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!
“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!!
Have you ever got to a point, where the only logical question to ask is “What the *expletive* am I doing with my life?”, and all possible answers seem soo much more appealing than your current situation? It’s a point when every choice made in getting to the here and now is thought over, analysed and its sanity evaluated. Had anyone the misfortune of crossing my path last Saturday evening, it’s easy to imagine the barrage of moany, life questioning drivel they would have had to endure. One thing is for sure though, I would have sworn blind I was never going to look at a rally car ever again.
Let’s backtrack a little here before my look back at the Rally Of The Lakes, round 2 of the Irish Tarmac Championship, turns into a desperate misery log of what Saturday was like. We’ll come to that in time, but all seemed soo rosy 24 hours previously. In the run up to any big rally, I get a real sense of excitement that builds all week. Constantly checking my work computer calendar would add to the buzz, as plonked between all manner of important meetings and deadlines, a bright red ‘Laaaaaaakesss’ icon had sat since early January. Leaving work Friday afternoon, it was all go to get home, changed, camera loaded and on the road to Killarney. The car itself had got hours and hours of polishing and deep cleaning for the weekend, as god forbid you were seen driving about in a filthy vehicle. As always, seeing the ‘Keep The Race in Its Place’ signs is the start point that truly marks the start of Rally Weekend.
Having moved into the world of a steady Monday to Friday job, I’ve got a much better chance these days of making it to events nice and early, often visiting the scrutiny area o even ceremonial launches. Neither of these excite me greatly, as my love is watching these machines at full chat on a country lane, but yet it’s fascinating being able to get up close and personal with the machinery. Small details that completely invisible at speed seem to jump out at you, while noticeable differences in car building styles ignite my inner motorsport geek. Taking place right in the heart of Killarney on a Bank Holiday Friday, the launch was among the busier I’ve seen. Crowds were out in force to see what us rally folk have to offer, and it’s this level of outreach that helps built ties between events and local communities.
Once the cars were tucked up for the night, eyes were glanced towards a difficult route in store the next morning. In a traditional move, an early morning blast up Molls Gap was a decent test of bravery right from the off. Over that, what lay in store was over an hours driving South to a loop of stages that could only be described as breath taking. I decided to base myself on the Healy Pass for the day, and having taken a midweek spin down to get a sense of the place, there’s a strong reason why I’ll be soon doing a feature on this glorious stretch of tarmac. Leaving home at 10 past 6 in the morning, all was well. The excitement was palpable looking forward to the rally, seeing the Healy Pass at full chat and trying out a few new camera bits. Nearly 2 hours later, I was simply hoping the car wouldn’t be blown over in the storm!
Watching the marshals, all volunteers, out battling storm force gales to get the stage set up was a glimpse into the dedication that lies at the heart of Irish rallying. People turning up five minutes before the first car have no concept generally of the huge effort that has taken weeks to get the rally ready to go live. As the first of the safety car’s passed, the rain came. You might start to get the mood I was in Saturday evening already. As a shower turned torrential, Ali Fisher came roaring over the apex of the Pass. Scrabbling for grip, the R5 Fiesta banged through the gears as it headed for the ribbon of asphalt below. Generally, we are lucky to get any more than about 10 seconds sight of a rally car, but the unique nature of the Healy Pass allows over a minute’s action from even the quickest machinery. Sam Moffett came hot on Fishers heels in a similar Fiesta, while the still novel sight of Robert Barrable’s Hyundai was a big change in a sharp end dominated by Ford’s.
As the day passed, times began to filter in from Cod’s Head & Ardgroom. Fisher had hit trouble and had retired from the rally, taking a coastal wall with him. Leading the pack was Roy White in yet another Fiesta. Last year’s National Champion, Irelands second championship based over 10 single day events, has really got to grips with the step up to a World Car, and it was the noticeable performance difference helping guide our sole WRC entrant to an overnight lead. Passing the second time through the Pass, I’d decided to relocate to a location before the top, sacrificing the allure of the countless hairpins in the other direction for the stunning scenery. It’s crazy at times to stop and think about some of the beautiful places in this country that rallying brings us to, and sometimes it’s easy to ignore the backdrop when viewing a rally through a viewfinder!
