out those that I’d be sharing the circuit with (or those that I was about to hold up!!)

Variety plays a massive role here, with people coming to Mondello with different purposes for their day. To some, the day allowed the opportunity to try out new components or setup’s, such as the wild 400BHP Turbo’d Honda Integra using the time to try out a new sequential gearbox, whereas some like like Paddy was simply out getting to grips with his newly purchased Beams-engined AE86 Corolla which is an RYO demo car from Japan.

As the rain begin to drizzle, still grand weather for a track debut, I took refuge in another pit garage, this housing Ken’s rather mental MK race car. Built originally to compete in the Irish Hillclimb championship, every inch of the vehicle screamed cool! Under the Lotus 7-esque bonnet lay the roaring heart from a Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle, sending power through a sequential box to the rear wheels. What little bodywork on show was mainly carbon fibre, while an adornment of wings front and back were surely there to stop it taking flight once on full throttle.

A few of my Rally brethren came out to play, but it soon became apparent that a single hot-hatch is the current budget King of the track scene. The RenaultSport Clio, in either 172 or later 182 form, is a formidable package, considering it rev happy engine up-front mated to one of the best handling chassis of all time. It was an enthusiasts dream, but surprisingly the values have dwindled. A decent example is now in the €2-3k range, meaning that these cars are incredibly attainable and as such they are a perfect affordable track toy. I am incredibly fond of these little cars, and I would very happily provide a home to a French Racing Blue 182 should I get the chance, as I still believe it to be one of the greatest OEM colours of all time. (Alongside Polestar Blue and VW’s Cornflour Blue, I may have a certain love for one particular vehicle colour!)

After a detailed briefing though, things got real. And I mean very real, and very very wet. As the track details were read out, that light drizzle had turned into a monsoon. The power flickered on and off, track hoardings creaked, and my stomach grew un-easy. Un-perturbed, I put on my helmet and strapped in alongside Rob for my first spin around Mondello. It only struck me once seated that I had never sat in a Civic before, but that thought quickly vanished as we left pit lane and opened the throttle for the first time. I couldn’t see the apex of Turn One, nor Two, Three or Four. Listening to Rob’s detailed instruction over the roar of a screaming Honda, I had to visualise the corner’s that definitely didn’t all look like pools of water on RFactor.

After a few sighting laps, I finally got behind the wheel. To say I was excited would be putting things mildly, but the apprehension of the lack of visibility and my knowledge of how valuable some other car’s on track were definitely reared its head. The wipers flapped around at full whack, the heater howled as it fought to keep the screen clear and a mist whistled in through a gap in the window, but I didn’t give a damn. Strapped into that little Honda, I felt like Tom Chilton wheeling his own BTCC Civic down the same pitlane with eyes fixed firmly on the run down to Mobil 1.

The following 15 minutes felt like a blur, and had I taken any onboard footage it too possibly would have simply been a blur, as the rain fell at a rate I had never experienced. Visibility, especially in traffic, was almost null, with braking points now being remembered by visual clues off track that were slightly easier to spot. Set the world alight I most certainly did not, constantly shifting down to early while sparing the car of its high red-line abuse when on power. Coming out of the slow bends, the front wheels squabbled for grip that often wasn’t there leaving to plenty of throttle coaxing to maintain the desired line. All around, others slid in all manner of directions as they battled the conditions, and then my wiper fell off. With visibility now truly gone, it was a slow limp back to the pits. A sorry end, yet I felt elated. I had a blast, no matter the time scale, and certainly felt an urge to get out again in a car of my own at some stage!

With that high came the crushing realisation that I had to get out and shoot in that monsoon that I’d just battled through. Wet Gear on, I took to the various expanses of the Mondello complex to take in the sights and sounds of a track day, yet sensibly enough I took shelter in the grandstand to begin with, even if it evidently has a roof like a sieve! From here, you got a sense of speed and commitment on track as well as the variety. Where else would you find a 1.25 MK4 Fiesta going door to door with a purpose built Ginetta race car?

Heading back in the downpour, the slow Turn Four, at the back of the paddock, was a magnet for opportunities to see those coping best with the conditions. I had seen another Civic almost fire off backwards while I was on track, so I understood just how treacherous the conditions were, as the BMW driver soon found out.

Heading back down towards the pitlane, it was eye-opening just how and open and approachable everyone you met was. Each person had a passion for their car, and would happily stand around and talk shite about all manner of car-related things. In an age when online hatred is rampant in the car scene, this was refreshing. Talking about doing a Diesel swap into an RX-7 while an R33 Skyline pop’s and bangs past the damp wall your leaning against is a strange and surreal experience, and one that I utterly adore.

