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…….
We, as people, naturally ponder the notion of ‘What If?’ on a daily basis. Its a natural instinct to imagine the endless possibilities available to us through means or good fortune. How many time today alone have you thought what you would splurge significant financial winnings on should you ever strike lucky?? Car forums and online chats are littered with discussion on what car would you put in the garage first should a lottery windfall come your way, and I’m just the same as everyone else in that regard. But for more hardened car geeks, the what if fantasies grow larger. What would the dream car look like, what colour would you go for and where would you keep it?? See, that’s real addiction territory when you have notions of a dream garage to keep your dream car, but some people have already ticked off the ultimate garage section. Welcome to Stone Motorsport!
In keeping with all good Irish motoring stories, to find the rewards you first have to battle against your natural instincts in the search. I’d seen plenty of photo’s online of this legendary facility, yet here I was less than a few hundred yards from our country’s busiest Motorway and Google Maps was guiding me down a dark, tight tree-lined lane with cul-de-sac warnings. I had expected Stone Motorsport to exist in a modern Industrial Park on the outskirts of a growing slice of modern suburbia, but here all that lay between me and a slice of motoring heaven was about a mile of distinctly Irish back road.
To understand the drive to become the best, its worth remembering the history behind the crew in Stone’s. The brother’s rose to predominance in the Irish track scene in the mid-00’s when they began to dominate the time-attack and racing landscape in their EP-3 Honda Civic. Brendan Stone then turned his hand to drifting, and in the process became an Irish Champion in the MG-Crash Repair Nissan S15, all the while honing the skills needed to develop a home-grown motorsport preparation company.
The first thing that hit’s you on arrival is the sheer scale of the premises. The imposing grey exterior grows in all directions, housing all manner of necessary area’s to provide true one-stop-shop status for all your wildest car build idea’s. Walking through the main door though, it’s to the showroom to the right that your eye is immediately drawn.
Emulating those of the finest classic car dealers in the world, the showroom is a triumph of style and lighting, serving as the perfect compliment to the metal inside. I count nine cars, some in bare metal, some mid-build and some finished perfectly. Up close, the attention to detail and craftsmanship is stunning. I could spend hours soaking in the details on the Mini Cooper, early Beetle or pair of 911’s on their own, but in close vicinity the scene is almost overwhelming.
In the corner, a hulking 1960’s Ford Mustang sits in primer, a bare shell destined for a full scale restoration to leave it on a par with it’s shinier room mates.
From here though, my rally geek instincts kick in. I have a huge affinity for vehicles carrying the Ford Escort moniker, and this green car was utterly stunning. Even in a partially built state, it’s muscular stance commanded utmost attention. A beefy set of 15 inch Superlites hid a frighteningly aggressive brake setup, while the gusseted roll cage was just another example of the fabrication skills available in house. What will reside under the bonnet is a mystery, but with the history Stone’s have for experimentation, your guess is as good as mine!
And then there was the ‘other’ Escort. In a very bare state here lies a true piece of motorsport history, and a very unknown one at that. When Ford developed the MK3 Escort in the early 1980’s, they moved with the times and converted their platform to Front-Wheel-Drive. While this makes sense in the real world of sensibility and economy, it doesn’t have much mass in the world of Rallying. At the same time that the Ford works team in Boreham worked on tweaking the MK3 into a RWD Group B monster with the RS1700T project, their fabrication partner Gartrac produced a small number of RWD converted MK3’s for rallying, and the Escort G3 was born. As an interesting side, the earliest cars were run by Sydney Meeke Preperation, with Sydney’s son Kris being the current WRC superstar! While many Escorts were later converted, seeing an original Gartrac car is a rare treat.
While one race car can peak the interest of a certain crew, the other, more complete, race car in the room is known to a lot more people. When you have your dream garage built and all the skills to build the best possible vehicles, it’s only fitting to have a shop Demo-Car, and they don’t come more extreme than the Drift Taxi! Built from a Lexus GS300, the car makes do with a 2JZ engine making close to 600BHP while turbo’s pop and bang on full chat. A unique vehicle with bucket seats and harnesses for four, the car has also this year crossed the divide and not only competed in the IDC, but now also competes in the Irish Hillclimb championship, which we mentioned earlier this year.
The reason I called into Stone’s was due to the open house they had put on for the AutoStadt.ie Rolling Road event. Having an on-site four wheel dyno is a huge weapon in the arsenal, and the perfect setting to allow the masses to come and not only fettle highly strung race cars but to prove the worth of their road cars on days like this. AutoStadt is Irelands leading German car forum, which explained the high proliferation of Volkswagen and Audi fare on display, both on the rollers and outside. Results varied, people bragged and everyone seemed in good spirits, while masking the now in-built desire to get their cars even quicker and more powerful!
