Have you ever got to a point, where the only logical question to ask is “What the *expletive* am I doing with my life?”, and all possible answers seem soo much more appealing than your current situation? It’s a point when every choice made in getting to the here and now is thought over, analysed and its sanity evaluated. Had anyone the misfortune of crossing my path last Saturday evening, it’s easy to imagine the barrage of moany, life questioning drivel they would have had to endure. One thing is for sure though, I would have sworn blind I was never going to look at a rally car ever again.
Let’s backtrack a little here before my look back at the Rally Of The Lakes, round 2 of the Irish Tarmac Championship, turns into a desperate misery log of what Saturday was like. We’ll come to that in time, but all seemed soo rosy 24 hours previously. In the run up to any big rally, I get a real sense of excitement that builds all week. Constantly checking my work computer calendar would add to the buzz, as plonked between all manner of important meetings and deadlines, a bright red ‘Laaaaaaakesss’ icon had sat since early January. Leaving work Friday afternoon, it was all go to get home, changed, camera loaded and on the road to Killarney. The car itself had got hours and hours of polishing and deep cleaning for the weekend, as god forbid you were seen driving about in a filthy vehicle. As always, seeing the ‘Keep The Race in Its Place’ signs is the start point that truly marks the start of Rally Weekend.
Having moved into the world of a steady Monday to Friday job, I’ve got a much better chance these days of making it to events nice and early, often visiting the scrutiny area o even ceremonial launches. Neither of these excite me greatly, as my love is watching these machines at full chat on a country lane, but yet it’s fascinating being able to get up close and personal with the machinery. Small details that completely invisible at speed seem to jump out at you, while noticeable differences in car building styles ignite my inner motorsport geek. Taking place right in the heart of Killarney on a Bank Holiday Friday, the launch was among the busier I’ve seen. Crowds were out in force to see what us rally folk have to offer, and it’s this level of outreach that helps built ties between events and local communities.
Once the cars were tucked up for the night, eyes were glanced towards a difficult route in store the next morning. In a traditional move, an early morning blast up Molls Gap was a decent test of bravery right from the off. Over that, what lay in store was over an hours driving South to a loop of stages that could only be described as breath taking. I decided to base myself on the Healy Pass for the day, and having taken a midweek spin down to get a sense of the place, there’s a strong reason why I’ll be soon doing a feature on this glorious stretch of tarmac. Leaving home at 10 past 6 in the morning, all was well. The excitement was palpable looking forward to the rally, seeing the Healy Pass at full chat and trying out a few new camera bits. Nearly 2 hours later, I was simply hoping the car wouldn’t be blown over in the storm!
Watching the marshals, all volunteers, out battling storm force gales to get the stage set up was a glimpse into the dedication that lies at the heart of Irish rallying. People turning up five minutes before the first car have no concept generally of the huge effort that has taken weeks to get the rally ready to go live. As the first of the safety car’s passed, the rain came. You might start to get the mood I was in Saturday evening already. As a shower turned torrential, Ali Fisher came roaring over the apex of the Pass. Scrabbling for grip, the R5 Fiesta banged through the gears as it headed for the ribbon of asphalt below. Generally, we are lucky to get any more than about 10 seconds sight of a rally car, but the unique nature of the Healy Pass allows over a minute’s action from even the quickest machinery. Sam Moffett came hot on Fishers heels in a similar Fiesta, while the still novel sight of Robert Barrable’s Hyundai was a big change in a sharp end dominated by Ford’s.
As the day passed, times began to filter in from Cod’s Head & Ardgroom. Fisher had hit trouble and had retired from the rally, taking a coastal wall with him. Leading the pack was Roy White in yet another Fiesta. Last year’s National Champion, Irelands second championship based over 10 single day events, has really got to grips with the step up to a World Car, and it was the noticeable performance difference helping guide our sole WRC entrant to an overnight lead. Passing the second time through the Pass, I’d decided to relocate to a location before the top, sacrificing the allure of the countless hairpins in the other direction for the stunning scenery. It’s crazy at times to stop and think about some of the beautiful places in this country that rallying brings us to, and sometimes it’s easy to ignore the backdrop when viewing a rally through a viewfinder!
In the national section, Killarney has always seemed to struggle when it comes to attracting the real superstars of modified rallying. While the Likes of Donegal and West Cork are right at the forefront of attracting large entries in the ITRC, many of the country’s fastest crews give Killarney a skip. That is not to say that we had a massive entry here, but when the overall battle boils down to two cars jostling for the win with minutes to spare over the closest competitors, it does show how important it is for events to attract the best entry that they can. That being said, the National section on the Lakes was truly spectacular to follow. The key battle proved to be an all Donegal affair as the perennial challenger of the AE86 Corolla took on the MK2 Escort, with Kevin Eves storming to a second championship victory in his Toyota. After a disastrous venture into 4wd machinery, Kevin is really starting to show the speed we always knew he had, and the wee Corolla looks well dialled for a championship push. Hot on his heels all weekend was the returning Declan Gallagher. The Milkman has been absent the past 18 months, and returned in an unfamiliar Ford. With the trusty KP Starlet sat at home in waiting for Donegal, the Fear Bainne was pushing Eves all weekend while getting used to new surroundings. Come Sunday evening, barely 40 seconds separated the pair.