 

As the poor camera began to take a beating from the weather, I sneaked into a garage to do a dry lens swap. Alas, I hadn’t even that done when Darren O’Hara had me coaxed into the passenger seat of his Toyota MR-2. Cue 10 minutes of utter hooliganism as the somewhat under-powered sportscar danced around Mondello, perfectly controlled on the edge of grip and wanting to kill us all.

Thoroughly soaked through, and with the morning session done, I packed up and headed home, although I did manage to stop at Stone Motorsport on the way home. Trackdays.ie offer, I believe, some of the best value fun you can have in a car on this Island, where you can truly push the limits without fear of ending up in a cell. At €100 for a half day or €165 for a full day, it’s value that few if any can match. So, if you’re at nothing on November 17th, take the plunge and sign up now. I guarantee you’ll come away with a huge grin on your face. Massive thanks again to Rob and all the crew at Trackdays.ie, a sister site of us here on Freshfix. The run several track day events throughout the year, and all info can be found on their site www.trackdays.ie.

Rolling into Stone Motorsport

Rolling into Stone Motorsport

We, as people, naturally ponder the notion of ‘What If?’ on a daily basis. Its a natural instinct to imagine the endless possibilities available to us through means or good fortune. How many time today alone have you thought what you would splurge significant financial winnings on should you ever strike lucky?? Car forums and online chats are littered with discussion on what car would you put in the garage first should a lottery windfall come your way, and I’m just the same as everyone else in that regard. But for more hardened car geeks, the what if fantasies grow larger. What would the dream car look like, what colour would you go for and where would you keep it?? See, that’s real addiction territory when you have notions of a dream garage to keep your dream car, but some people have already ticked off the ultimate garage section. Welcome to Stone Motorsport!

In keeping with all good Irish motoring stories, to find the rewards you first have to battle against your natural instincts in the search. I’d seen plenty of photo’s online of this legendary facility, yet here I was less than a few hundred yards from our country’s busiest Motorway and Google Maps was guiding me down a dark, tight tree-lined lane with cul-de-sac warnings. I had expected Stone Motorsport to exist in a modern Industrial Park on the outskirts of a growing slice of modern suburbia, but here all that lay between me and a slice of motoring heaven was about a mile of distinctly Irish back road.

To understand the drive to become the best, its worth remembering the history behind the crew in Stone’s. The brother’s rose to predominance in the Irish track scene in the mid-00’s when they began to dominate the time-attack and racing landscape in their EP-3 Honda Civic. Brendan Stone then turned his hand to drifting, and in the process became an Irish Champion in the MG-Crash Repair Nissan S15, all the while honing the skills needed to develop a home-grown motorsport preparation company.

The first thing that hit’s you on arrival is the sheer scale of the premises. The imposing grey exterior grows in all directions, housing all manner of necessary area’s to provide true one-stop-shop status for all your wildest car build idea’s. Walking through the main door though, it’s to the showroom to the right that your eye is immediately drawn.

Emulating those of the finest classic car dealers in the world, the showroom is a triumph of style and lighting, serving as the perfect compliment to the metal inside. I count nine cars, some in bare metal, some mid-build and some finished perfectly. Up close, the attention to detail and craftsmanship is stunning. I could spend hours soaking in the details on the Mini Cooper, early Beetle or pair of 911’s on their own, but in close vicinity the scene is almost overwhelming.

In the corner, a hulking 1960’s Ford Mustang sits in primer, a bare shell destined for a full scale restoration to leave it on a par with it’s shinier room mates.

From here though, my rally geek instincts kick in. I have a huge affinity for vehicles carrying the Ford Escort moniker, and this green car was utterly stunning. Even in a partially built state, it’s muscular stance commanded utmost attention. A beefy set of 15 inch Superlites hid a frighteningly aggressive brake setup, while the gusseted roll cage was just another example of the fabrication skills available in house. What will reside under the bonnet is a mystery, but with the history Stone’s have for experimentation, your guess is as good as mine!

And then there was the ‘other’ Escort. In a very bare state here lies a true piece of motorsport history, and a very unknown one at that. When Ford developed the MK3 Escort in the early 1980’s, they moved with the times and converted their platform to Front-Wheel-Drive. While this makes sense in the real world of sensibility and economy, it doesn’t have much mass in the world of Rallying. At the same time that the Ford works team in Boreham worked on tweaking the MK3 into a RWD Group B monster with the RS1700T project, their fabrication partner Gartrac produced a small number of RWD converted MK3’s for rallying, and the Escort G3 was born. As an interesting side, the earliest cars were run by Sydney Meeke Preperation, with Sydney’s son Kris being the current WRC superstar! While many Escorts were later converted, seeing an original Gartrac car is a rare treat.

