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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!

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!

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