Behind the two guys above, third on the time sheets was yet another spectacular drive from Cork’s Vince McSweeney in the flying Honda Civic. As I said earlier, getting up close with the cars in scrutiny gives a chance to get a feel for the cars, but getting close to Vince’s chariot is a stark contrast to the polished, professionally prepped cars that surround it. The epitome of the home built clubman spec vehicle, function certainly drags form along as an oft abandoned after thought. A plethora of perhaps non-automotive screws and bolts keep the Civic held together, but looking at a 1600cc car finishing 3rd in the National is a sign that skill will always win out over budget in people’s estimation.
While battles raged for victory, down the field, as in any rally, crews fought tooth and nail for all manner of class awards, personal battles or even driven to record a finish on the results. People like Art McCarrick and Ed Twomey are exactly what our sport needs at the minute. Both young and ambitious, their enthusiasm for Rallying is immediately evident in their company, and it’s this sort of person we need to attract to the sport if we are to have a long-term future and continue to fill entry lists for years to come.
And then there was Saturday evening!! As I said at the start, had anyone met me on the way home, I would have sworn blind that I would never see a rally again. After battling the stormy winds on the Healy Pass, all looked well as the convoy headed for the final stage of the day. I had the opportunity a few days before the rally to travel over a few stages, and certain locations stand out in a photographic sense. Right down along the coast, a sweeping right hander with the stunning backdrop of the Atlantic seemed ideal. Arriving, all was well, the sun was out and the scenery was as breath-taking as always. First few cars passed, and then the down pour arrived. Now, as a rally follower, a variety of weather is naturally expected, but this was a monsoon. Waterproof clothing soaked through, puddles formed in shoes, cameras started acting up and for well over 5 minutes, it was impossible to turn left and face the rain. Stuck on a grassy bank, this felt more like torture than fun!!
Saturday also had the novelty of playing host to the Lakes Junior rally. The massive entry list fascilated the need to switch days, and the action was naturally as frantic as to be expected. We looked in depth at both Junior Rallying and Eric Calnan and the giant killing 106 at the start of the year, and unfortunately it was yet another event to be remembered for mechanical difficulties. Jason Black showed pace for long periods in his RWD Starlet, but come the end of the final stage it would be Shane McCarthy who would be celebrating a pretty dominant victory, leading pretty much from start to finish in his EG Civic.
Come Sunday, I had decided not to bother going to see any rallying. I was fed up, still cold and suffering the opening bouts of a flu. But, opening the curtains and being met with scorching April rays makes it almost unmissable. Thankfully, a quick glance at maps showed a nice spot on a nearby stage, and an hour later I was back on the ditches. No matter how bleak Saturday evening was, watching rally cars at full chat down a country lane in blazing sunshine is up there with the best ways to pass an afternoon.
Heading back into Killarney, the sunshine was a chance as well to scope out some high-quality road cars that had emerged. Rally followers are well known as hard core petrol heads, and there’s a huge amount of fun standing about and enjoying the spectacle of the Lakes cruising scene over the weekend. It’s fair to say that the dark days of Booing TDI’s seem to be over, and people are seemingly less fearful of spending money on big cars yet again.
While results matter, and congratulations to Sam Moffett on taking the win after Roy White hit trouble, to me rallying is soo much more. It’s about atmosphere, personal triumph, an addiction to speed and an enjoyable escape for a day or a weekend. Leaving Killarney though, the drive home left me time to think about how the weekend had been. While the rally action was as fast and frantic as always, all did not seem well. The crux of what hit me was a sense of feeling unwelcome being a rally follower in Killarney for the weekend. When you arrive in Letterkenny or Clonakilty, you feel like people are happy to see the rally in town, but not so in Killarney. Heavy handed police tactics smothered the town on Friday, forcing people out of the area. Now, I know full well that a certain cohort attach themselves to rallying here in Ireland with the sole intent of ‘causing wreck’, but I feel it’s the blacklisting of the event that works to feed the anti-establishment motivations of some. Locals hate the event, and many vocally want rid of it, and it feels as if Killarney is a town that could happily live without the rally.
I do not in the slightest mean this as a dig at KDMC, as they organise a fantastic rally year after year, but it’s just an awful shame the passion for the sport is not shared by those around them, and as such your left feeling bad admitting that you’re there to watch rallying. The Championship needs the Lakes, as they have some of the most iconic stages and backdrops in Irish rallying, but it seems that the relationship with Killarney seems to be strained at present.