While one race car can peak the interest of a certain crew, the other, more complete, race car in the room is known to a lot more people. When you have your dream garage built and all the skills to build the best possible vehicles, it’s only fitting to have a shop Demo-Car, and they don’t come more extreme than the Drift Taxi! Built from a Lexus GS300, the car makes do with a 2JZ engine making close to 600BHP while turbo’s pop and bang on full chat. A unique vehicle with bucket seats and harnesses for four, the car has also this year crossed the divide and not only competed in the IDC, but now also competes in the Irish Hillclimb championship, which we mentioned earlier this year.

The reason I called into Stone’s was due to the open house they had put on for the AutoStadt.ie Rolling Road event. Having an on-site four wheel dyno is a huge weapon in the arsenal, and the perfect setting to allow the masses to come and not only fettle highly strung race cars but to prove the worth of their road cars on days like this. AutoStadt is Irelands leading German car forum, which explained the high proliferation of Volkswagen and Audi fare on display, both on the rollers and outside. Results varied, people bragged and everyone seemed in good spirits, while masking the now in-built desire to get their cars even quicker and more powerful!

Around the workshop area, 3 full size booths were occupied by even more race cars. The Toyota Soarer ran a similar engine set-up to the Taxi and looked set-up for sideways action, while the E30 next to it, belonging to a well known member of the Hillclimb family, housed the beating heart of an M5 under the hood.

In the distance, it felt like the craziest goodies were out of reach our eyes. A beautifully restored RS500 Ford Sierra lay as the bouncer, the single most fitting car to exude aggression and control stopping any wandering minds from seeing what lay beyond. So, if ever you feel like having that what if moment of contemplation, always remember that there are possibilities out there. The Stone Motorsport crew have taken the idea of creating the perfect garage, and through sheer determination they now call home one of the countries finest automotive facilities.

 

A Cork Rally in 20 Pics

A Cork Rally in 20 Pics

Ireland in late September is a funny place. The sense of closure and conclusion equal the sense of excitement. A time, if ever there was one, to look back on the year to date, lament the loss of Summer that must have passed in a blink, reminisce of sporting endeavors and begin making lists. Lists of things needing work in the off-season, lists of highlights and more importantly, finalize a list of champions. The Cork ’20 has become the final swansong of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship for quite some time now, and it’s spot in the calendar is a bookend for many. After one final blast around some Cork scenery, countless cars will return to garages and sheds and begin prepping for next year. Drivers will chase funding and the usual planning of next years programme can begin. As for a list of Champions, this year has been easy!!

Utter domination is something that is mentioned in sporting senses on a regular basis, but Sam Moffett, Karl Atkinson and their Combilift Fiesta R5 have been the embodiment of the term in 2017. They finish the year having done the Triple Crown of Irish Rallying, winning the ITRC, the National and the Forestry Championships. They’ve done so by not only winning 9 events this year, including Killarney’s Rally of the Lakes, but consistently bringing the car home in point scoring positions. Cork has suffered at times with the championship being sown up beforehand, with many skipping the rally. But not Sam. Needing to start SS1 to become champion, the Monaghan driver decided to put on a rallying show.

But, to get to the top, you need to be pushed by the best. Hot on Sam’s heels all year have been Ali Fisher and his own brother Josh, both in similar R5 Fiesta’s. It was this trio who set the early pace, but Fisher would succumb to mechanical issues, something that ultimately ended his championship hopes on the previous round. As for the Moffetts, championship firmly in hand, they went nuts. Each stunning stage time stirred a reaction in the other. Over 15 stages, the pair were separated by no more than a handful of seconds yet remained minutes ahead of anyone else. In the end, Josh ran out of luck on the final test giving Sam to perfect send off to the 2017 season.

Behind them, the regular ITRC runners were joined by two quick local crews, with Kevin Kelliher being the sole WRC entrant in the S14 Impreza, while Owen Murphy made a rare apearance in the screaming S2000 Fabia.

In the National, bar a major crash in Donegal, the AE86 Corolla of Kevin Eves has been the pace setter all year, but as with Moffett, the northern crew simply had to cross the start line to become Champions. Cross it they did, but it wouldn’t have been worth the trip to not put on a show. The Baby Blue Toyata was sideways everywhere, throttle pinned as tyres scrabbled for grip in the tricky conditions. As with Moffett, Eves rounded off a stellar 2017 by adding a Cork ’20 victory to the mantle piece.

