It’s a difficult concept to explain really, the phenomena that is the MK2 Ford Escort in Irish Rallying culture. Every weekend, from mid-February to late December, is likely to have an event of some kind taking place, and its almost unthinkable to think that any would be devoid of the presence of a venerable Escort or two. Now nearly forty years since Ford released the second incarnation of their everyday car for the masses, Escorts continue to prove they’ll always be competitive! Swing by a Quarry for an Autocross and you’ll find one, the Forest rallies are littered with more robust examples but it’s on Irish Tar that the Mk2 truly is royalty.
As a small island, we may be devoid of much resembling proper Racetracks or dedicated Motorsport venues, but that’s turned a nation into a breed of backroad junkies. Rallying pushes drivers and machinery to go all out on twisty, slippy and generally mud-covered ribbons of tarmac passing over bogs, mountains, beaches and bridges. To succeed, not only does it take massive bravery, but a real all-rounder of an Escort is required.
Standing resplendent before me, in a unique shade of Fiat Bambino Blue, is Colin Byrne’s MK2. Squat, wide and aggressive, this beast is of the peak rallying pedigree, one of our much idolised ‘Class 14 Ultimate Escorts’. These cars are ones that sit at the top of the food train, the ones that roar past spectator lined ditches at silly speed and top time sheets stage after stage. This very car, in the hands of talented young driver Rob Duggan, is a recent event winner at the Killarney Historic Rally, while Colin has brought home a whole heap of Class Trophies that are a proud thought for Colin who has dedicated much of the last 20 years to the sport.
Ford has a long connection to Irish rallying, and while something like a 2.5 Escort may be the ultimate dream, many have entered the sport behind the wheel of a Blue Oval. Colin began in the humble surrounds of a 1300 Ford Ka, a perfect entry point for many newcomers to the sport. As the bug bit, the next step was into a true ex-Boreham works Puma. A slight head turn in the way of a French fancy, a Citroen C2R2, is remembered rather un-fondly, but come late 2015 a deal was struck and Colin was the beaming owner of his dream car, a Millington Powered MK2 Escort.
It’s that irresistible mix of a sideways MK2 and a screaming Millington Diamond that draws hundreds of spectators out onto the ditches in all weather, but inside the car it’s just the ultimate rush. While the original engine did fine for the first season, come the winter a deal was struck and a brand-new Series 2 Millington Diamond took the place of the Series 1. A 2.5L normally aspirated beast, the Diamond sends 350 bhp to the rear wheel, delivering a peak torque of 246 ft/lb down low in the rev range which is key in a tight and twisty rally stage.
The huge power is driven through a Tractive 6-speed Sequential gearbox feeding a fully floating Atlas Axle and a Tractive Diff and Half Shafts. Keeping that all traction and power being transferred into lightning quick acceleration is handled through some very trick suspension, designed nearly exclusively for the demands of Irish Tar. The suspension all around is handled by 3-Way Proflex dampers all around, with a pair of XTrac Shocks deployed out back. 15 Inch Minilite Wheels wrapped in Slick Michelin tyres add even further to a machine designed exclusively to cover asphalt against the clock.
With a kerb weight of approximately 1000kg, it’s obvious that plenty of measures have been taken to help gain that extra tenth of a second here and there. Outside, the original bumpers have been replaced with Carbon Fibre corner units. The vented bonnet is fibreglass, while much of the glass has been replaced with Polycarbonate.
Step inside and it’s strictly ‘race car’! A pair of beefy ATech bucket seats swallow up Colin and a brave co-driver, safe in the knowledge that the all manner of precautions including significant Roll Cage, Harnesses & fire extinguishers are designed to help the occupants should anything go wrong. Safety regulations mandate an alloy fuel cell in the boot, with a bulkhead separating it from the cabin.
The weight saving measures taken outside have extended inside, with a full wiring replacement by PT Motorsport Electrics saving over 9KG from the previous ‘mess’ of wires running through the car. Everything is now cutting edge, with a digital Gear display, onboard digital screen relaying vital engine reading and a carbon fibre centre panel containing all manner of necessary buttons and switches, although Colin cheekily adds that it’s up to the navi to learn them as he’s a too busy at the wheel!
With Colin’s CB-Tool Hire business flying and a growing interest in Autograss and Kart racing, you’d think that having the Ultimate MK2 would suffice, but that would be too easy. Having spent years supporting all manner of young up-and-coming driver and various events, this October see’s the CB name adorn an International Rally for the first time. September 29th and 30th will see over 120 crews tackle the CB Tool Hire Cork 20 Rally, and you can be sure that Colin will be in the mix. What he may be behind the wheel of though is still unknown, as while we finish the shoot, a little secret is dropped. An all-new Escort is currently being built by Den Motorsport for Colin, and its promised to have the best of the best in every area possible. That’s rallying for you, the constant strive to improve on Ultimate!