As a car fan, I find my tastes in what I believe to be cool or interesting to be a constantly changing experience. I constantly have eureka moments, when something I may have derided or ignored all my life just hits me. Over the past few months, German produced cars have really become a lot more appealing in a way I never believed to be possible. Growing up in a JDM obsessed country, well engineered Deutsch vehicles seemed en-mass to be dull and boring, but, and perhaps its my transition into sensibility, more and more I look to our European comrade and see cars that just tick boxes, and tick them well!
Case most certainly in point I feel is my growing admiration for all things BMW. For year, they just did nothing for me. As my friends played around with E36’s, I didn’t get it. Granted, while halo cars synonymous with Motorsport dominance could turn my head, run of the mill Bavarian’s just seemed dull and sadly boring. God how wrong was I.
I first laid eyes on Conor’s pristine E34 BMW 5 Series in the halls of Dubshed, and the timeless 90’s look sucked me in. For a car edging towards 25 years old, the E34 shape has proven to be somewhat timeless. Clean, sharp lines were all the rage at the time, and even now its a design ethos that simply works. While doing some other work in Mondello recently, hearing the grumble of the 6 Cylinder saloon cruising into sight got me very excited, but with a lot else on it meant I really needed to get a very quick feature done.
The M-Sport divising of BMW are well known for creating a variety of high speed monsters, but I have become increasingly aware of how well their back catalogue of styling kits have transformed the look of countless BMW models. Here, a factory style needs no adjustment to look spot on, while a subtle bolt on boot spoiler, very akin to the E30 M3 Evo, and lip splitter just set the car apart from the run-of-the-mill 5 Series fare.
Sitting under each corner are an immaculate set of AC Schnitzer split wheels, with the grey centers contrasting with the polished lip. Obviously, as much as the aggressive stance is spot on, its a little too hardcore for driving, and so a full Air Lift Performance setup is on hand to provide the perfect balance of show and go!
Inside, and everything is all very retro-business-chic. Black leather is match with some very cool white piping, and as a pure geek I was transfixed with the center console mounted telephone. Never has such a pointless device seemed soo damn cool!! While all may seem refined, slap bang in the middle sits a rather potent looking CAE shifter, an obvious motorsport touch for a car certainly more of a driver than a show queen!
The world is chock full right now of topics that simply can’t be touched. Fear reigns, as people know now that the slightest ill-judged opinion or Freudian slip can cause an internet frenzy and runs into the possibility of igniting a comments war. The majority of the car world gets along peacefully, arm in arm merrily discussing our general love of cars and speed in a way the UN and NATO could only imagine Kim Jung, Vladimir or Donald doing. We, as car people, tend to recognise different styles, respect those involved and generally try and attempt to understand the appeal. But then, lurking in the shadows, lies our very own bone of contention, the VAG scene!!
To anyone looking in with preconceived notions, the following may just appear as a celebration of all things Diesel, silly wheels, un-driveability and showing off, but to dismiss Dubshed as merely a large collection of said features means you are seriously missing out on one of the largest celebrations of Modified Cars on this Island. Borne from the GTINI, Dubshed has grown year on year at a rate surely not to be expected, as the shows original location in the Kings Hall was soon outgrown. Things were about to get bigger and better, and a space suitable for one of Irelands most divisive car shows was found hiding on the outskirts of Lisburn.
To have a cool location must surely rank alongside facilities and space when organisers begin planning their next big event, but the Eikon Centre and Dubshed seems a dream combination. A cutting edge brand new exhibition hall, coupled with countless acres of free space, has helped the show to breathe. Long gone are the cramped environs of the Kings Hall, now replaced with sprawling lines of cars, marquees, outside attractions and whatever else you could imagine at a car show. That the site itself is the former home to the Maze Prison gives an historic appreciation of the area, but like the shining new Eikon hall, Dubshed is a show that looks to a new future, unshaped by history and tradition.
Moving to a new location in 2016 meant the obvious necessity of finding enough decent cars to fill the space, but this also gave rise to one of the most talked about moves in the VAG show scene for quite some time. Opening a hall specifically for non-German vehicles was a very brave move, but one that paid off massively. Gaining countess plaudits for their bravery, the boat was pushed out further this year as the outsider invasion made it into the main hall. Against a sea of Deutschland’s finest, the I Love Bass area became home to among other things a VIP Aristo, track-spec Altezza, go anywhere Land Rovers, boxy Volvo’s and ‘The Infamous’, a nutty Rocket Bunny S12 Impreza WRX.