In the Juniors, FreshFix favourite Eric Calnan had No. 1 on the door of the Silver 106, but gearbox issues on Saturday dropped him out of the running. Michael Black was flying in the mean looking Toyota Starlet, but come the end of the last stage, the Toyota was nowhere to be seen handing both the event victory and championship crown to Jenna McCann in the R2 Fiesta!!

The conditions, to put it mildly, were awful on Saturday. Roads, already primitive and secondary in nature, became mud filled messes as a field of rally cars attacked them in the pouring rain. It was only natural that the conditions would catch out the un-wary, and while it resulted in stage cancellations and delays, safety is the most important element of our sport. The Escort below is a prime example of the conditions causing wreck. A low speed, off camber right hander became an aquaplaning nuisance, with tyres hitting water before tar and spearing into the scenery. Thankfully, they hit a soft part of ditch, and the crew contuinued!!

 

So while the ITRC season may be finished, rallying is not over for 2017. There are still plenty of smaller regional events pencelled in for the next few months, and then December technically see’s the ITRC start again, for Historic crew’s at least, in Killarney. As for me, well I’m off to invest in proper rain gear!!

Eat, Drift, Dance, Repeat

Eat, Drift, Dance, Repeat

So, last weekend, you likely heard that there was a festival going on. Everyone there was having a ball and filling social media, while all those not there had a serious dose of FOMO, although at times there would would have been a willing trade off when the rain hit on Saturday. All around, people were having a ball, music rained in from all directions, artistic decorations and niche stalls lined the periphery while much dancing and plenty of drinking added to the whole vibe. Heck, I even saw a guy with an actual Picnic basket…….next to his Drift car. You see, last weekend, while there was a singsong in a field happening in Laois, down the road in Kilkenny, Ireland was treated to it’s most unique motorsport event, The Festival of Drift!!

Car life, in general, is a very social identity. People build cars, or race them, and then stand around talking to the like minded about exactly what they’ve created or done. Most events, people come, magic happens, discussion is had and everyone goes home. Come 6pm, most of the action is confined to video clips and online chat. But why not try something different, have a party, crash for a few hours in a tent and keep the good times rolling straight away the next morning. That’s what the FOD was about, having a good time off the back of two days of interesting track time and all manner of fun and frolics.

A weekend of drifting is not a new concept, as people might know from events like the Matsuri’s or AwosomeFest, but here in Ireland this was a first. Promising something never before seen, a quirky competitive element, big-name stars and large prizes ensured that the driver entry quickly filled up, but what struck me from the moment I arrived was the stunning mix of true grass-roots guys right through to cutting edge Pro drivers, all going to do battle on an even keel competing for the same goal. I’ve talked here previously about my love for the have-a-go hero’s, and the chance to see them against the best was really exciting

While the cars themselves could probably differ by up to 600BHP in some cases, the venue itself was a proper leveller. Based alongside the Cattle Mart on the edge of Kilkenny, The Hub is an vibrant space, and on Saturday is was very much an interesting sight. Inside, one of the biggest Car-Boot sales I’ve ever seen was in full swing selling everything from ornate China to power tools, while outside Drift cars were running clipping points and sitting loudly idling meters away from casual afternoon shoppers. The track, while initially seeming small and confined, worked a treat in bringing the best out of the drivers. Lined with solid hay-bales, wall running was encouraged, and the occasional oopsie generally resulted in just a dusting off and no elongated track closures while concrete was repaired!

In a bit of a master-stroke from the organizers, the initial event hosted two truly global stars of the Drifting world in Chris Forsberg and Ryan Tureck. These are people that I’ve watched online for years not only pretty much forming the US drift scene in the Drift Alliance days, but right through to being multiple Formula Drift champions, event winners and YouTube stars. Who thought you’d ever see Ryan Tureck running an FC RX7 against a hay bale out the side of a cattle mart in Kilkenny, but life’s all about surprises. For the two guests to really put on a show though, they needed wheels, and by god did they get treated. As I mentioned, Tureck was thrown the keys to Alan O’Neill’s turbo’d Rotary RX7, while Forsberg stepped in Neil Dunne’s pretty epic S13. As for driving in unfamiliar chassis on the wrong side of the car?? Id say they were on the clipping points after 20 seconds!!

