There’s a distinct beauty to the first real blast of sunshine for the year, the initial feeling that perhaps we may actually get a Summer in Ireland for a change. As the evening drags on basked in glorious shades, people seem happy. Strangers make conversation about the weather, not remarking as normal on a bleak dreary Irish day but rather commenting ‘God its fierce nice isn’t it’. Natural pessimism remained with the typical retort often being ‘I hope it lasts for the weekend’, but you could twig you were in the right company when another would chip in with ‘It’ll be fierce hard on Tyres”. See, as the glorious sunshine beams down, I find myself of a Friday evening stood in the stable yard of Killarney Racecourse. All around, the stunning natural vistas of mountain peaks stand draped in a yellow glow, but it’s horsepower of an altogether more exciting kind that has drawn me here, and the ever-wonderful Rally of The Lakes.
I’ve gushed before about the beauty of Killarney, and truth be told it feels as if the town was hand built to cater for all manner of guests. Being the May Bank Holiday Weekend, throngs of large busses ferry the masses of Tourists around the sights. Everything seems to be within reach for guests, such is the amount of spots you encounter coaches frantically looking for parking to offload their party of overseas visitors. The sunshine naturally helps, as the town radiates in the fine weather. Ice-cream shops become licenses to print money, while the doors of Pubs are thrown open and customers spill out into outdoor seating. Added to this is the influx of the rally brigade, making a 25th pilgrimage to Kerry for the May weekend. While the wonderful Historic Rally in December may be an incredibly popular event, it is dwarfed significantly by the size and scale of the crowds drawn to the Lakes each year.
A rally weekend generally begins for me on the day of the event, although more and more so I’m finding time to get down the day before to take in the build-up and excitement before the crew’s head for Stage 1. For Killarney though, preparation started much earlier. Like last year, I became quite aware of how little knowledge I had of the stages that are staples of the Lakes experience. While 2017 saw me make a first visit to the Tim Healy Pass, I’d heard soo much gushing that I knew it was finally time to check out the true Beara stages, Cod’s Head and Ardgroom. A fortnight before the event I went for a spin and fell in love with a part of Ireland I had never been before. I’ll come back to it in a while, but my god Beara is incredible.
Scrutiny before an event is a great way to get both up close and truly under the skin of a lot of the rally machinery. In a change from previous year, this took place in Killarney Racecourse which was ideal. Not only for the amount of space available for crews to unload cars, but the sheer beauty of the backdrop that adorns the Racecourse. The peaks of the National Park stretch as far as the horizon, and with a genuine warmth in the air its magical. It was sunny here as well for the Historic scrutiny but being early December, it was decidedly colder!!
The cars filter through somewhat at random, home built challengers side-by-side with the latest and greatest Factory built machines. The Eves brothers Kevin and Corey had their pair of AE86 Corollas in line together. Corey’s car, with the rather appropriate 86 door number, is typical of a competitive level car within a class, with the main aim for the weekend being to beat similarly powered machinery. Under the bonnet lay a surprise, as the silver rocker cover deceptively hid the fact that a Honda B16 engine powers this Corolla, with the Vtec lump reverse engineered to cater for the RWD setup. In front though, Kevin’s car is on a completely different level to his brothers. Powered by a 2.5L Millington Diamond engine, this machine is built to win! Kevin is the reigning Irish Modified Champion, a series designed for rally cars that perhaps fall out of the original Manufacture homologation specs, so the home for all the wild side of Irish Rallying. It wouldn’t be a great weekend for the Eves’ though, as both would retire on the first day.
Once through scrutiny, the next big task for many of the crews was to put on a show for the masses in Killarney Town Centre. While you may see elsewhere in the world that events put on vastly expensive Super Special Stages that draw the crowds, in Ireland we simply appreciate the opportunity to get up close to the drivers and cars. Scrutiny and the subsequent Pairc Ferme are generally off-limits to the Public, so a Ceremonial Launch is of the best way to make a rally feel a part of the community. No matter which event you go to though, you would struggle to find a bigger crowd at any start ramp than in the Kingdom. The locals flood out onto the narrow streets to welcome their hero’s, with plenty of local crews taking the chance to cross the ramp in front of family and friends. It’s not every day that a bunch of rally cars are able to take over a busy shopping street on a Friday evening, and it was clear to see how well the invasion was received.