I cannot, for even a split second, attempt to lie about being a VAG guy. I appreciate the styling, I get the dedication to the build and I enjoy the out there nature, but it’s not an area I’ve been tempted into in an ownership sense. To me, I enjoy the whole thing for the attention to detail alone. On the surface, each Golf on BBS wheels may seem the same, but it’s taking a second or even third look that you notice the use of stupidly rare and expensive parts, ingenious solution’s and artistic flourishes that truly set one car apart from another. Talk to any owner and expect a story of true dedication and intensive thought that’s manifested itself in the vehicle in front of your eyes. Spending time looking for and noticing fine details is something I picked up a few years back in Worthersee, and while the sheer levels of automotive madness may not be seen here at home, the build quality is certainly right up there.
Naturally, for a VAG scene show, the proliferation of well-built Golf’s was to be expected, but to cast the majority off as useless tat would be well wide of the mark. Engine swaps of all manner of shapes and sizes gave away that fast driving is still very much a key box to tick with many builds, and added to that the availability of countless Air Suspension set-ups that provide the ultimate balance of decked show car and drive-able daily at the flick of a switch. Race seats and harnesses are plentiful, although many look too good to have seen much hard driving. Many purists now deride the influx of often brand new or late model builds as purely chequebook builds, but its images of lowered and stanced modern GTI’s and Golf R’s that will inspire the next generation when these cars become more affordable.
At the other end of the Golf spectrum, the MK1 is still the undisputed king which, even heading for 40 years in production, remains a base for all manner of modification and styling. Ronan’s MK1 has evolved massively over time, from a classic BBS wearer right through to its current Supercharged, race-car spec state complete with parts that would make any track driver go weak at the knees. It’s still a road car, but with it’s recently completed livery, an homage to the GTI Engineering car of the late 70’s, it certainly sticks out in traffic.
As I said earlier, engine swaps rule supreme right now, with countless generations of VW venerable VR6 finding its way under the bonnet of all manner of Golf models and others. Emerging in the early 90’s, the uniquely designed power plant still holds a cult following among VAG enthusiasts thanks to a stunning mix of power and refinement.
While the number of engine swaps runs high, the most popular modification among the show car corral continues to remain the Air Bagged Suspension. Delivering the perfect mix of both hard parking and driveability, bags have become a de-facto move for those not keen on going down the static route of lowering cars. Paddy McGrath and his epicly cool MK6 GTi has been built as a car to tick every box, be it show, track or day to day driving. The build thread is a definite read, as it’s a true sense of an enthusiast designing a car to their own needs and desire, irrespective of opinion or internet experts!!
Outside of the VW fare, other German brands certainly had their own strong showing. BMW Northern Ireland had a large number of Bavaria’s finest on display, but park a FINA liveried E30 M3 anywhere and it’s gonna draw in every bit of my attention. Still the most successful race car of all time, the E30 still has an incredible aura nearly 30 years after its release. Box arches, kidney grills, side exhausts and a big wing just add to the drool factor. This example, a clubman spec Rally car, is recently restored to original Prodrive spec.
Another E30 that truly caught my eye was this olive-green example, complete with winning combo of BBS and Air. Its seeing cars done in this way that reminds us all how well designed some cars are right out of the box, where only a bit of stance can turn it into a showstopper.
As another reminder of how subtly can win, many people would have this Porsche 944S as their car of the show. Once an overlooked shape that fell out of style very quickly, the boxy nature has aged fantastically, and when accompanied with plenty of motorsport touches such as race seats, a cage and staggered Speedline wheels, it screams one hell of a fun driver’s car.
As for team Ingolstadt, it was large Avant models that are really on trend right now among Audi modders, with countless large A4 and A6’s of S, R and RS variety on display. Yet again, I tend to be attracted to slightly older cars, so the blue early RS4 certainly caught my eye.
While looking around a hall full of cars can be enjoyable, it’s in talking and learning back stories that truly brings builds to life. While a turquoise blue VW Lupo will draw attention, learning that all the work, including the flawless paintwork, was the work of 16-year-old Adam Mannix was mind blowing. I’d have struggled to use a rattle can or mod my car with dodgy LED’s at that age, not build a Dubshed worthy show car. The future of the scene is certainly bright!!
The outdoor area was a more standard show & shine, with gates open to all comers. The nature of a rigorous judging standard to make it inside, it was only natural that the quality would extend to the day tripping masses. VW’s smallest offering, the UP!, has followed the Lupo’s segment as a well built, small city car yet that’s not to say that people are going to use the shlam stick to make us realise how cool these wee cars can be.
Elsewhere, I fell head over heels in love with this tatty VW Derby. Available in the 80’s as a booted Polo, the Derby never really took off, making any sightings a rare sight. This particular one, looking decidedly downbeat with a patina showing years of surviving harsh Irish winters, exudes an aura of cool chic. I understand this car, and it’s a product almost unique in these parts to the VAG scene, where hardship and wear can appear epicly cool among a sea of polished metal.
