Mondello Park is, to anyone involved with cars or motorsport, a cherished addition to this country. Our sole proper Race Track, Mondello has evolved to always remain relevant, no matter the ever changing environment that is track-based racing. From humble beginnings to hosting large scale International events, the Kildare venue has delivered time and time again, yet still remained as open as possible to all strains of the motoring world. Manufactures use the venue to entertain guests or launch new vehicles, Drift schools use the large paddock spaces to train the next generation of driving talent while events like TrackDays.ie allow joe soaps like me to be pretend race drivers for a day. With Mondello Park celebrating its 50th Birthday this week, it was only fitting that a celebration was in order.
It has been no secret that the cost of all motorsport activity is growing with every year that passes, almost heading unthinkably towards a point of extinction, and as such a large push has been made from within to help protect the sports that we cherish. In the face of higher insurance levies, entry fees and other costs, the Irish Motorsport Support Fund came to be. Steered by a core of enthusiasts with experience of all manner of Motorsport activities, the aim is to provide financial relief to ultimately reduce costs falling on the competitor, as such a case of Motorsport giving back and supporting its own future.
The IMSF knew that to do things correctly, it was going to take a sizeable event to boost their profile and raise money for the fund. With the coincidental anniversary of Mondello Park’s opening, it made sense to create the Mondello50, a true celebration of all things motorsport related in this country. Bringing together strands of the sporting world that are likely to never meet was a novel touch, and a huge boost to the events appeal.
While many of the Motorsports present may seem diverse and at times un-connected, the common bond that tied many together was Mondello itself. Thinking through the disciplines on display, it made sense to celebrate the track through displays of all facets of the Irish car-based sporting world. The Hillclimb guys may seem at home racing up and down steep stretches of tarmac, but multiple rounds of the Naylor Engineering Irish Hillclimb & Sprint Championship take place on the hallowed Mondello track. The Navigation and Endurance Trial cars may seem at home on filthy lanes in the middle of the night, but countless events utilise the sprawling grounds of the Caragh venue for tests. The same for Autotesting, with rounds often happening in the large paddock even while other series use the circuit around them. Rallying has a storied history with Mondello, with it often hosting a spectator stage as part of the marathon Circuit of Ireland as well as countless modern Sprint events, while its wilder Rallycross offspring has made Mondello is home. Then there are the Drifters.
When Drifting landed into Ireland in the early 00’s, it found a home in Rosegreen. The Tipperary Stockcar oval was special, but ultimately through a combination of ownership changes and the boom in the sport had to move beyond its roots. Mondello welcomed drifting in with scepticism, yet all these years later the pair are almost inseparable. The Irish Drift Championship now have their offices based on site, while their events draw crowds reminiscent of the popularity of the Circuit of Ireland in the 80’s. As a celebration of Mondello, it was natural that Drifting would be represented, but what I had completely lost sight of was the fact that although the sport has flourished here for 15+ years, many of those in attendance with be witnessing the spectacle live for the very first time.
What caught my eye almost immediately in the paddock was the awning of Stone Motorsport, and the pair of vehicles sitting underneath. I’d seen the ‘Drift Taxi’ before, both at Drift, Hillclimb and on a visit to the incredible Stone facility last year, but it still commands so much attention. The three passenger bucket seats were certainly getting plenty of use over the weekend. What I really wanted to see though was the prosperously low Nissan Silvia S15 sat next to it. A newly completed build for the 2018 season, Stones have thrown every ounce of knowledge and skills into creating what they believe to be the ultimate chassis for both Drifting & Hillclimbing. With the front clip removed, the Honda K24 sits proudly as an act of defiance to the conventional wisdom of RB’s and 2J’s ruling the world. The chassis work, which I find incredibly reminiscent of a Pro Mod drag car, is absolutely impeccable as you would expect from a vehicle designed as the company’s essential demo-car. While the Aristo was getting plenty of regular runs, the Silvia only appeared in fleeting bursts.
As the drifting guys put on a show in front of a new audience, the main track section or Live Arena was split equally time wise between those and the Rally Cars. The nature of the event leant itself to having Rally as the largest spectacle in the eyes of many present, and a constant succession of differing cars and styles of driving rally helped to give a flavour of the world we spend weekends trudging through fields and ditches to watch. Long queues formed all day to take advantage of passenger spins available. There was representation of all facets of style and era on show, from early-60’s BMC Mini Cooper S’s through to often sideways MK2 Escorts and modern Group N machinery.