In the national section, Killarney has always seemed to struggle when it comes to attracting the real superstars of modified rallying. While the Likes of Donegal and West Cork are right at the forefront of attracting large entries in the ITRC, many of the country’s fastest crews give Killarney a skip. That is not to say that we had a massive entry here, but when the overall battle boils down to two cars jostling for the win with minutes to spare over the closest competitors, it does show how important it is for events to attract the best entry that they can. That being said, the National section on the Lakes was truly spectacular to follow. The key battle proved to be an all Donegal affair as the perennial challenger of the AE86 Corolla took on the MK2 Escort, with Kevin Eves storming to a second championship victory in his Toyota. After a disastrous venture into 4wd machinery, Kevin is really starting to show the speed we always knew he had, and the wee Corolla looks well dialled for a championship push. Hot on his heels all weekend was the returning Declan Gallagher. The Milkman has been absent the past 18 months, and returned in an unfamiliar Ford. With the trusty KP Starlet sat at home in waiting for Donegal, the Fear Bainne was pushing Eves all weekend while getting used to new surroundings. Come Sunday evening, barely 40 seconds separated the pair.
Behind the two guys above, third on the time sheets was yet another spectacular drive from Cork’s Vince McSweeney in the flying Honda Civic. As I said earlier, getting up close with the cars in scrutiny gives a chance to get a feel for the cars, but getting close to Vince’s chariot is a stark contrast to the polished, professionally prepped cars that surround it. The epitome of the home built clubman spec vehicle, function certainly drags form along as an oft abandoned after thought. A plethora of perhaps non-automotive screws and bolts keep the Civic held together, but looking at a 1600cc car finishing 3rd in the National is a sign that skill will always win out over budget in people’s estimation.
While battles raged for victory, down the field, as in any rally, crews fought tooth and nail for all manner of class awards, personal battles or even driven to record a finish on the results. People like Art McCarrick and Ed Twomey are exactly what our sport needs at the minute. Both young and ambitious, their enthusiasm for Rallying is immediately evident in their company, and it’s this sort of person we need to attract to the sport if we are to have a long-term future and continue to fill entry lists for years to come.
And then there was Saturday evening!! As I said at the start, had anyone met me on the way home, I would have sworn blind that I would never see a rally again. After battling the stormy winds on the Healy Pass, all looked well as the convoy headed for the final stage of the day. I had the opportunity a few days before the rally to travel over a few stages, and certain locations stand out in a photographic sense. Right down along the coast, a sweeping right hander with the stunning backdrop of the Atlantic seemed ideal. Arriving, all was well, the sun was out and the scenery was as breath-taking as always. First few cars passed, and then the down pour arrived. Now, as a rally follower, a variety of weather is naturally expected, but this was a monsoon. Waterproof clothing soaked through, puddles formed in shoes, cameras started acting up and for well over 5 minutes, it was impossible to turn left and face the rain. Stuck on a grassy bank, this felt more like torture than fun!!
Saturday also had the novelty of playing host to the Lakes Junior rally. The massive entry list fascilated the need to switch days, and the action was naturally as frantic as to be expected. We looked in depth at both Junior Rallying and Eric Calnan and the giant killing 106 at the start of the year, and unfortunately it was yet another event to be remembered for mechanical difficulties. Jason Black showed pace for long periods in his RWD Starlet, but come the end of the final stage it would be Shane McCarthy who would be celebrating a pretty dominant victory, leading pretty much from start to finish in his EG Civic.
Come Sunday, I had decided not to bother going to see any rallying. I was fed up, still cold and suffering the opening bouts of a flu. But, opening the curtains and being met with scorching April rays makes it almost unmissable. Thankfully, a quick glance at maps showed a nice spot on a nearby stage, and an hour later I was back on the ditches. No matter how bleak Saturday evening was, watching rally cars at full chat down a country lane in blazing sunshine is up there with the best ways to pass an afternoon.