Pushing the envelope in terms if downbeat cool is the William’s Brothers Beetle, although the envelope has been well and truly shoved off the desk with this one. Pulled out of a ditch, the iconic VW shape is nothing more than a bucket of rust and holes, but that is the great illusion here. Glance past the battered shell and you’ll notice the chrome plated Porsche engine hanging out the back, super rare Fuchs wheels, a hand-crafted interior and an all new chassis showing the huge standards of workmanship of the brothers.
Back outside, countless attractions catered for everyone, with Auto testing and a live Drag Strip drawing my attention. It’s not often we get to see drag racing that isn’t happening on the public road, so getting up close with properly built race cars was fascinating experience. Although the numbers were low, feeling a fully blown drag Beetle roar past at full tilt was an interesting experience.
What Dubshed, and GTINI who run the show, has done over the past two years is take the ideas of both VAG and modified shows, and blend them together into what is quickly establishing itself as the country’s best and largest shows. The idea to merge was sure to cause upset, but it’s paid off, and any naysayer need only see the crowds streaming through the gates all day to know that we now have a show on this island to rival any others around the world. Naturally, you’re always going to have a favourite, and my love affair with the MK3 golf shape had me drooling over this yellow beauty. Few things have a permanent spot in my calendar, but Dubshed certainly has won such a distinction.
Things happen in Ireland happen every day of the week that we never hear of. Events slip by without a single sliver of coverage, yet enjoyed immensely by those involved. It’s an Irish thing, and any bit of driving around the country you’ll find plenty of signs and posters for a plethora of oddball gatherings. But how is it that there are events going on nearly every weekend, all over the Island, attracting thousands of enthusiastic followers and competitors willing to rack up huge costs in expensive cars solely in search of excitement, yet most have never heard of it?? Welcome to Irish Rallying!
The year, for me at least, kicked off in Galway in mid-February. The traditional season opener for the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC), the country’s premier series, Galway is renowned for being the first sighting moment for all manner of new cars and crews. This year was different!! Not only did we see the start of a new season, but also the start of a new Era in Irish Rallying. Over the winter, Motorsport Ireland had decreed that 2016 would see the rise of the R5, the chosen top line category for the championship moving forward.
Until now, WRC’s had ruled the roost in Irish rallying for the past 15 years. Looking back over previous title winners, the roll call of Subaru Impreza’s and Ford Focus WRC’s victories was stunning, but it was becoming too much. Expensive to run, both the older 2L cars and more modern 1.6L equivalents, and scarcer at big events, the powers that be decreed that the latest R5 spec cars were to become the shining beacons.
An R5 car is, in all regards, a very serious piece of kit. Based on road cars, rules stipulate a 1.6 Turbo Charged engine pushing upwards of 280BHP, Four Wheel Drive, massively uprated suspension and much more. The difference, when parked next to a WRC car, is not inherently noticeable, but it’s the part sourcing, and cost saving where the true difference lies. Rather than having a car packed full of very expensive, very bespoke parts, R5’s use a lot more off the shelf components and as such running costs are lowered. But would the gamble work?? Absolutely. For the first time in years, we saw a true battle for the title across nearly a dozen top drivers, which ultimately went down to the final round. Added to that, it was brand new cars out there pushing hard on the stages such as Ford Fiesta’s, Citroen DS3’s and a few Skoda Fabia R5’s.
But back to Galway. I still feel wet thinking back to that weekend. Saturday was like a battle scene. Car after car wheeled off on the back of trailers each in a worse state of destruction. We had leaders in ditches, hard chargers ending up on their roof and all manner of slipping and sliding in between.
And then Sunday brought the deluge. I don’t remember ever being out in such conditions. Access roads began to flood, yet the rally went on regardless. And who better to send out in such awful conditions then the Juniors. A separate section on nearly every rally, and something I’ll be looking into more deeply soon, the Juniors is a shortened rally designed to get younger competitors involved in the sport. Cars are capped at 1.6L, driver’s age at 26, and basically, everything else goes. It has slowly become a parade of fast charging Honda Civics of late, although we’ve seen some noticeable exceptions.
Next up was the traditional Paddy’s Weekend trip to Clonakilty for the West Cork Rally. Ever a crowd favorite, and a recent addition to the Tarmac championship, the West Cork is just a string of some of the most iconic stages and locations in Irish rallying. Ring Village, Ballinglanna, Ardfield etc. While the World Cars may have been excluded from scoring points in the championship, it didn’t stop their owners from competing. For a record breaking third time in-a-row, it would be Donagh Kelly tasting champagne aboard the Double Decker bus in Clonakilty come Sunday evening.