As the crowds soaked up the sight of the cars ticking over in the sunshine, a rather noisy burble grew from the back of the pack. Casting my eye down, it was pretty obvious that this was no Honda Civic or Ford Escort, but something a lot more special. The closer I got, the more potent the noise. Peeking through the crowds, a familiar blue quarter panel appeared into view. Amongst the buildings, an echo grew as Kevin O’Donoghue’s BMW E30 snaked through the bemused onlookers. It’s truly incredible to experience the noise this car makes, thank in the most part to the engine that lies under the bonnet. Developed from a Saab unit, Motor Design Sweden have pieced together one of the wildest sounding N/A Four Cylinder I’ve come across, with three litres of capacity designed to tackle rally stages. Kevin continued through the line until he reached the Escort of son Colin, who would be taking on the Junior rally the following day. It’s one thing seeing a Father and Son crew compete alongside one-another, but more impressive as they both crossed the line to start the rally in special machinery.
Before any car was to cross the ramp though, a poignant gesture was made to remember the late Dougie Hughes. For over 40 years, Dougie would have been the voice of many start and finish ramp ceremonies, an MC who lived and breathed Rallying in Ireland. When news broke of Dougies passing, he was remembered fondly by the rally family all over the world, and his friends in Killarney & District Motor Club honoured the man with the release of doves into the night sky.
As the evening began to fade, I left the ramp and parked up for a look at the various cars cruising around the town for the weekend. We don’t have large fluid motoring lifestyle events like Worthersee or large cruises in this country, so a Rally Weekend in Killarney or Letterkenny is as close as we get. People make a point of heading down south not only to show off their own car, but to meet others doing the exact same thing and to take in the atmosphere. While the argument will be raised about how few of these people travel with even the slightest interest in the Rally or simply to cause trouble, the vast majority I talked to, many faces you seem to only meet at the Lakes, seemed to have made the spin to enjoy a weekend with other petrol heads. Although the town did at times feel littered with scrappy Lexus IS200’s, many with a straight pipe exhaust that would pierce solid rock and a CB aerial large enough to contact NASA, there were plenty of gems amongst them.
Of all the car’s around town though, I still think I caught the absolute pinnacle on Friday evening. Sat on a garage forecourt watching the sun set, an unfamiliar shape drove past. My eyes felt deceived, but when the car pulled in past me a minute later, I knew I had to take a closer look. Shimmering in its silver glory, this 1975 Toyota Celica TA22 is a rare machine anywhere in the world, but to find one in Ireland is exceptionally rare. A new arrival to these shores, imported less than 2 months ago, this car hasn’t arrived like soo many others from Japan but rather the sunnier climes of Australia. The car had been bought and restored by the owner in Oz, and when the time came to arrive home, it was natural he says that the Celica would be put into a shipping crate destined for the other side of the world. Opening the sweeping bonnet revealed a Carb’d 1.6L 2T engine, finished to an incredible standard that matched the level of the car. Inside, it truly is exactly like stepping back into 1975 with brown vinyl covering every surface, bar the addition of a newer steering wheel and radio, as although it didn’t look like it, this Toyota was doubling as the family car for the night. As the sun set, I grabbed a few pictures pretty much right where I met the car, in the back of a petrol station. Into darkness I had to go, and the sat-nav was set for that magical Beara peninsula.