While traditional drifting is obsessed with two cars twin battling through a bracket to find a winner, its a format that just wouldn’t have felt right at a unique event like this. Instead, competition was divided into a number of disciplines designed to showcase driver skill rather than all out power. Ranging from drift parking to barrel sprints, with some wall runs and clipping points thrown in, it was really open for anyone to do well, no matter what they brought to the line. On top of 2 days and nearly 15 hours of track time, the venue transformed into a full blown festival once the lights went down, with a sound and visual stage set-up you’d struggle to find in most permanent music venues.

Names that may seem familiar to some, and yet unknown to others, came out all guns blazing. First man into competition was Craig MacLeod from Scotland. A guy that I truly had only heard about in passing, he went out onto a cold track and ran within 2 foot of a perfect run. Mind suitably blown, driver after driver came and made some incredible impressions. King of the BMW fan-boy’s Mark Tynan, a regular around the track-days of Ireland, showed serious skills in his M-Powered E36 and carried all the battle scars to prove how hard he was pushing, while a fellow BMW man pushed just that small bit too hard and gave me a particular scare. Note to self, don’t leave expensive camera gear lying in direct line of fine on top of a hay bale. Quick reflexes from driver and photographer saved everyone from serious damage though, and the taxi lived to fight another day!!

Now, as I’ve said a few times now, this venue played so fantastically well to level the field in a way never before seen. Come the end of the 2 days, the final four drivers was made up of all small-budget, home built amateur chargers, and Chris Forsberg!! With large cash prizes on the line, some guys likely winning more than the value of their car, it was obvious to see the desire these fellas had to win and perhaps bringing their drifting to the next level. Coming home in Fourth was the screaming little E36 Compact of Jack Shiel. I’ve seen Jack evolve from practice day hero to a serious competitive threat over the past 12 months, and what the little BMW lacks in power, the driving style, precision and aggression more than make up. Built in that very cool of late Waterford Domestic Market style, this cars just screams cool and has a massive presence.

Pipping Jack to third place was another young star, and this was definitely a re-occurring theme here, in Declan Byrne. About 2 years ago, Deco burst onto the scene with a number of giant killing performances in the IDC behind the wheel of his mean looking and very low Nissan S14. Aggression is taken for granted every time Byrne hits the track, and the poor Nissan spent nearly 2 days scraping bales for fun. Come Sunday, the SR20 had done a good job of melting the gearbox, and then in true rock-star fashion Declan managed to break not one but both of the Volvo’s laid on for the final, but jumping into Neil Dunne’s S13 done the trick. A large cheque in the back pocket, is it now we’ll see the return of Black S14 to top-level competition??

Leading the Irish charge, and taking 2nd, was Alan Hynes. Come from great drifting stock with his father being drift-judge extraordinaire Kieren, and a long time member of the IDC backroom team, Alan has truly launched himself in 2017. On the verge of winning the Pro-Am title and getting a license for the big show next year, stunning levels of car control saw the moderately powered Silvia making clipping points for fun. One of a new breed who had years of Virtual drifting done before ever stepping behind the wheel for real, think of all those IDC track preview video’s on Rfactor and remember that’s Alan, these guys are quickly making the rise through the ranks, focusing on learning driver skills rather than gunning for big power, and I guarantee you each of these three guys will be challenging for Championships in the next few years!!

But, like every event, you can have all the great drives you want, but we need a winner. It’s a long running joke online that ‘Forsberg Takes The Win’ is a default scenario in Formula Drift, but seeing the man doing his thing in the flesh re-evaluated everything I may have ever felt before. Borrowed car, strange land, wrong side?? Not a bother. Neil may have felt un-easy handing over the reigns of his pride and joy, but he had no fear as Forsbeg is a really a driving god. It almost seemed effortless as the perfect line was replicated time and time again. To make the man even better, come the presentation of the trophy’s and D1 style oversized cheque’s, Chris announced that his €5000 prize was to be split between the three other finalists. This was a seismic gesture to these guys, and a huge pat on the back to Chris Forsberg for such a decision!!

And so, come Monday and we’re all back to reality. Perhaps I am still slightly deaf still from Adrian Walsh’s V8 Corolla, but that’s part of the fun of it. Others will have sore heads from the shenanigans and celebrations, but the event itself was a celebration in itself. It brought the best skills that drifting has to offer and showcased them in a way that everyone had a chance to compete. Watching the likes of Emma Healy outscoring a former ProDrift champion in Brendan Stone reinforced how bright the future is for the sport here in Ireland.  It was a start, and a good one at that, but certainly it has the makings of an event we need to get behind and see blossom into the huge beast that it could become. Drinking, Drifting and Dancing, sher what more would ya want!!