Over in the National Championship, though, the WRC car still reigned supreme. A series of one day, smaller events, the National championship has blossomed of late with massive entry lists and fantastic stages. One of those mounting a serious early charge on the National was the ever flamboyant Gary Jennings in his distinctive Subaru Impreza S12 WRC.
By the time May came about, Killarney was awash with the sunshine, and my clothes and camera were peppered with dust and stones. Rally of The Lakes is a name that resonates across car scenes, and although perhaps we don’t all trudge South solely for the rally, it’s hard to match the buzz around the town for the weekend.
For those standing out though, there’s always a certain vehicle that both creates smiles and scratches heads almost everywhere you go. The Ford Escort MK2. Once a venerable grocery getter designed by Ford as an everyday car in the 1970’s, the Escort has become a staple of the rally scene, none more so than here in Ireland. One of more extravagant exponents of the sideways style adored by fans is Liam Howlett. You don’t get a Hitler Subtitle video or a song dedicated to you by being quiet behind the wheel. This year would see Liam never mind finish the Lakes (there were commemorative t-shirts to mark this fact) but steer Big Red to third overall in the Modified section. He promptly returned to form and crashed soon after, and again, and again!!
But Killarney had been a lot damper only a few weeks previously when we old school rally geeks got an Easter treat. I’ve grown up fascinated by tales of the Circuit of Ireland. A distantly related event bearing the same name ran as part of the ’16 ITRC, but it was the true ‘Circuit’ from the 70’s and 80’s that has me up at all hours watching grainy videos on YouTube. Back then, the circuit was not merely a title but a description. The event ran for 5 days, often with little rest, and saw crews tackle stages right around the country. And it was massive!! International superstars became legends as they tackled Irish lanes. As a chance to look back at the glory days, Circuit déjà vu brought together a plethora of rallying’s legendary names and cars for one hell of a special day.
It’s not every day you stroll into a coffee shop in rural Kerry with a priceless Porsche Carrera sitting at the door. As you make your way in, you have to excuse yourself as you brush past Paul Nagle, Citroen Works Co-Driver for Kris Meeke, discussing the Monte Carlo Rally with none other than 1964 winner Paddy Hopkirk.
As you queue for a coffee, it’s becoming almost surreal as standing right in front is none other than 5-times British Rally champion, and father of the late Colin, Jimmy McRae.
And then to cap it off the only spare seat in the house is at a table with Billy Coleman who’s just given a display in sideways driving in his ’74 British Championship winning Escort up Molls Gap less than an hour beforehand. A man that could have taken on the world yet chose to farm instead.
Returning from Dreamland, and the events continued to roll by thick and fast. As the ITRC completed its northern loop of events, Donegal, The Circuit of Ireland & The Ulster, I was out closer to home. The Imokilly club in East Cork has grown enormously over the last while. Evolving from hosting a RallySprint in the Cork Mart a few years ago, they now play host to one of the more competitive Mini-Stages events in the country. A non-championship event, these rallies are a chance for the clubmen to really go out and enjoy their local stages without the pressure of the big guns at the head of the field. Its club man level events like this that provide the lifeblood to Irish rallying, and are a real proving ground for anyone with aspirations of moving up the ranks.
An added bonus for this event was their ability to attract two of possibly the country’s crowd favorites, Frank Kelly & Declan Gallagher, to give their co-driver seats up for charity to raise funds for a very worthy local charity. This certainly wasn’t just a fun run though as the Milkman (Gallagher) came home 2nd overall with rookie co-driver Shane O’Mahony.
The main championship came down to a final battle royal around the stages of Cork as 4 drivers came to the ’20 with hopes of walking away with the Tarmac crown. First to wilt was Alistair Fisher. Coming in as point’s leader, Fisher lost control on the last loop on Saturday seeing both his Fiesta and title ambitions turned upside down.
Another pair of contenders would be the Moffett brothers Sam & Josh. Each pushed right to the very last, aided by both sibling rivalry and determination to grab the title. Josh ended up taking the rally victory, but results elsewhere just didn’t fall right for his title charge. As a reward for his hard charging all year, Josh Moffett took home the Billy Coleman award for Young Rally Driver of the year.
But alas, it was the quiet man from Ballylickey that ended the year as Irish Tarmac Champion. Keith Cronin had a mixed year with some stunning championship victories peppered with crushing lows as the title lay in the balance. Seeing his main rival Fisher drop out on Saturday, the 3-Times BRC champion had the required cool head to get his DS3 R5 home safely and secure the tarmac crown.
With the two main titles secured, Roy White taking the National crown in his Fiesta WRC, the Donegal Harvest rally was a chance for the local RWD crews to have some fun. Although every rally sees its fair share of spectacular Modified action, its seems to be Monaghan and Donegal that really ramp this up to the last. The Modified’s are home to the wild side of Irish Rallying. Race engines push once humble every day cars to unbelievable speeds. Engine sizes are capped at a maximum of 25% larger than original, so the 2.5L Class 14 is the zenith. Builds regularly top €80,000, while every last inch of performance is squeezed out with all manner of upgrades allowed.