Heading back into Killarney, the sunshine was a chance as well to scope out some high-quality road cars that had emerged. Rally followers are well known as hard core petrol heads, and there’s a huge amount of fun standing about and enjoying the spectacle of the Lakes cruising scene over the weekend. It’s fair to say that the dark days of Booing TDI’s seem to be over, and people are seemingly less fearful of spending money on big cars yet again.
While results matter, and congratulations to Sam Moffett on taking the win after Roy White hit trouble, to me rallying is soo much more. It’s about atmosphere, personal triumph, an addiction to speed and an enjoyable escape for a day or a weekend. Leaving Killarney though, the drive home left me time to think about how the weekend had been. While the rally action was as fast and frantic as always, all did not seem well. The crux of what hit me was a sense of feeling unwelcome being a rally follower in Killarney for the weekend. When you arrive in Letterkenny or Clonakilty, you feel like people are happy to see the rally in town, but not so in Killarney. Heavy handed police tactics smothered the town on Friday, forcing people out of the area. Now, I know full well that a certain cohort attach themselves to rallying here in Ireland with the sole intent of ‘causing wreck’, but I feel it’s the blacklisting of the event that works to feed the anti-establishment motivations of some. Locals hate the event, and many vocally want rid of it, and it feels as if Killarney is a town that could happily live without the rally.
I do not in the slightest mean this as a dig at KDMC, as they organise a fantastic rally year after year, but it’s just an awful shame the passion for the sport is not shared by those around them, and as such your left feeling bad admitting that you’re there to watch rallying. The Championship needs the Lakes, as they have some of the most iconic stages and backdrops in Irish rallying, but it seems that the relationship with Killarney seems to be strained at present.
Us Irish love a good underdog story. It’s in our nature that we just adore the thought of David sticking it to Goliath. Tales of heroics live long in the memory and are often recounted with a wistful smile and a stirring pump of a fist. A call of ‘Go on ya Boyo’ is never far away in these instances. Irish motorsport is a venerable treasure chest of people sticking it to the man. For years, Eddie Jordan took on the might of F1 paddock, and occasionally won. In 1974, a Cork farmer by the name of Billy Coleman beat the might of the works teams to become British Champion, in a car run from a rented terrace house and a band of friends as crew. Frank Meagher became a household name in the 80’s and 90’s as he topped lead boards in his ratty old MK2 Escort. Those were the glory days, but the have-a-go heroes are still out there,Eric Calnan is one of them heroes.
Junior rallying, as the title suggests, is an avenue designed to attract younger drivers into the sport. Conceived in the early 00’s, the idea was to limit the cars to 1.6L, driver age to 26 and provide a shorter route to keep costs down. And it has been a success. Countless drivers have come through the ranks and gone onto bigger things in the sport, while the competitive nature of the championship has seen some incredibly close battles down the years. But competitiveness comes at a cost. It’s a natural thing, winning becomes everything!
The loose nature of regulations left the door open for things to spiral. To remain competitive, builds and components became more expensive. The humble Honda Civic is the de-facto Junior Rally weapon of choice. We all see decent Civic track and road builds on a daily basis, but the rally boys are on another level. Trusty B16 engines are hitting dizzying VTEC assisted levels of 200+ BHP. Sequential gearboxes have become normal, as have fully adjustable suspension and all manner of trick bits. Builds topping €40000 are not uncommon. But surely nobody can compete with that??
The rise of Eric Calnan in 2016 was like a breath of fresh air in Junior rallying. Here was a tatty looking 106, built in a shed at home, with an outlandish spoiler coming to upset the status quo. Built for about a quarter of the price of some of its competitors, the 106 and Calnan really began to rattle some feathers. Fastest through Ballaghbeama at the Lakes was a warning shot, but things were only starting. Victory at Imokilly Mini Stages was backed up weeks later with a stunning last grasp snatch and grab at the Cork20 Junior Rally. 12 seconds down sitting on the start line of the final stage, the diminutive Peugeot scorched to a 1.6 sec victory. Internet flame wars erupted as people scratched their head at just how Eric pulled the time out that day. It was these sort of heroics that began grabbing attention. A dominating display on the Fastnet rally really cemented a fantastic season, taking a massive 26 second lead on the 1st stage and controlling the rally to chalk up yet another victory . A Billy Coleman Award nomination followed, while Motorsport.ie’s recently published list ranking 2016’s top Irish rally drivers ranked Calnan at No.6 among some very illustrious company.