Lying what feels like about one million miles from anywhere, Beara juts out into the Atlantic while straddling the Cork/Kerry border. Stunningly beautiful, it’s a place that remains unspoiled from how nature intended. Nearly two hours from Killarney, the road to Allihies is long and twisty, the majority of the mileage clocked up in complete darkness devoid of anyone else on the roads. I’d said to a friend that I’d found a great Air BnB right on the stages, but little did they know that my thought of luxury accommodation would be a duvet in my spacious Peugeot 207. Travelling this way guarantees the best spots on some the most in-accessible locations that stages pass through and has the added benefit of tuning out of my usually hectic world for a few nights, coupled with some stunning vistas to wake up to. On a cold Saturday morning on Irelands southern-most tip, fog rolled in off the sea, rain covered the now-slick tarmac, but excitement built in the air.
By 11am we were go, the first crackle of a Ford Fiesta R5 bouncing off the sea cliffs and drowning out the crashing waves. First on the road would be Sam Moffett, last year’s winner, who was aiming to guide his Combilift liveried Fiesta to even more success in 2018. After claiming a clean sweep of Championship wins last year, his fiercest competition this year has appeared in the form of brother Josh in an identical Ford. The surprise by the time the cars reached Cods Head, having completed the iconic duo of Molls Gap and Healy Pass, was that both Moffetts appeared to be off the pace, which was being utterly dominated by Robert Barrable in yet another M-Sport R5 challenger. Fighting for tenths was par for the course for the brothers Moffett, but Barrable has started at a pace that saw him lead by nearly 25 seconds at the end of Day 1.
The other big story that grew as times appeared online was the speed of Rob Duggan in the MK2 Escort. A former British Junior Champion and Billy Coleman Award winner, Duggan is an incredible driving talent. While his JWRC dreams may have faded for now, Rob has made a huge push to get back enjoying the sport. He reminded us all of his talent with a dominant win at the Killarney Historic Rally, but starting in the rain surrounded by cutting edge 4wd cars would surely show up the Killarney man? Hah! Third fastest OVERALL up Molls Gap was a sure signal of intent, and it was clear by the pace the red Escort skirted along the Beara coastline that we had a man on a charge before our eyes.
Rob wasn’t gonna have it all his way though, as a strong field of quick Escorts lined up for a crack off the local ace. Kiernan, Brogan and Collins and showed pace, but ultimately couldn’t live with the speed of Duggans rental car, although there were some hairy moments along the way. That was except for Barry Meade though. After an absence of a few years, Meade has made a welcome return to the stages as of late. As Duggan hit trouble with the Ford’s Gearbox, Meade pushed to grab any advantage available. Come the end of Day 1, a tenth of a second would separate the pair. You couldn’t even get an expletive out in that time!
While the trip south is a staple of the Lakes route, it was a real treat for the crews in the Junior Rally who got a rare opportunity to tackle the Saturday stages. While the main field entry may have appeared somewhat slack, the Juniors really done their part in adding to the event. Twenty-Four cars took the start, and the pace amongst the leading crews was truly electric. Visibly quicker than large swathes of the main field competitors who had passed through before, the sight of a Honda Civic being fearlessly ragged along a bumpy stretch of coastal tarmac is incredible to experience. Setting the pace from start was Jason Black in the Toyota Starlet, although Colin O’Donoghue was keeping the Starlet honest in his Ford Escort. Heading towards the last loop, Black flew past me at a serious pace, but unfortunately less than 400m down the road his event would end with a meeting with a wall caused by a snapped steering arm. After pushing hard all day, Colin O’Donoghue romped home to a popular local victory.
With the early morning gloom now most certainly replaced with afternoon sunshine and warmth, it was back into Killarney. While the town can be swarmed by a less than desirable crowd at times during the weekend, and soooo many Lexus IS200’s, its always nice to know where the better cars are hanging out. One of those spots is the AE86IRL meet that happens every year. It’s a chance to catch up with friendly faces, talk shite and look at some sweet Corolla’s. While numbers are slowly falling each passing year, the level that these little cars are kept in is always mind-blowing. For many, myself included, a Corolla GT Coupe is as much a part of the rally weekend scenery as anything else, and I still feel excited watching a clean ‘Cam pass by.