Twin Cam Corolla’s, normally associated with marking cross roads at events like Killarney or Donegal International, really have a warm place in Northern Rallying. I’m sure I lost count at about 9 or 10 of the Toyota coupe’s out talking the Harvest Stages, although it was the McGettigan brothers who were really on a charge all day, both on road and occasionally when taking flight.
The Harvest also gave me, in particular, the first glimpse of John Mullholland’s incredible 1.3L BDA engine Escort. When people call things a screamer, it can generally be debated. But an Escort coming down a country lane at nearly 10,000 rpm is something that still gives me a fizz.
The last event for me anyway in 2016 was actually the first event of 2017’s championship bizarrely. Aimed solely as Ireland’s only Historic rally, Killarney plays host in early December to a dazzling array of older rally cars. Split into two distinct parts, the first cars you get to enjoy are the true Historic spec cars, built to the same spec as in their heydays of the late 70’s, complete with screaming BDA’s.
The other side of the event is a chance for some of the country’s fastest Modified rally cars to really come out and play. The Modifieds is where you’ll find Escorts that in the right conditions could outrun World cars, Millington engines, cutting-edge technology all wrapped up in 30-year-old bodies. It’s truly glorious.
Add in the beauty of having Irelands only night stage and Killarney Historic is a special way to end the year. It’s an absolute nightmare to photograph, but by god its one hell of a cool sight to witness.
So that’s my little look back at the 2016 rallying year. The next 12 months has plenty instore and I’m looking forward to another year hanging off ditches and hopefully, I’ll give ye an insight into the mad world of Irish Rallying.
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Us Irish love a good underdog story. It’s in our nature that we just adore the thought of David sticking it to Goliath. Tales of heroics live long in the memory and are often recounted with a wistful smile and a stirring pump of a fist. A call of ‘Go on ya Boyo’ is never far away in these instances. Irish motorsport is a venerable treasure chest of people sticking it to the man. For years, Eddie Jordan took on the might of F1 paddock, and occasionally won. In 1974, a Cork farmer by the name of Billy Coleman beat the might of the works teams to become British Champion, in a car run from a rented terrace house and a band of friends as crew. Frank Meagher became a household name in the 80’s and 90’s as he topped lead boards in his ratty old MK2 Escort. Those were the glory days, but the have-a-go heroes are still out there,Eric Calnan is one of them heroes.
Junior rallying, as the title suggests, is an avenue designed to attract younger drivers into the sport. Conceived in the early 00’s, the idea was to limit the cars to 1.6L, driver age to 26 and provide a shorter route to keep costs down. And it has been a success. Countless drivers have come through the ranks and gone onto bigger things in the sport, while the competitive nature of the championship has seen some incredibly close battles down the years. But competitiveness comes at a cost. It’s a natural thing, winning becomes everything!
The loose nature of regulations left the door open for things to spiral. To remain competitive, builds and components became more expensive. The humble Honda Civic is the de-facto Junior Rally weapon of choice. We all see decent Civic track and road builds on a daily basis, but the rally boys are on another level. Trusty B16 engines are hitting dizzying VTEC assisted levels of 200+ BHP. Sequential gearboxes have become normal, as have fully adjustable suspension and all manner of trick bits. Builds topping €40000 are not uncommon. But surely nobody can compete with that??
The rise of Eric Calnan in 2016 was like a breath of fresh air in Junior rallying. Here was a tatty looking 106, built in a shed at home, with an outlandish spoiler coming to upset the status quo. Built for about a quarter of the price of some of its competitors, the 106 and Calnan really began to rattle some feathers. Fastest through Ballaghbeama at the Lakes was a warning shot, but things were only starting. Victory at Imokilly Mini Stages was backed up weeks later with a stunning last grasp snatch and grab at the Cork20 Junior Rally. 12 seconds down sitting on the start line of the final stage, the diminutive Peugeot scorched to a 1.6 sec victory. Internet flame wars erupted as people scratched their head at just how Eric pulled the time out that day. It was these sort of heroics that began grabbing attention. A dominating display on the Fastnet rally really cemented a fantastic season, taking a massive 26 second lead on the 1st stage and controlling the rally to chalk up yet another victory . A Billy Coleman Award nomination followed, while Motorsport.ie’s recently published list ranking 2016’s top Irish rally drivers ranked Calnan at No.6 among some very illustrious company.
