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Euro-Trip Part II: Tarmac Fever in Ypres

Euro-Trip Part II: Tarmac Fever in Ypres

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 Lakes of Killarney

The Lakes of Killarney

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!!

Northbound and Down

Northbound and Down

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.

Rallying Down West!

Rallying Down West!

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!

EXTRA IMAGES

A Welsh WRC Adventure

A Welsh WRC Adventure

Darkness and noise! Utter, total, smothering darkness. Pure blackness the like of which I’d never imagined before. Torch light barely pierced its gloom, hiding everything around. A glimmer of misty rain ran against my face, but without being able to see it before my eyes, I couldn’t tell if it was real. A dense forest atop a steep valley, daylight had been beaten into submission. And there was noise. Not natural woodland sounds like the creak of branches underfoot or moving wildlife, but a demonic roar that echoed through the tree’s. Minutes passed at will as the cacophony of pure mechanical aggression grew louder. Turbo charged chirps and flutters briefly interjected, but this was flat out, continuous movement, approaching at what seemed like an un-natural rate. Then we entered ‘the light’.

To experience a full-blown World Rally Car has, since their inception in the late 90’s, always been a special occasion. The ultimate machine designed to take on a truly staggering variety of terrains as quickly as possible, WRC cars are the pinnacle of production based motor-racing. In Ireland, we embraced the breed, and soon became home to a plethora of these rallying monsters, and many events boasted WRC entries numbering almost 20 at the pinnacle of the Celtic Tigre. While we have fallen from those heady heights, many still remain on Irish soil and often compete with notable success. For all my years growing up watching Donnelly, Nesbitt, Boyle et al wrestle these machines around narrow lanes, I’d never experienced the full-blown experience of a works car driven by the best in the business. 2017 has been the catalyst I needed though.

In January this year, I bit the bullet and headed for the snowy mountains of southern France for Rallye Monte Carlo. I gushed at the time of the spectacle, I made mental plans to get to place like Poland or Finland and I came away spell bound. As the season passed, I fell into a malaise. I was more comfortable watching the action on TV, or dates simply clashed, and thus I was pretty resigned to my sole WRC adventure for the year. Wales, the traditional curtain call to the season, had often flirted with my attention, but so did its many downsides. Watching footage year after year, all that came off the screen was cold, rain and a lot of mud. This year though, a calendar change had brought the rally earlier, the weather prospects were better and it fell on a long weekend. No brainer, right? Well work got in the way….or so it seemed!

About a week before the rally was to kick off, changes in work lifted a holiday ban in place for that time of year. Rally GB entered my head, but I dismissed it. The comfort argument reared its head, as did a number of local events on the same weekend, and so I cooled my jets and buckled up for the weekend. But I made a vital mistake. Thursday evening, just as the crews were heading off for Stage 1 of the event, I had a sneaky look at ferry prices. Like an addict on the scrounge, I said I’d let the expensive price warn me off…..but it didn’t. At about a days’ notice, I was heading for the forests for another date with the World Rally Championship.

The following day(s) was one of the oddest/draining/exciting days of my life. 44 hours of no sleep, 600 miles driving, a red-eye ferry, 6 cans of Red Bull, a stale Croissant, 7 miles of walking, 3 changes of socks and a huge, un-nerving smile. That’s what it takes to be a rally freak!!

Back tracking slightly though, Friday was a blur. The working day became an empty nothingness, all productivity side-lined with excitement for the weekend. The two-hour drive home was pretty much the same, although the thought process was slightly interjected with rational thoughts of what all to take. Car thoroughly packed, a short hop to Dublin Port and across the Irish sea saw me landed in Wales at 5.30am. I should have slept, taken rest or the like, but there was a forest to get to, and barely 2 hours later, the faithful daily driver touched gravel for the first time. Rain gear engaged, cameras locked and loaded and a high energy liquid-breakfast, the madness began.

Before the start of this season, much had been made of the new direction taken by the championship organisers with regards vehicle regulations. The fan’s wanted more aero, more noise and more speed. What the FIA did though, rather oddly, was grant all those wishes. The new cars are truly mental, have more wings than a Boeing and go like stink. It’s been a spectacular year with 7 different drivers taking wins, and every manufacturing tasting victory champagne. The fans have backed the new breed as well, and the queues to get to the stages is testament to the success that 2017 has been. Arriving 3 hours before a rally stage in Ireland, the course would still be open public road for at least 90 more minutes, yet here I was parking up 3 miles away on an approach road littered with cars and vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