But what is it about this car and driver pair that make them so quick? Calnan naturally lays all the success on co-driver Aileen Kelly. Cousins, the pair only began sitting together his year and things have really paid off. Watching any on-board’s, Eric’s mad man nature is balanced by Aileen’s calm and steady delivery of the notes at all manner of kamikaze speeds. Rallying is very much a team sport, with the driver leaning massively on the Navi to describe the road ahead and keep on top of necessary paperwork and time cards, but having an all-out, maximum attack driving style and distinct lack of fear certainly is an added bonus. But every hero spec warrior needs a chariot.
Approaching the silver 106 GTI up close, the battered exterior is a sign of a car that’s had a tough campaign. It’s not a neglected car, but it just goes against the shiny, polished nature of those around it. Straight panels, or even wing mirrors in this case, make no difference when it comes to launching yourself down a rally stage. It almost seems like a ruse to put people off, perhaps guide them away from the potency that lies beneath. It’s perhaps a reflection of the man himself, that the desire to find that extra tenth is far greater than looking good on the start line. Small marks here and there act almost as war paint, carried as a warning to others. A scrape from a chicane here, and dent from a tire wall there, it’s all part of the appeal.
Under the bonnet is where things really get interesting. A Citroen JP4 engine sits proudly in the middle of the bay. Hand built by Calnan over the winter, his engineers touches are seen all over. Clever little tips and trick are seen in the desire to wring as much power from the 16 valve lump, from a redesigned head to a custom manifold. Anything non-essential has been removed in the quest to save weight, but it is the set of GSXR throttle bodies sitting nearly flush with the firewall that certainly grab attention. In typical Calnan fashion, checking even basic things like having room for a wiper motor were secondary to performance, but thankfully finding a LHD unit sorted that issue. Pumping out slightly more than 160 BHP, this is a very quick 106, yet it still gives roughly 40/50 BHP of an advantage to the opposition.
Power is delivered to the front wheels through a 5 speed box and limited slip differential, again built by Calnan in his shed. Bilstein suspension helps to deal with the rough and tumble of a bumpy rally stage, while the solid Torsion Bar rear end is helped greatly with Team Dynamic shock absorbers. Braking, if ever relied upon, is taken care of with Carbone Lorraine pads and Brembo disks front and rear. For true maximum attack, a Hydraulic handbrake is on hand and is clearly not there for show as becomes obvious watching Calnan flying around the Watergrasshill track.
Plastered both front and back is the battling cry #anythingbutacivic. An obvious tongue in cheek gesture towards the opposition, it’s a message that’s resonated around Irish rallying, and one spotted on a growing number of other cars. As with any sort of race car though, having other names plastered on the side of the car helps massively in getting a budget together to go out and compete. Colin Byrne (CB Tool Hire) and Donal O’Brien (Donalobriencars.ie) have backed Eric from the start, along with a number of other local business, and without support like that many would get nowhere in motorsport.
Inside is typical rally car, where function takes priority over form. A pair of beefy OMP seats keep the crew held in place snugly, while a custom weld in roll cage keeps safety in check. Everything here is dictated by FIA regulations to help protect the crew if anything was to ever go wrong.
Plans for 2017 are still undecided for Calnan and the 106. A crack at the Tarmac Junior Championship is a very real option, although it includes a couple of long treks up the country to Donegal and the Ulster rallies. The ’17 season see’s M-Sport launching its own entry level championship in Ireland, the R2 National, which is aimed as a first dip into the world of factory built International level machinery for those with aspirations of going down that avenue. A promising development for younger drivers, it unfortunately remains out of reach financially for a large number of drivers, Calnan included. Money and rallying will always go hand in hand, and to get anywhere you need a lot of it. But Eric Calnan is a reminder that the underdog is still alive, sticking two fingers up to the big boys and having a damn good time and enjoying rallying!