Around the workshop area, 3 full size booths were occupied by even more race cars. The Toyota Soarer ran a similar engine set-up to the Taxi and looked set-up for sideways action, while the E30 next to it, belonging to a well known member of the Hillclimb family, housed the beating heart of an M5 under the hood.
In the distance, it felt like the craziest goodies were out of reach our eyes. A beautifully restored RS500 Ford Sierra lay as the bouncer, the single most fitting car to exude aggression and control stopping any wandering minds from seeing what lay beyond. So, if ever you feel like having that what if moment of contemplation, always remember that there are possibilities out there. The Stone Motorsport crew have taken the idea of creating the perfect garage, and through sheer determination they now call home one of the countries finest automotive facilities.
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!!
Racing is such a wonderfully simplistic endeavor, setting out a pair of designated points and then championing those who handle the task of negotiating the in-between part the quickest. Getting from Point A to Point B is the mentality we live our daily lives by, but to be the quickest can become an obsession. Motorsport is merely a collection of opportunities to get from A to B in a variety of rapid vehicles, all dealing with differing tasks in-between. But to some though, things only get interesting when you throw a sizeable hill in the way.
The sport of Hillclimbing is one I’d personally been aware of for quite some time, but had never really experienced until earlier this year. Similar to a rally stage, competitors take-off up a piece of closed road aiming to set the fastest time to the top. In truth, the cars all around you quickly dispel my naive thought of this being nothing more than a glorified rally sprint, as for every familiar MK2 Escort there are four or five incredibly purposeful looking single seat race cars that would look more at home in Mondello Park than an Irish B-Road.
With most track averaging about 2.5/3km in length, hill climbing is all about short, sharp bursts. The terrain, while naturally hilly as the name suggests, is often good flat tarmac which explains the attraction for the plethora of track machinery lining up for the latest run. Being a normal public road, its natural to expect camber and wear in areas not exactly bang on the racing line, so drivers have to be right on it to challenge the clock. Every rasp of a bike engine screaming through the gears is almost matched by the hard hitting sound of splitters and under-body protection meeting tarmac.
Like any sport that makes use of public environments, dealing with the surroundings adds both to the danger and the thrill. Drivers fire themselves towards stone walls, trees, grass verges and drains, eking every last inch of road possible to nail the perfect run. Generally done and dusted in about 70 seconds, Hillclimbing is certainly one for the braver of racers.
When we mention diversity in sport, we often accompany it with the argument that repetitive and mundane spectacles make things boring to watch. With Hillclimbing, you truly have no idea what to expect emerging from the tree-lined road below or over the blind crest in front of you. Classes are wide and accommodating of almost everything, from the already mentioned single seat weapons, through historic race and rally cars right down to the Fiat Cinq/Seichento challenge, which truly is as exciting and mesmerizing as it sounds on the tin.
If you have ever had the notion of wanting to compete in competitive motorsport but lack either the funds or the space, then the Fiat challenge is exactly for you!! Taking the Italian company’s mid-90’s city car, the challenge allows for very little in the way of expensive modification. The majority of the field are made up of the sporty Seichento Sporting pushing out 54hp, but at full pelt these little cars are rapid! Naturally, roll cages are a necessity, but the rules stipulate that the rear seats remain in place hence why some competition cars still bear road plates. Entry’s for this class are nearly as big as the leading competitive classes, so these little cars are truly pushed to their limits up the hill.
As with all facets of the car world, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the competitors, as the nationwide scheduele is nothing more than a list of destinations to meet and compete with old friends and fierce rivals. In times of need, all hands reach for the pump in an effort to see everyone get the maximum enjoyment out of their weekend. While there is a core there, many events continue to rely on a strong local entry to support event running cost. In most cases, it is Rally guys who wheel their machinery out of sheds to pit them into the unknown world without navigators and the like.
While I may be a total noob in this world, the name McKinley was one I was always aware of, generally mentioned following the words Simon or Escort. The late Simon McKinley became a cult hero after a video of his antics in his home built MK2 Escort became a Youtube hit. The clip was spread far and wide, jaws dropped in front of computer screens and I knew then that I had to get out and see this thing for myself. But I never did. In 2015, Simon tragically lost his life competing in the sport that he loved, surrounded by those who loved him. The Escort became a memory, until standing on the side of the road last weekend, a familiar silhouette came sideways through a square junction and slithered up the road past me!