Holiday, a natural time to relax, unwind and recharge the body. Early June, with two full weeks booked off work, would be absolutely ideal for catching up on sleep, chilling out and enjoying a few cold beverages in the sunshine. It’s natural, but our man Cian doesn’t conform to normality. The following is an excerpt from the EuroTrip travel blog of a an absolute automotive nutter, and that’s in his own words!
This is becoming repetitive, almost to the point of feeling utterly futile. Each 30 second blast feels exactly like the last, only this time there is an angry looking man approaching at a rapid pace and I have little time to compose myself. Everything is flung across the passenger seat in flash, and my now free left hand jabs the gearstick into first while my other pulls the wheel violently right as I make way on this narrow stretch of tarmac. I needn’t have worried though, as if not even spotting my presence, a Clio 197 swings hard left straight into the ditch without a lift of throttle. Surprised, I grab my map and pen once again and scribble ‘Big Cut’, but 4km into the first stage, it dawned that I needn’t have bothered. This is Ypres, and every corner is BIG CUT!
Each and every one of us had a list of dream events, and I’m sure plenty of you, just like myself, have been influenced by tales of adventure and PetrolHead nirvana told through Speedhunters down the years. For years, I spent my time day dreaming in school and college about the places I wanted to travel simply to enjoy looking at other people’s cars. Coming from an Irish rallying background, a lot of my dream list consists of a number of the most spectacular examples of the sport, although I have to admit nearly all are of the sealed-surface, tarmac-based side of the discipline. Rally Ypres has, for quite some time, been pretty near the top of my list.
The fascination with this rather unique gem of Belgian rallying stems from a childhood spent watching as much motoring-based shows on TV as possible. As a rally-mad child growing up in Ireland, it was a real treat to be allowed sit up to watch RPM late on a Thursday evening. Showcasing all manner of events from both Rally and Track, the UTV show was a real gem in its day. Not content with just covering the Irish classic’s like Killarney, Donegal and Cork, RPM made the occasional trip further afield. The sight of a young Kris Meeke throwing a Corolla WRC around Barbados was cool, but it was the yearly duel between some of the UK & Irelands best and the likes of Freddy Loix, Patrick Snijers and Armin Schwarz in the Flanders sunshine that seems to set a seed.
Year after year, mid-June would see my attention turning to going’s on in Ypres. Generally clashing with events at home, I’d come home to a VHS recorded chock full of Eurosport recordings. Year after year, no matter the current leading style of vehicle, from Group A to WRC, S2000 to R5, it seemed nobody could topple ‘Fast Freddy’, as Loix racked up 11 wins. He walked past me in the square in Ypres on Saturday afternoon. I said hello, and he replied. Freddy continued upon his way, while I had an internal fan-boy moment.
Now, while I have been doing well of late to tick a few dream events, there was always a sizeable obstacle in the way of me making it to those flat, flowing fields of West Belgium. You see, while going to watch something at a circuit, like at the Nürburgring the previous week, can realistically be done by flying in and living out of luggage for a few days, rallying takes a lot more logistics to follow, thus driving is the only real option when photographing an event.
Wednesday morning, I closed the boot on my car, going through the mental list in my head that I’ve developed over years traipsing around Ireland. Clothes and camera gear were obvious, but the addition of off-road boots and thick socks is a lesson of many sore feet. Getting to the best spots requires often arriving hours before the action, so a camping chair, stove, pots and cutlery are added to the mix. Being that it’s the height of summer right now, a cooler box found its way in too. Driving on the continent requires a breakdown kit, and the prospect of an occasional nap sees a pillow and blanket tossed in for good luck. Now, how much would that be in Baggage?
Car fuelled, cool box/fridge (plug in job to make you feel exactly like a Rolls Royce owner) stocked up and sat-nav set, it was destination Ypres. When I did say a sizeable obstacle earlier, I may slightly have understated. Door to door was a 15 hour, 1100km one-way journey, done through the longest day of the year. I watched the sun set across the bow of an Irish Sea ferry, yet saw it reappear barely a few hours later somewhere along a UK motorway. In a weird status of high energy drinks being cancelled out by easy-listening to late night music, the miles clicked off with ease. Through the Channel tunnel and remembering to drive on the ‘wrong’ side after being awake for 24 hours, it was hammer down for the Belgian Border!
Arriving in Ypres, the first striking thing is how much this event takes over the whole city, with the large central squares becoming the Service Park for the weekend. Large awnings stretch out in front of historic churches and museums, Waffle-Houses reverberating to the sound of lumpy idols and smelling strongly of Race Fuel. Every turn reveals more teams setting up base for the weekend, with each square becoming less and less distinctive leading to quite a bit of head scratching as to where I’d parked the car. Signed on and stage maps in hand, it was time to take a look at these mythical stages.
