“Can’t wait for June to come around, Can’t wait for that four cylinder sound. Flat shifting and rubber on the ground all weekend long”. Sport and music, forever a case of never the two shall mix. It’s been tried countless times, and many a list of worst abominations ever committed to a recorded media include the world of sport trying to cash in on improbable cup runs or qualification success with a corny singalong. Occasionally, events become legendary, and celebration ballads are recited as a reminder of happier times. Joxer will be forever imprinted as a memory of the glory days of Irish soccer, but to have an Irish motorsport event celebrated in song is highly unlikely. Then there’s the Joule Donegal Rally, which has 3!!
When I set out my calendar for the year , generally in early January so as to book time off work, certain events are permanent fixtures. The third week in June though, well that goes down first. A pilgrimage of sorts, there is just such an aura around the Donegal International that it just sucks you in. No matter what it is that draws you to the North West, the place just seems to tick all the boxes. For me, it’s a chance to cut loose for a long weekend and enjoy all manner of car life on show.
The rally itself is almost a relic of a bygone era, exactly like the current Lions tour or the Isle of Man TT which trades on history and mythical status of having remained undiluted as all else around them became more streamlined and economical in their approach. For quite some time now, the three day format has been unique here in Ireland and most of Europe. While other’s have struggled to muster entries to affordable singe day events, the Donegal Rally boasts the largest entry of any event all year, with nearly 180 crews looking to get a coveted starting slot, before considering the added 40 entries in the Junior and Historic sections.
While obviously attracting massive numbers of entries, it’s the quality of these that can be mind blowing when you stop and think. I’ve mentioned a few times now in rally reports of how the decision to make WRC cars in-eligible to score points has changed the look of many of our events, with the sole World Car in Killarney highlighting this, yet come Donegal there are nine on the start line, with the likely winner expected from the opening quartet. While there is a massive cohort of crew’s with Championship aspirations, it seems that winning Donegal is such an accolade that many have forgiven titles in the hunt for their own slice of history.
The sport of Rallying, while obviously a nation wide spectacle with events from Skibbereen to Fanad and everywhere in-between, has its strongest following in Donegal. Local hero’s are the talk of every town land and parish, yet in the 40 plus years of the rally only four county men have ever tasted success, yet when the roll of honour includes names such as Loeb, Vatanen, Fisher and McRae then it highlights the mammoth task involved in crossing the finish ramp after 20 grueling stages. This year, Donagh Kelly was determined that he would have his name added to rally folklore, and he was the man to catch right from the off. With the county crest emblazoned on the bonnet of his Ford Focus, he set a blitzing pace on the opening Friday stages. He maintained this wll into Saturday, but lurking with intent at every step was last year’s winner Manus Kelly. We in Ireland seem to have an affinity for WRC car’s of the 2 Litre variety, and to see the pinnacle of this era in the S12 Impreza and ’07 Focus going hammer and tong is a real throwback.
While up the front of the field was dominated by the four wheel drive machinery, as mentioned in my preview post the real searing battles would rage in the national section. The Modified Grand Prix is fitting, as nowhere else do we get to see the who’s who of Ireland’s grassroots rallying scene go toe-to-toe. Like winning the event outright, claiming the Donegal National crown is a huge thing in itself. As always, the entry list was dripping in quick Ford Escorts, but the added sprinkling of the always competitive Toyota’s seen up north, a brace of Darian’s and a few other oddities added some variety, yet the trusty MK2 when driven on the limit is somewhat unbeatable a spectacle.
The early favourite to take the National was Brian Brogan, a true hometown hero and Donegal Motor Club stalwart, but his rally would come to an abrupt end early on. Others hit trouble, leaving a trio of Gallagher’s leading the way. Kevin in the Darian was on a charge until hitting issues on Sunday, leaving namesake Damien to steer his Ford to victory, while Declan made a rare appearance and brought the ever enjoyable KP Starlet to a well deserved second place.
Down the field, whereas many rallies have very distinguishable classes with specific cars being the weapon of choice, in Donegal it felt as if every class was won by a MK2 Escort such was the deluge of them right through the field. Even when the historic runners made an appearance on Saturday, a lone Mini Cooper was the only top-10 car not bearing the blue oval upon its grill. As ever, it was a toe to toe fight between Ernie Graham and Barry Jones, a reoccurring theme of this years Historic Championship, and after two hard days it was Graham who left Donegal victorious, with his Welsh adversary just behind in second.
The R5 class has, to me at least, become a small big stagnant of late. Its a case of the same faces every rally, and the element of competitiveness just seems to not be hitting the high’s of last year. That been said, it’s still a frantic battle to watch, and the perhaps it’s just that we have been spoiled with a few years of rapid driving that we expect these cars and crews to be pushing for event wins. Donegal did see the Tarmac debut of Richard Tannihill’s stunning Peugeot 208 R5, and what a glorious piece of kit it is to watch at full chat. We have a rich history here in Ireland of always being a home to a succession of brand new rally machinery down the years, and that continues to this day with a stream of brand-new R5’s making appearance throughout the past few years.