While I’ve mentioned the diversity on display, new regulations have allowed cars of the more sideways orientation to compete on closed public roads. Led by Brendan Stone and the crew in Stone Motorsport, the chance to hear a 600BHP 2JZ Toyota Aristo unleash in an environment so different to a circuit is spellbinding, although the more priceless aspect is seeing the faces of hardened rally folk once the get their first dose of fully blown anti-lag and a face full of tire smoke.
While small, hillclimbing is a sport with a strong future. Based around a strong core of eager followers, the discipline can expand. People like Naylor Engineering are providing the necessary backing to the national championship, but there’s plenty of room for improvement yet. As long as clubs running events continue to be rally-centered, then Hillclimbs will always be a distant after thought. But this will change in time just like anything. People will realize that Hillclimbing is an affordable day out, a chance to push their cars on new roads and a form of motorsport with a bright future.
Pictures from this article are combined from both the Imokilly Hillclimb in Dungarvan and the Limerick Hillclimb in Glenroe. Further information on events and the sport can be found at: www.irishhillclimb.com/
“Can’t wait for June to come around, Can’t wait for that four cylinder sound. Flat shifting and rubber on the ground all weekend long”. Sport and music, forever a case of never the two shall mix. It’s been tried countless times, and many a list of worst abominations ever committed to a recorded media include the world of sport trying to cash in on improbable cup runs or qualification success with a corny singalong. Occasionally, events become legendary, and celebration ballads are recited as a reminder of happier times. Joxer will be forever imprinted as a memory of the glory days of Irish soccer, but to have an Irish motorsport event celebrated in song is highly unlikely. Then there’s the Joule Donegal Rally, which has 3!!
When I set out my calendar for the year , generally in early January so as to book time off work, certain events are permanent fixtures. The third week in June though, well that goes down first. A pilgrimage of sorts, there is just such an aura around the Donegal International that it just sucks you in. No matter what it is that draws you to the North West, the place just seems to tick all the boxes. For me, it’s a chance to cut loose for a long weekend and enjoy all manner of car life on show.
The rally itself is almost a relic of a bygone era, exactly like the current Lions tour or the Isle of Man TT which trades on history and mythical status of having remained undiluted as all else around them became more streamlined and economical in their approach. For quite some time now, the three day format has been unique here in Ireland and most of Europe. While other’s have struggled to muster entries to affordable singe day events, the Donegal Rally boasts the largest entry of any event all year, with nearly 180 crews looking to get a coveted starting slot, before considering the added 40 entries in the Junior and Historic sections.
While obviously attracting massive numbers of entries, it’s the quality of these that can be mind blowing when you stop and think. I’ve mentioned a few times now in rally reports of how the decision to make WRC cars in-eligible to score points has changed the look of many of our events, with the sole World Car in Killarney highlighting this, yet come Donegal there are nine on the start line, with the likely winner expected from the opening quartet. While there is a massive cohort of crew’s with Championship aspirations, it seems that winning Donegal is such an accolade that many have forgiven titles in the hunt for their own slice of history.
The sport of Rallying, while obviously a nation wide spectacle with events from Skibbereen to Fanad and everywhere in-between, has its strongest following in Donegal. Local hero’s are the talk of every town land and parish, yet in the 40 plus years of the rally only four county men have ever tasted success, yet when the roll of honour includes names such as Loeb, Vatanen, Fisher and McRae then it highlights the mammoth task involved in crossing the finish ramp after 20 grueling stages. This year, Donagh Kelly was determined that he would have his name added to rally folklore, and he was the man to catch right from the off. With the county crest emblazoned on the bonnet of his Ford Focus, he set a blitzing pace on the opening Friday stages. He maintained this wll into Saturday, but lurking with intent at every step was last year’s winner Manus Kelly. We in Ireland seem to have an affinity for WRC car’s of the 2 Litre variety, and to see the pinnacle of this era in the S12 Impreza and ’07 Focus going hammer and tong is a real throwback.
While up the front of the field was dominated by the four wheel drive machinery, as mentioned in my preview post the real searing battles would rage in the national section. The Modified Grand Prix is fitting, as nowhere else do we get to see the who’s who of Ireland’s grassroots rallying scene go toe-to-toe. Like winning the event outright, claiming the Donegal National crown is a huge thing in itself. As always, the entry list was dripping in quick Ford Escorts, but the added sprinkling of the always competitive Toyota’s seen up north, a brace of Darian’s and a few other oddities added some variety, yet the trusty MK2 when driven on the limit is somewhat unbeatable a spectacle.