But what is it about this car and driver pair that make them so quick? Calnan naturally lays all the success on co-driver Aileen Kelly. Cousins, the pair only began sitting together his year and things have really paid off. Watching any on-board’s, Eric’s mad man nature is balanced by Aileen’s calm and steady delivery of the notes at all manner of kamikaze speeds. Rallying is very much a team sport, with the driver leaning massively on the Navi to describe the road ahead and keep on top of necessary paperwork and time cards, but having an all-out, maximum attack driving style and distinct lack of fear certainly is an added bonus. But every hero spec warrior needs a chariot.
Approaching the silver 106 GTI up close, the battered exterior is a sign of a car that’s had a tough campaign. It’s not a neglected car, but it just goes against the shiny, polished nature of those around it. Straight panels, or even wing mirrors in this case, make no difference when it comes to launching yourself down a rally stage. It almost seems like a ruse to put people off, perhaps guide them away from the potency that lies beneath. It’s perhaps a reflection of the man himself, that the desire to find that extra tenth is far greater than looking good on the start line. Small marks here and there act almost as war paint, carried as a warning to others. A scrape from a chicane here, and dent from a tire wall there, it’s all part of the appeal.
Under the bonnet is where things really get interesting. A Citroen JP4 engine sits proudly in the middle of the bay. Hand built by Calnan over the winter, his engineers touches are seen all over. Clever little tips and trick are seen in the desire to wring as much power from the 16 valve lump, from a redesigned head to a custom manifold. Anything non-essential has been removed in the quest to save weight, but it is the set of GSXR throttle bodies sitting nearly flush with the firewall that certainly grab attention. In typical Calnan fashion, checking even basic things like having room for a wiper motor were secondary to performance, but thankfully finding a LHD unit sorted that issue. Pumping out slightly more than 160 BHP, this is a very quick 106, yet it still gives roughly 40/50 BHP of an advantage to the opposition.
Power is delivered to the front wheels through a 5 speed box and limited slip differential, again built by Calnan in his shed. Bilstein suspension helps to deal with the rough and tumble of a bumpy rally stage, while the solid Torsion Bar rear end is helped greatly with Team Dynamic shock absorbers. Braking, if ever relied upon, is taken care of with Carbone Lorraine pads and Brembo disks front and rear. For true maximum attack, a Hydraulic handbrake is on hand and is clearly not there for show as becomes obvious watching Calnan flying around the Watergrasshill track.
Plastered both front and back is the battling cry #anythingbutacivic. An obvious tongue in cheek gesture towards the opposition, it’s a message that’s resonated around Irish rallying, and one spotted on a growing number of other cars. As with any sort of race car though, having other names plastered on the side of the car helps massively in getting a budget together to go out and compete. Colin Byrne (CB Tool Hire) and Donal O’Brien (Donalobriencars.ie) have backed Eric from the start, along with a number of other local business, and without support like that many would get nowhere in motorsport.
Inside is typical rally car, where function takes priority over form. A pair of beefy OMP seats keep the crew held in place snugly, while a custom weld in roll cage keeps safety in check. Everything here is dictated by FIA regulations to help protect the crew if anything was to ever go wrong.
Plans for 2017 are still undecided for Calnan and the 106. A crack at the Tarmac Junior Championship is a very real option, although it includes a couple of long treks up the country to Donegal and the Ulster rallies. The ’17 season see’s M-Sport launching its own entry level championship in Ireland, the R2 National, which is aimed as a first dip into the world of factory built International level machinery for those with aspirations of going down that avenue. A promising development for younger drivers, it unfortunately remains out of reach financially for a large number of drivers, Calnan included. Money and rallying will always go hand in hand, and to get anywhere you need a lot of it. But Eric Calnan is a reminder that the underdog is still alive, sticking two fingers up to the big boys and having a damn good time and enjoying rallying!
Full Spec List:
Citroen TU5 JP4
P&P Head (Homemade)
K1 GSXR1000 Throttle Bodies
Custom inlet manifold ported to match head (Homemade)
RamAir air filter
106 Cup Car Cams
Custom Stainless Exhaust manifold (Homemade)
Pugsport 2” stainless exhaust
Standard Peugeot MA Gearbox with uprated bearings.
S1 Rallye Final Drive
Bilstein B8 Shocks
AST Adjustable camber top mounts
Interchangeable spring rates/lengths
Team Dynamic 2-way adjustable shocks
CL RC6+ pads and brembo discs
CL RC5 pads and brembo max grooved discs
Hydraulic handbrake & Bias Valve
Full weld in cage with extra bars
Strut top strengthener plates & Strut brace
LHD Wiper conversion
Lightweight shell (prepped by Eric)
Walbro Intank High Pressure Fuel Pump
6mm aluminium sump guard (Homemade)
Seats/Harnesses/Extinguishers to comply with FIA international regs.
With Thanks to:
Jonathon Trill (TM Valeting),
Shane Fitzgerald (EVOSigns),
Denis O Connell (extremely patient man that helps Eric make good looking stuff).