While the traditional ‘UK Spec’ style is still popular, we’re definitely seeing a growing presence of JDM style cars built to emulate the timeless early-00’s JDM look. A few other cars joined this rather select and quiet meet, including this incredibly sweet Nissan Silvia S14A, sitting perfectly on a set of Enkei wheels. Unlike most, this S-Body is not built to go sideways, instead it’s intended track purpose is to take on the Nürburgring, which it has on a few occasions. Sun setting, it was time to make shapes once again.
I’ve talked at length before about Ballaghbeama Gap, and how magical a stretch of tarmac it is. To watch a rally car almost slalom down the descent as the exhaust note reverberates off the valley walls is truly special. Ballaghbeama is also truly one of the most remote stages in Ireland, with access limited to a handful of small tight lay-by’s. One such gap between a waterfall and the road would provide accommodation for the night. Bunked down for the evening, with the panoramic sun-roof opened looking into a sky full of stars, this felt like the purest way of all to follow such an exciting event. Come morning, it was go time, and a 00-car pairing of an RS Porsche and a screaming F2 Almeira kit car was perfect recipe to shake off the cobwebs.
One of the quickest cars to pass, it seemed, was the oh so delightful Talbot Sunbeam of Owen Murphy. The multiple Forestry champion has a well-known history of some giant killing results on Tarmac in Evo’s and Skoda’s, but he has now built what he believes to be the ultimate Historic car to stick it to the Ford Escort dominance. Stick it to them he did, as after the end of two days Murphy would take victory by over seven minutes from his nearest rival.
The National battle that promised soo much on Saturday night just never really ignited on Sunday. Meade ran into problems early on, while many others decided to simply get to the finish. Gary Kiernan made a push over the closing stages, but the gap would prove just too much for the West Cork national winner, seeing Duggan cruise home with 45 seconds to spare. With victory’s for Colin O’Donoghue and Rob Duggan, Killarney had plenty of local success to celebrate in the May sunshine.
Alas though, there must be a man to take home the trophy at the end of the day. Robert Barrable gave his Fiesta R5 an almighty push, and took maximum ITRC points, but simply ran out of legs on the Sunday stages. Starting the day with a 25 second deficit, it was Manus Kelly who truly had the bit between his teeth. The Donegal man has made a habit of winning in the S12 Impreza WRC of late, and he had every intention of making the most of a rare trip South. Manus said on Friday that the weather ‘Felt like June’, a nod to his ultimate goal, and come Sunday evening the champagne must too have tasted like June, when Kelly aims for a third straight Donegal win.
As the Lakes came to an exciting close on Sunday afternoon, I was nearly already home. Three long days of traipsing through rivers and down banks, over ditches and past sheep is hard going, never mind the added hardship of living out of a French hatchback. But for the sheer excitement of the event, getting right into the action and living the buzz, there truly is no better way to follow a rally!!
There’s a certain misery to standing out in the rain, a sense of self-derision that makes you question every single decision that led to that very point. You consider your sanity, or the lack thereof, you contemplate the effect on body and equipment and weigh up the multiple alternatives and value the opportunity cost. As the deluge continues to seep into every inch of the not-so-waterproof gear that you’ve packed, things turn into a battle of attrition. But it’s the battle through the bad times, that makes the good times much more enjoyable, and all things being equal, a weekend away in Northern Ireland chasing cars is no bad way to pass a few days.
I enjoy almost every sphere of the automotive world, as you may well have sussed reading this site, but it’s incredible the amount of people I encounter that go about their business totally oblivious to events and styles happening close by. Two events happened in Northern Ireland that I took in over the weekend. Both were sizeable in their attendances and their importance within their respective areas. Based less than 35 minutes apart though, it would be fair to say that the vast majority of the rally set had never heard of Dubshed, nor the stance set of the UAC Easter Stages. To me though, it had all the makings of a perfect weekend, taking in three full days of action.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rallying in Ireland has come through one of its hardest winters, and is in the midst of what may be a crucial season for the future of the sport. The Irish Tarmac Championship, still without a title sponsor, was dealt a number of blows in the off-season. While the cancellation of Galway prompted much debate, the choice to not-run the Circuit Of Ireland was almost swept under the rug. The debate on ‘The Circuit’ could run for days, but now is not the time nor place to get into that rant, but an event was needed badly to fill the breach. Up stepped the UAC and the Easter Stages, Round 2 of the 2018 ITRC.