Sprinkled among the cars present were a number of very rare and valuable machines. The legendary Group B era is often considered as the pinnacle of Rallying due to speed, danger & drama that period evoked in the eyes of the public, and those days was relived with none other than a Lancia 037, an Audi Quattro and a Rover Metro 6R4 screaming around the confines of Mondello’s opening corners, each passing in wails of utterly magnificent and distinctive exhaust notes.
Amongst the machinery being thrown about, I naturally had personal favourites, which is blatantly obvious from the sheer number of photo’s I have of two particular cars. Both are a reflection of the owner’s connection with rallying, owned and built in homage to a certain period that provided the inspiration. Both are also the complete anthesis of each other!! On one side of the preverbal fence, Donagh Kelly (recent winner of the West Cork Rally for a 5th time) was really out to play. He owns the Metro 6R4, which was being driven by somebody else that we’ll get to in a bit, but it was his other ‘toy that just does it for me. An Opel Ascona Coupe is a special car right from the off, and in rallying 400 form, utterly beautiful. In a sea of Escort domination in the early-80’s, the Ascona was a proper fighter.
At the hands of Walter Rohrl is became a World Champion, but in Ireland it gained admiration at the hands of Jimmy Mcrae, Bertie Fisher, Austin McHale and even Henri Toivinen. This particular car has a more local connection for Donagh though, for this is the very car that Donegal hero James Cullen wrestled around some of the country’s most famous stages. The livery is a tribute to Cullen’s 1988 attempt on the Donegal International, an event the car would finish runner up on. Thirty years later though, it felt like a grainy RPM video playing out in front of my eyes. As was plain to see, this car may look like a museum piece, but it sure ain’t treated like one.
While all out, sideways everywhere machinery dominated the domestic scene in the 1980’s, the following decade saw all this change. As technology moved on and cars became more expensive, it was becoming harder for young drivers to make a name in the sport. The days of buying an affordable Ascona or Escort and hoping to win an event were ended by the new breed of Group A cars. These monsters were incredible to watch and spawned countless Homologation special road cars, but they were beyond the reaches of most. There was a need to develop a support category to get youngsters onto a path towards success, and a boom in small front-wheel-drive hot hatches seemed the natural place to begin. Super 1600 was born.
An S1600 car is one serious piece of kit, have no doubt about that. High power, high revving screamers were the default order of business, all designed to be surrounded by all the best of technology available at the time. An arms race soon kicked off with countless manufactures getting involved, but it was the French who were the class leaders. While the Clio was impressive, it was the Citroen Saxo S1600 which proved its dominance from the start. This particular Saxo had a hard life, going from a works car campaigned in 2001/2 to being found badly damaged in a Northern Irish barn, until it fell into the hands of David Hunt. Anyone that has followed the build online over the last 2 years will attest to the sheer level of detail afforded in its restoration. To hear the little Citroen absolutely howling at berserk revs is a wonderful experience, although trackside I probably could have done with ear protection.
All around, various disciplines put on a show. Out on the international loop, a pack of Rallycross cars scrabbled for grip thanks to their rather compromised set up on Tarmac, while Auto Cross Semog buggies chased each other around while sounding like a pack of 90’s Formula 1 cars.
In the in-field sections between the National and International loop’s, Off Road Trial were taking place. An obvious stepdown in pace from all the frantic action happening all around, the skill required to get these rather specialised vehicles into some of the spot I saw to some incredible control.
Alas though, all good party’s need a star performer to really put on a show, and the IMSF had a treat lined up for good old Mondello. Craig Breen is at the absolute pinnacle of World Rallying right now, competing in the WRC with the factory Citroen team. The Waterford man has had an incredibly difficult path to the top, but it seems that his pure passion for rallying was the driving force at times. Craig’s enthusiasm for the sport is infectious, and he is never afraid to profess his Irish motorsports roots. Pushed recently during a WRC interview on a favourite Car and Rally pairing, the answer was pure Craig. “A Metro 6R4, every day of the week. No Question. Where would I bring it? To the Hills. Donegal International Rally”. Well, the weather did feel like mid-June, and there was a Metro sitting in the Mondello paddock……
After soo casually mingling around the paddock all morning, and yes there are photos of him checking out the Saxo, it was time for a warm up for Craig. Strapped into the Ford Escort he went viral with last year (2nd overall on the Ravens Rock Rally with friend Patrick Croke ‘co-driving’ without notes), Craig went out and put some of the drift cars to shames, sliding the Ford around with consummate ease, both back wheels billowing smoke in a fashion definitely not seen on a timed rally stage.