To me, I have become more enthralled of late with the battles in the R2 class. Very much a star of the future proving ground, and a proper stepping stone into the higher reaches of the sport, watching well driven little hot hatches will never cease to be a proper spectacle. I have an immense affinity for Callum Devine’s Opel Adam, possibly due to its constant desire to corner on two wheels, but it has its work cut out defending from hot shots like Marty Gallagher and Will Creighton in their Peugeot 208’s. These guys will go places, and more really has to be made of this side of the championship to help gain the recognition needed for these guys!!
Sunday is moving day. It’s Championship day. Tiger wear’s Red, Manus Kelly wears wet’s. In a misty Millford, it would be a tyre choice that swung the balance of play for the whole rally. The Subaru, starting the day 7 seconds off the lead after a Saturday evening charge, truly began to fly. The damp roads hindered the slick wearing Focus of Donagh Kelly, meaning a succession of stage wins left the Impreza leading for the first time all weekend. In deep trouble, Donagh had to push beyond anything he’d done before, but alas it was too much and on the penultimate stage the dream ended up rolling into a ditch, and the stricken Focus was out. For the second year in a row, a dramatic Sunday gave Manus and Donall Barrett the victory. Sam Moffett brought his Fiesta R5 home in second after a much publicised ‘moment’ on the final loop, with Gary Jennings finishing third in another Impreza WRC.
While the rally action raged all weekend, Letterkenny was thriving. I said in my Lakes post that I felt unwelcome as a rally follower in Killarney, and last weekend re-affirmed my belief that Donegal Rally Weekend is the best event in the Irish car scene. Under the weight of more than 70’000 people descending for a weekend, Letterkenny felt so welcoming. All along the stages, homemade signs adorned gates with greetings, home owners opened their homes for parking and a number of house porch’s were turned into home shops to cater for rally followers. In town, entertainment venues actively sought to attract rally followers in for the night, with the town being turned into a pedestrian zone in a friendly manner rather than a clampdown.
They say Donegal has it all, and did feel that way. If your of the mentality that doing rings in a Lexus is great, a number of events were ongoing to cater for demand and the numbers queuing for things like King of The Cone all weekend showed how much of an opportunity there is to put on events that people wanted. Car washes ran from early morning to well past dark, petrol stations became impromptu car meets, as we showed with our look at the Zero7Four crew earlier in the week, and I certainly believe that about 3 months production of Buckfast must have been shipped direct from the monastery to the North West. As the evenings passed, I got strong flash backs to my Worthersee days, as everywhere you looked crowds just parked up anywhere possible and enjoyed the seeming thousands of cars floating around, with everything imaginable from brand new BMW M cars right through to a Triumph Herald, and all manner of stuff in between.
A week later, and I still feel drained from the madness of Donegal. As an event, the rally has been able to maintain its standing as arguably one of the premier Motorsport events in Europe, but its the buzz around it that makes it special. It’s 51 weeks until the trip will be made again, and I might aswell tell work that I’ll be missing the third week of June next year….and the year after again!!
Every person who’s life revolves heavily around a hobby generally has a key date in mind when planning their year. No matter the interest, we all have that single point in time where we know exactly where exactly we wish to be, and I’m no different. For myself, and countless motorsport or simply car enthusiasts, the third weekend in June is special. For me, it’s pretty much my summer holiday, a chance to unwind and enjoy one of the nicest corners of our Island while taking in some stunning action. It can only be Donegal Weekend!!
This year, for the first time in a long time, I have made the trip North on the Thursday. As this remains the countries only 3-day rally, action kicks off on Friday afternoon, yet the necessary side events begin from early in the week. While the crews have done their recce at this stage, today was mainly the formality of getting cars through scrutiny and parked up ahead of a long weekend of challenging stages. Safety items checked and documents cleared, the crews must now sit anxiously waiting for the mornings alarm.
The way that Letterkenny welcomes the rally is like a breath of fresh air, with hundreds of people out watching tech inspections and countless adverts for ‘Rally Weekend’ social activities. Its an attitude like that which keeps people coming back year on year, and over 50,000 people are expected to visit over the weekend.
In terms of the runners and riders, last years winner Manus Kelly leads the pack away in his Subaru Impreza WRC. An oft dwindling sight of late, Donegal and its allure have attracted a plethora of WRC machinery back out, including similar Subaru’s of Gary Jennings & PJ McDermott, while the Ford corner is stacked with Donagh Kelly in the Focus and crowd-favorite Declan Boyle in the Fiesta.
Donegal has the name of the Modified grand Prix, and the line up of top class modified machinery is clear to see, with a venerable who’s who of star drivers. The same can also be said for the R5 category, with all the regular championship protagonists in attendance, ready to go to war over 20 tricky tests.
Donegal is a temptress that attracts some special entries, and I for one cannot wait to hear John Coyne getting to grips with the Tuthill’s built Porsche 911 RGT car down some twisting country lanes.
The action kicks off tomorrow with 3 stages repeated twice west of Letterkenny. The weather today has been showery, but having driven the stages the surfaces seem incredibly prepared and in great shape. Stay tuned all weekend for more updates and pictures. Cian.
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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