Based out of Ballyclare, the event attracted the usual cohort of championship contenders, with Josh & Sam Moffett, Robert Barrable, Desi Henry, Johnny Greer, Daniel Cronin and Eugene Donnelly all behind the wheel of R5 machinery, yet was bolstered by local entries like the Subaru WRC’s of Stuart Biggerstaff & Derek McGarrity as well as the always very rapid Skoda Fabia R5 of Marty McCormack.
For such an event though, many would have been mistaken for not even knowing that the rally was taking place at all. Very little was known about the event right up to the time that cars landed into scrutiny on Thursday, something I found by chance. The detail would be got from the rally programme, but even that was available to purchase in barely 10 locations close to the stages. For an event based in Ballyclare, the large petrol forecourt on the edge of town had no idea the event was on, never mid have rally material, and on Saturday, a whole crew I met in a Tire shop in Ballymena had no idea that a rally stage passed within 7 minutes of their door. As for the entry, while the top 15 seemed stacked with big entries, it was obvious that having a round of the Irish Tarmac Championship and the National championship share a single weekend (The Circuit of Kerry ran on Sunday in Tralee) had a big knock on mid-field entries. The Junior section of the ITRC attracted only 2 entries!
Come Friday afternoon though, all thoughts of negativity was to be forgotten, and the joy of watching rally cars was to be the plan. I had made a point of driving the Friday stages to scout the best spots, and an uphill hairpin into a flowing section seemed ideal. Set into the sat-nav, I arrived in plenty of time. Plenty of other spectators had the same idea and were already in place. Positions were taken on the ditches, in preparation of the 1st car. It never made it to us. With 45 minutes notice, word reached that the stage had been shortened. It arrived not as a clear message, but as a whisper of ‘I’ve heard….’. It took 10 mins to get clarity. Alas, a rush on to simply get some location on stage, the rain began to fall as finally Stage 1 got set to start.
Friday was, in all sense of the word, a wash out. When I say it rained, it properly poured for hours on end. Perched at a fast left, it was amazing to watch the various four and two wheel cars struggle in different was in the deluge. The R5’s remained planted, as if the rain was non-existent, while the Escorts encountered some very hairy broadside moments. It was no surprise that as the day went on, social media was littered with rally cars dotted around the scenery. Amongst the downpour though, the trusty Impreza WRC came into its own and led. I wasn’t there to see it, as camera gear took such a beating in the rain it was decided to retire to drier surroundings, and a certain car had made it as far as Lisburn.
I’ve talked about Dubshed before, and how large an event it is in the Irish show car scene, but also marveled at the vastness of the spectacle. To see the Eikon center devoid of all bar six or seven cars on the Friday evening before the show was a rare sight. The rest of my travelling party had arrived for the weekend, with Ronan, owner of the previously featured Akai Golf, marking the long-haul debut of his newly built MK2 Golf Fire & Ice. We will have a feature, in time, but it has a date with PVW first! The plan was to drop the car off and expose some more people to the wonder and joy (!) of a day’s rallying, but soaked through the mood was just not there.
While Friday was a misery, Saturday started with a bright sky and sunshine……then my car had a puncture in the car park, and then one of the cameras started acting up from Fridays rain soakage and to round it off I fell knee deep into a bog hole. As starts go, this didn’t feel like my day, but that’s the beauty of rallying. While falling around in the mud, I spotted an ideal shooting location at a square left hander, and with a bit of heat from the car vents, the camera came back to life. As the first batch of cars passed, it was obvious that McGarritys Impreza was missing. The overnight leader saw his rally end with an issue preventing the Subaru from leaving Parc Ferme. Not only was it a joy to get such a prime spot, it also allowed a view back the road before the junction, and what a treat lay up there.