Few runs done, it was time to strap into the fearsome Rover. I stood at the start line less than a few feet from the stack of 6 vertical trumpets atop the engine block. The launch was gingerly made, and I felt somewhat disappointed, but the next sight I had was a 30-year-old monster sliding under braking, right on the limit. Many of the relics of that glorious period are now cherished and very valuable collector vehicles, so to see a Group B monster being driven by the scruff of the neck by one of the Worlds best drivers is a real privilege.
Mondello Park, as well as the motorsports that use the venue, have changed massively over the past 50 years. It’s important to step back at times and celebrate what we have available on our shores, and the IMSF are determined to do their best to ensure we can have plenty more celebrations in the future!
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!
Ireland in late September is a funny place. The sense of closure and conclusion equal the sense of excitement. A time, if ever there was one, to look back on the year to date, lament the loss of Summer that must have passed in a blink, reminisce of sporting endeavors and begin making lists. Lists of things needing work in the off-season, lists of highlights and more importantly, finalize a list of champions. The Cork ’20 has become the final swansong of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship for quite some time now, and it’s spot in the calendar is a bookend for many. After one final blast around some Cork scenery, countless cars will return to garages and sheds and begin prepping for next year. Drivers will chase funding and the usual planning of next years programme can begin. As for a list of Champions, this year has been easy!!
Utter domination is something that is mentioned in sporting senses on a regular basis, but Sam Moffett, Karl Atkinson and their Combilift Fiesta R5 have been the embodiment of the term in 2017. They finish the year having done the Triple Crown of Irish Rallying, winning the ITRC, the National and the Forestry Championships. They’ve done so by not only winning 9 events this year, including Killarney’s Rally of the Lakes, but consistently bringing the car home in point scoring positions. Cork has suffered at times with the championship being sown up beforehand, with many skipping the rally. But not Sam. Needing to start SS1 to become champion, the Monaghan driver decided to put on a rallying show.
But, to get to the top, you need to be pushed by the best. Hot on Sam’s heels all year have been Ali Fisher and his own brother Josh, both in similar R5 Fiesta’s. It was this trio who set the early pace, but Fisher would succumb to mechanical issues, something that ultimately ended his championship hopes on the previous round. As for the Moffetts, championship firmly in hand, they went nuts. Each stunning stage time stirred a reaction in the other. Over 15 stages, the pair were separated by no more than a handful of seconds yet remained minutes ahead of anyone else. In the end, Josh ran out of luck on the final test giving Sam to perfect send off to the 2017 season.
Behind them, the regular ITRC runners were joined by two quick local crews, with Kevin Kelliher being the sole WRC entrant in the S14 Impreza, while Owen Murphy made a rare apearance in the screaming S2000 Fabia.
In the National, bar a major crash in Donegal, the AE86 Corolla of Kevin Eves has been the pace setter all year, but as with Moffett, the northern crew simply had to cross the start line to become Champions. Cross it they did, but it wouldn’t have been worth the trip to not put on a show. The Baby Blue Toyata was sideways everywhere, throttle pinned as tyres scrabbled for grip in the tricky conditions. As with Moffett, Eves rounded off a stellar 2017 by adding a Cork ’20 victory to the mantle piece.
In the Juniors, FreshFix favourite Eric Calnan had No. 1 on the door of the Silver 106, but gearbox issues on Saturday dropped him out of the running. Michael Black was flying in the mean looking Toyota Starlet, but come the end of the last stage, the Toyota was nowhere to be seen handing both the event victory and championship crown to Jenna McCann in the R2 Fiesta!!
The conditions, to put it mildly, were awful on Saturday. Roads, already primitive and secondary in nature, became mud filled messes as a field of rally cars attacked them in the pouring rain. It was only natural that the conditions would catch out the un-wary, and while it resulted in stage cancellations and delays, safety is the most important element of our sport. The Escort below is a prime example of the conditions causing wreck. A low speed, off camber right hander became an aquaplaning nuisance, with tyres hitting water before tar and spearing into the scenery. Thankfully, they hit a soft part of ditch, and the crew contuinued!!
So while the ITRC season may be finished, rallying is not over for 2017. There are still plenty of smaller regional events pencelled in for the next few months, and then December technically see’s the ITRC start again, for Historic crew’s at least, in Killarney. As for me, well I’m off to invest in proper rain gear!!