I have mentioned it several times throughout the year of the variety of cool road-going metal you find following rallying. People that spend their weekends off standing in grass ditches are of course exactly the type of people who would see no issue driving their often-pristine vehicles into some pretty rough terrain. As the early morning fog lifts, both from my head and the surrounding mountains, I pass a pair using a hefty Group A lamp pod affixed to a Lancia Delta Intagrale as a tea tray, while others emerge from the rather opulent, and uber-low accommodation afforded in the back of a Volvo 850R. The pair of Daihatsu 4-Trac’s look at home here, more so than poor Peugeot 306 Rallye, named more in recognition of flowing French tarmac than rutted Welsh tracks. Then though, there are car owning hero’s that take cool to new levels. The retro car bubble has seen the price of Mitsubishi Lancer Tommi Mac’s absolutely skyrocket, yet here in the midst of a muddy forest I found one of the possibly cleanest I’ve ever witnessed. For all you true JDM nerds, the car arrived in the UK in recent years…….as a Grade 4.5!!

The organisation side of an event as large as Rally GB is one I’ve never experienced before in the rallying world. An excellently detailed rally guide provided stage maps, locations and viewing point information making the route planning incredibly easy. Arriving to the stage, large areas were designed to cater for the influx of spectators that descended over the weekend. Perched in place on Gartheineog, I had actually thought I was on a totally different stage but there’s the tiredness, it was time to wait. Bang on 9.40am though, the first shots of anti-lag rung out, and a sideways Citroen came into view, emerging sideways from around a stack of logs. A chase helicopter hovered overhead, adding to the atmosphere. Disappearing up a long fast right up a hill, this was it!

As the order is run in reverse on days 2 and 3 of a WRC event, the speed is always gradually building. While Khalid al-Quasimi may have looked quick, more and more passing cars allayed that thought. Bunches of fans awaited their respective hero’s, with a plethora of international flags being waved with vigour as they blasted past. The Tanak fan-club, decked in Estonian garb, made their presence felt, as did the many Belgian and French followers of Neuville and Ogier. A small smattering of Irish fans made sure their support for Kris Meeke and Craig Breen was acknowledged, but the home fans were out in force for one man in particular.

North Wales is a traditional hot-bed of rallying talent, with the famous sons of the region having names that read off with distinction. Dai Llewellyn, Phil Collins, Phil Mills and Gwyndaf Evans have enough titles and tall tales to fill a decent sized book, but the latest hero in the making is Gwyndaf’s son Elfyn. Hailing from Dolgellau, surrounded by rallying mecca’s like Sweet Lamb and Myherin, it wasn’t much of a leap to see him get behind the wheel of a rally car. A quick rise through the ranks had the young Welsh man becoming a full-blown WRC driver with M-Sport in 2015, perhaps too soon in most regards. Struggling to find his feet, a step back to WRC2 and the British Championship in 2016 was a re-invigoration, and this year he partnered with tyre brand DMack to drive the 3rd M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC. A string of good results had the public interest peaked, but the Friday of Rally GB had seen utter domination. 6 fastest stage times saw the Welshman at the top of the leader board, and the fans came out in droves. In one of the most dominant drives I can remember, Elfyn Evans led from Stage 2 right through to the finish, cheered on by nearly 100,000 home fans relishing in seeing not only Elfyn’s first win, but to witness he and Dan Barritt becoming the first ever Welsh crew to win their home World Championship event. It was a special weekend all round for M-Sport, with them winning the Constructor championship, and Ogier becoming the 1st Ford driving Champion since 1981.

As the car’s continued to pass, I began to move around in search of angles. It’s something I do so instinctively, and I’m sure I’ve annoyed plenty of marshals and officials in the process, but I can’t live with the thought of having albums chock of the same picture repeated ad-nauseum. Rallying, as a motorsport, is one of the most difficult to photograph I believe, as it’s a case of having one-shot to get the picture. The car is often in sight for only a handful of seconds, and the threat of that car going off the road and not being seen again for the day is a very real prospect. The room to try anything other than straight up shooting is often very small, but the freedom of not being under commercial pressure to get shots allows the chance to try things out. In a single spectator viewing pen, I was able to make at least 9 different photo views, but maybe that’s just my lack of fear for the welfare of my budget gear that I place it in plenty of mad places.