In this world of health and safety, every effort is being made to keep things becoming safer and more controlled. Rallying is the same, with shorter stages and numerous chicanes employed to reduce the chances of anything spectacular happening. As such, the prospect of finding a flat out 6th-gear jump is incredibly rare, never mind one that has plenty of prime viewing in safe locations. While some took it easy over the flying crest, it’s pretty clear that others had cleared with air-traffic-control before taking off. Rally cars in mid-air is always the money shot when you can get it!
Come the end of the two days, it was the Moffet brothers who would lead the way, yet again pushing each other to the very last. While there were 9.3 seconds between the brothers after two days in West Cork, there was a mere 4.6 seconds between then in Ulster. For the second event in a row, Josh took the bragging rights, and won the event as well in the process. Marty McCormack put up a strong battle, but finished 16 seconds back in third, while Robert Barrable and Daniel Cronin scored strong hauls of ITRC points. In the modified race, it was a two horse battle that saw Kevin Eves in the Corolla take the spoils by beating the flying MK1 Escort of Philip White.
Rallying done for the weekend, it was time to engage the VW and stance of my brain for the rest of the visit up North. Any mention of Mk1 or Mk2 had to be taken as now meaning a Golf rather than a Ford Escort, much to the amusement of those probably not accustomed to there being interpretations of their car jargon. What was obvious to see all weekend though was the sense of community and camaraderie that I never knew existed amongst the VW community. Groups that had travelled from all over the country were all there to have a good time and simply enjoy cars. Over a few refreshments, a local Weatherspoon’s must have been delighted with the sight of over 40 people opening a circle in the midst of their pup talking about build, showing pictures of engine bays and making plans for shows and the next vehicular purchase. I nearly bought a MK3, a Golf or an Escort I’m not sure, after a few beers, as seemed the mood of the night, the temptations to make silly car buys forgotten amongst the wonder of finding out there is an app that gets drinks delivered to your table!
Dubshed is quite an assault on the senses, with show car after show car stretching as far as the eye could see. My first visit seemed spectacular as the sheer variety and creativity on show. The second year came with more of an appreciation of the vehicles on display, but having watched a buddy spend a year building a car for this year, I spent the whole show looking at details, build styles and the execution as a results of countless hours of dedication.
While the show had stirred the waters over the past few years by allowing non-German metal to enter its hallowed walls, the invasion, save for a few exceptions, seemed pretty non-descript compared to previous years. The redesign of the show space, and the differing uses of indoor space, made it feel like a large trade show at times, but the car quality remained the same. My eyes, now trained to spot things I may never have paid heed to before, wandered often past the modern bags-and-wheels efforts towards the more hands-on old-school builds. A MK1 on carbs or an R32 swapped MK2 got more attention than some Audi or modern VW offerings.
Some cars really caught my eye this year, from the madly wild Sirocco, finished in Baby Blue with a massive GT style wing bolted to the rear, through to the much more sedate. If I was to pick a favorite car at any show, admitting to it being a mid-90’s Diesel VW Vento would be a hard argument, but the quality of this car just sucked me in time and time again every time I passed. So simple on the surface, the exterior very mildly altered from how VW intended, the addition of a Leather interior was sweet but the engine bay blew me away. The nod to old school tuning was there with the Austin green engine paint used, and as a car geek I absolutely adored it.
My coverage of Dubshed should not be taken as being anywhere near as thorough as others, but that is because it has transcended now from a Car event to a social event. It’s a chance to meet people, talk shite about silly low cars, have a rock shandy and just enjoy yourself. I probably should have taken more photo’s, as there was some cool stuff there, but why not just take a look for yourself next year. You won’t be disappointed I guarantee.
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!!
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!
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…….