For all the advances in modern technology, rallying remains decidedly old-school in how it conducts its business. To find the route, spectators have to purchase a printed Rally Programme. In this, the centre page is generally a tear out map detailing the route, and from there is up to you to plot your route. With a few hours to spare until the opening action, I head out onto the stages to find the best vantage points. A few hundred metres into stage 1 I had stopped twice, and scribbled V.Fast and Big Cut onto the map. By the 2 km mark the maps was a mess of dots and handwritten notes, and by Kilometre marker 5 I had given up, as watching a Recce Renault 197 dive nearly sideways into the scenery was a clear reminder that I need not bother with a Recce. I wanted speed and cuts, and Ypres is just that and more.
Thursday night is practice and qualifying, with the top crews getting a chance to take on a short stretch of stage to sort any last-minute niggles and set a time that would decide road position for the following day. Stood in a dusty field surrounded by waist high crops, the first crackle of an exhaust notes at full chat echo’s in the distance. The sizeable crowd, three and four deep in places, becomes tense. Casual chit-chat stops in anticipation. I’m like a child. A Fiesta R5 roars into sight on my left, the audible scream of a limiter being bashed accompanying it along its path. As it approaches a tight right, it’s an assault on the senses. The car makes a sudden dive for the ditch, inside wheels dipping feet off the tarmac. The scrape of a sump guard against the black-top is audible above the engines roar, as is the visible sparks through the kicked-up dust. In a matter of moments, the car is gone again, leaving only a large plume of dust to waft over the masses. 9.5 seconds the car is in the line of sight, and that’s it. Rallying, speed and excitement all in one. And then the next car follows.
By the end of qualifying, the clock is well beyond 9pm. I’ve been awake for 36 hours at this stage, and am beginning to watch a second straight sunset without sleep. Getting rather delusional, its back to the Air BnB, a real sign that this is a holiday as an Irish event would usually be done by sleeping in the car, yet by the time I get pictures downloaded, edited and sorted, its nearly 12. A thirty-nine-hour day before the event even begins, that’s rallying!
Friday is an odd day in Ypres, as it feels like there is a lot to time to sit and wait around before the action begins. The first stage of the rally doesn’t kick off until 16.30, giving the fans plenty of time to get up close with the stars. One man seems to move amongst a scrum of eager supporters everywhere he moves. They love their rallying in Belgium, and the current superstar is Thierry Neuville. The Hyundai driver currently leads the World Rally Championship, so its understandable that his decision to spend the mid-season break putting on a show for the home droves is a popular decision. Come the evening though, it was go time.
Ypres, as a rally, has always held a unique place in the rally world. Bar a few spells in the European Championship, the event has never been a round of any major championship, thus it has developed organically into the beast that it now is. The prospect of this being a round of the British Rally Championship has enticed a large entry of UK and Irish crews yet again, but the real cutting edge of the entry is loaded with the cream of European talent, be it both the cohort of quick locals used to the challenge or the influx of WRC2 drivers using this as a test for WRC Germany. The R5 class is the pinnacle here, and a mind blowing Thirty-One take to the start.
During the 1980’s and 90’s, Ypres was a 24-Hour rally, and although financial restraints have pretty much ended the endurance rallies of old, the event still manages to cram 23 special stages into 27 hours. Its well into the night when I get off the Saturday stages, nearly 23.30, but its worth it for the sight of rally cars racing through the sunset.
While the R5’s were leading the way, the crowd was divided on what was the real highlight. To many, the battle for RGT glory was an absolute feast for the senses. Developed as a class to encourage the return of sports cars to the stages, RGT has seen everything from Aston’s to Abarth’s, but the Belgian’s are all for Porsche. Full blown, un-silenced, howling, flame spitting GT3 911’s, snaking through the Belgian scenery, the large rear tyres fighting for grip on a constant basis. The spectacle was both incredible and deafening in equal measure. Patrick Snijers, yes THE Patrick Snijers of that infamous Manx rally 1988 video, led the way, but seven other GT3’s followed.
To me though, the additional ‘Historic Rally’ was just a sweet addition. Not did the entry boast all manner of hero cars, the driver entry included names like Latvala and Toivinen. The sight of a sideways MK2 Escort is something that we are spoiled with in Ireland, but to see the admiration held across the continent for what was Ford’s mid-70’s family car is just staggering.
After three long days and absolutely caked in dust, I had become completely drained. In the setting sun over Flanders Fields, it would be that man Neuville who would take the victory, but in as commanding a manner as expected. For me, Ypres was every bit as special as expected, and I may never look at a grass ditch the same again as that’s where the time lies. The long road home passed close to Goodwood and there was some Stance show on, so it would have been rude to not add a few days and call in for a look!
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!