The early favourite to take the National was Brian Brogan, a true hometown hero and Donegal Motor Club stalwart, but his rally would come to an abrupt end early on. Others hit trouble, leaving a trio of Gallagher’s leading the way. Kevin in the Darian was on a charge until hitting issues on Sunday, leaving namesake Damien to steer his Ford to victory, while Declan made a rare appearance and brought the ever enjoyable KP Starlet to a well deserved second place.
Down the field, whereas many rallies have very distinguishable classes with specific cars being the weapon of choice, in Donegal it felt as if every class was won by a MK2 Escort such was the deluge of them right through the field. Even when the historic runners made an appearance on Saturday, a lone Mini Cooper was the only top-10 car not bearing the blue oval upon its grill. As ever, it was a toe to toe fight between Ernie Graham and Barry Jones, a reoccurring theme of this years Historic Championship, and after two hard days it was Graham who left Donegal victorious, with his Welsh adversary just behind in second.
The R5 class has, to me at least, become a small big stagnant of late. Its a case of the same faces every rally, and the element of competitiveness just seems to not be hitting the high’s of last year. That been said, it’s still a frantic battle to watch, and the perhaps it’s just that we have been spoiled with a few years of rapid driving that we expect these cars and crews to be pushing for event wins. Donegal did see the Tarmac debut of Richard Tannihill’s stunning Peugeot 208 R5, and what a glorious piece of kit it is to watch at full chat. We have a rich history here in Ireland of always being a home to a succession of brand new rally machinery down the years, and that continues to this day with a stream of brand-new R5’s making appearance throughout the past few years.
To me, I have become more enthralled of late with the battles in the R2 class. Very much a star of the future proving ground, and a proper stepping stone into the higher reaches of the sport, watching well driven little hot hatches will never cease to be a proper spectacle. I have an immense affinity for Callum Devine’s Opel Adam, possibly due to its constant desire to corner on two wheels, but it has its work cut out defending from hot shots like Marty Gallagher and Will Creighton in their Peugeot 208’s. These guys will go places, and more really has to be made of this side of the championship to help gain the recognition needed for these guys!!
Sunday is moving day. It’s Championship day. Tiger wear’s Red, Manus Kelly wears wet’s. In a misty Millford, it would be a tyre choice that swung the balance of play for the whole rally. The Subaru, starting the day 7 seconds off the lead after a Saturday evening charge, truly began to fly. The damp roads hindered the slick wearing Focus of Donagh Kelly, meaning a succession of stage wins left the Impreza leading for the first time all weekend. In deep trouble, Donagh had to push beyond anything he’d done before, but alas it was too much and on the penultimate stage the dream ended up rolling into a ditch, and the stricken Focus was out. For the second year in a row, a dramatic Sunday gave Manus and Donall Barrett the victory. Sam Moffett brought his Fiesta R5 home in second after a much publicised ‘moment’ on the final loop, with Gary Jennings finishing third in another Impreza WRC.
While the rally action raged all weekend, Letterkenny was thriving. I said in my Lakes post that I felt unwelcome as a rally follower in Killarney, and last weekend re-affirmed my belief that Donegal Rally Weekend is the best event in the Irish car scene. Under the weight of more than 70’000 people descending for a weekend, Letterkenny felt so welcoming. All along the stages, homemade signs adorned gates with greetings, home owners opened their homes for parking and a number of house porch’s were turned into home shops to cater for rally followers. In town, entertainment venues actively sought to attract rally followers in for the night, with the town being turned into a pedestrian zone in a friendly manner rather than a clampdown.
They say Donegal has it all, and did feel that way. If your of the mentality that doing rings in a Lexus is great, a number of events were ongoing to cater for demand and the numbers queuing for things like King of The Cone all weekend showed how much of an opportunity there is to put on events that people wanted. Car washes ran from early morning to well past dark, petrol stations became impromptu car meets, as we showed with our look at the Zero7Four crew earlier in the week, and I certainly believe that about 3 months production of Buckfast must have been shipped direct from the monastery to the North West. As the evenings passed, I got strong flash backs to my Worthersee days, as everywhere you looked crowds just parked up anywhere possible and enjoyed the seeming thousands of cars floating around, with everything imaginable from brand new BMW M cars right through to a Triumph Herald, and all manner of stuff in between.
A week later, and I still feel drained from the madness of Donegal. As an event, the rally has been able to maintain its standing as arguably one of the premier Motorsport events in Europe, but its the buzz around it that makes it special. It’s 51 weeks until the trip will be made again, and I might aswell tell work that I’ll be missing the third week of June next year….and the year after again!!