After the main body of WRC cars had passed, the next cohort was that of the WRC2 runners. Made up exclusively of R5 cars, this is a championship and level utterly dominated by the Skoda Fabia R5, although the Ford Fiesta R5 is not soft competition. Designed as a hot bed for developing talent, the GB entry was very much a who’s-who of future rallying stars that perhaps may only be known to the truly hardcore as of yet. The likes of Teemu Sunninen, Eric Camili, Ola-Christian Veiby and Tom Cave have future’s ahead of them if opportunity allows, yet this year has been a case of trying to catch Pontus Tidemand. The Swede, and his Skoda, have been the class of the WRC2 season and have proved almost untouchable across the year. An interesting entry though in Wales was a young man by the name of Kalle Rovanpera. Barely 17 years of age, this fella is special. He emerged onto the radars about 9 years ago with a clip of him sliding a Toyota Starlet around a finish lake. Those counting on your fingers, this guy was in Rally cars since the age of 8, and has been on a meteoric rise this past number of years. When you father is a WRC event winner and all-round cult hero Harri Rovanpera, I guess it’s a case like the Evans of talent running in the genes.

Behind those again was the battle for R2 victory, the first major stepping stone into World Rallying. Yet again, it’s the venerable M-Sport and Ford Fiesta package that is a true benchmark, although in Wales the only sole Works car ran wild. Chris Ingram and the Opel Adam R2 have been a formidable pair in 2017, pretty much sweeping the boards in the European Rally Championship. In Wales, the diminutive Adam romped home with over 12 minutes to spare over the opposition. From an Irish viewpoint, both Will Creighton and Marty Gallagher put in some great times all weekend, but a succession of issues hindered both their runs. With the limited opportunities to experience Gravel in Ireland, it’s a huge confidence to both to see the signs to be able to push on loose surface.

As the final few cars passed through the second running of the stage, it was time to make shapes for the famed Welsh night stages. An hour of walking, a swift removal of mud soaked clothing and a 40-minute blast later, I had a chance to relax. Sleep? Nah, I had the initial batch of photos to sort through, phone to charge and a head torch to check for signs of life. Meeting a few friends from home, as dusk descended we strolled into the woods. What happened next was, to me at least, one of the single greatest car related things I’ve ever experienced.

As I said at the top, when the dark came in, it took hold. Being from a City, I have a rather sheltered understanding of the true darkness of night, but armed with head torches, reflective coats and lamps, navigation was hard. A blisteringly fast section at the bottom of a valley was picked from the last ebbs of daylight, and the territory was marked with a succession of Irish flags planted in the ground. Listening attentively, the first whispers of a 1.6L WRC engine note rung out through the trees. I had grown up watch countless videos of rally days of yore, encapsulated by the timeless mystique of engine notes roaring through the trees of a Welsh forest at night. All those cliché’ d tales of hoards of bobble hatted nutters standing in the rain to see Roger Clark in a sideways Escort or Walter Rohrl in a snarling Audi raced through my head as I finally felt a part of the mystiques. I may have also been wearing a bobble hat!

The nature of the stage meant that that the cars were audible on full chat for about 90 seconds before coming into sight, although saying into sight is being rather kind. A flash of white light would emerge to our left around a rising right hander, broadside in the road owing to the slippy condition. Gear’s number three, four and five would be dispatched with before reaching us, each accompanied with a distinctive bang. Without the faintest dab of brakes, guided by a blinding array of lights, the cars tore past at almost maximum velocity, sparks and exhaust flames as well as rocks fired in the direction of our vantage point. This was as raw a sensation of speed as I have ever experienced, a true case of maximum attack. Picking out the identity of the crews, never mind the car, was almost impossible in the darkness, with only driving style and car characteristics often being the only telling differences. Passing us, we had opportunity to stop, let out a number of expletives, and watch the show go on. The beaming lights snaked up the trail to our right before hitting the packed upper hairpin as the tree line became like a strobe light as countless camera flashes went off. Flares and fireworks filled the sky, and I felt ecstatic. It may have been the lack of sleep!

By 1am, I had set up camp for the night. Parked on the side of another forest track, bed for the night was a sleeping bag in the back of a Peugeot 207 as per my WRC norm. Any prospect of an early night was dashed by the arrival of more friends from Cork, and the prospect of a few beers pushed me through hours 43 and 44 of waking. The next morning, after all 4 hours of cold, cramped sleep, the stages were beckoning again. By that evening, I was no more than a shell. Although the stages and action were spectacular, I had enough. Plenty of pictures and lifelong memories in the bag, it was time to finally pull on the last change of clean clothes, pack up the car and make shapes for the boat home. Someday I might take a notion to go and follow the WRC in comfort, or even god forbid I might actually fully plan out attending an event, but for now I still adore the sense of adventure that comes with these types of escapades. As a final treat to myself, the route from Brenig to Holyhead encompasses much of the vaulted Evo Triangle, a mecca for proper petrolhead geeks like myself reared on the excellent publication. Mile after mile of flowing driving nirvana, snaking ribbons of tarmac that proved the final reason to grin after a rather epic weekend. So, Monte next year eh…….