Full Spec List:
Citroen TU5 JP4
P&P Head (Homemade)
K1 GSXR1000 Throttle Bodies
Custom inlet manifold ported to match head (Homemade)
RamAir air filter
106 Cup Car Cams
Custom Stainless Exhaust manifold (Homemade)
Pugsport 2” stainless exhaust
Standard Peugeot MA Gearbox with uprated bearings.
S1 Rallye Final Drive
Bilstein B8 Shocks
AST Adjustable camber top mounts
Interchangeable spring rates/lengths
Team Dynamic 2-way adjustable shocks
CL RC6+ pads and brembo discs
CL RC5 pads and brembo max grooved discs
Hydraulic handbrake & Bias Valve
Full weld in cage with extra bars
Strut top strengthener plates & Strut brace
LHD Wiper conversion
Lightweight shell (prepped by Eric)
Walbro Intank High Pressure Fuel Pump
6mm aluminium sump guard (Homemade)
Seats/Harnesses/Extinguishers to comply with FIA international regs.
With Thanks to:
Jonathon Trill (TM Valeting),
Shane Fitzgerald (EVOSigns),
Denis O Connell (extremely patient man that helps Eric make good looking stuff).
My name is Cian Donnellan…………and I’m addicted to cars!! God that was a relief to get out there, but then again making that admission on a site like this is like saying there’s sand in the Sahara. I suffer from the most extreme of afflictions, namely petrol in the blood. Diagnosed since birth, the parents recall times when I was 2 or 3 years of age happily sitting on their laps during journeys (remember when that was safe and socially accepted!!) naming every car as they whizzed past. Right through primary school, ask me what I wanted to become and the answer was always to be Colin McRae.
Having a parent from Donegal, rallying was always going to have a massive role in shaping my automotive passion. Growing up, every Christmas would see the WRC review annual land onto the kitchen table, while being allowed up late once a week for RPM on UTV was a rare treat. But it took ages for me to experience rallying in real life. In Cork City, the closest we got to the action was the Cork 20 Finish Ramp each year. My parents were busy at weekends, and besides they had better things to do than stand in a ditch.
Once I got my license, there was no stopping me. I’d wreck manager’s heads by constantly wheeling and dealing hours here and there to get Sunday free to drive the country to take in some action. For those that have never been out on the stages, it’s an experience unlike anything else imaginable. It’s a proper rural day out, chasing around backroads trying to decipher maps before the usual rigmarole of hopping fences and gates, but once you experience the buzz of a car at full chat barely meters from your face then you can only be convinced!!
As a natural progression from the stages, drifting emerged onto my radar in the mid-00’s, but then again it was people like Declan Munnelly in the green MK2 Escort that got me hooked. Here was the sideways action of the stages, nicely packaged into a compact format. Suddenly places like Rosegreen, Ennis and Mondello were added to the list of ‘Where’s Cian off to This Week’. Having been at Prodrift Europe in ’08 and been in amazement at the first ever 500+ BHP car on the island (Bon Bon’s Chaser), I’ve become less enthused about competitive drifting in recent years. The thought of a screaming 16v Corolla appeals more, but that’s just me being old skool. Perhaps 2017 is the year or me to fall back in love with pro drifting?
As you may have copped, motorsport in general just does it for me. No matter what the level or the discipline, from bikes to trucks (go and watch them boys race in the flesh. Holy Moly!!) I’ll be interested. I’m also an absolute nerd for racing history, so may YouTube history at times is like a VHS collection of 90’s Touring Car Racing or 80’s Rallying. When I went to Goodwood Festival of Speed a few years back, at one point I stood with a Tyrrell F1 car on overrun in one ear and a BDA Escort in the other. I may have wept!
The modified car scene that I’ve always been aware of from growing up in Cork. The roads were, at times during the good years, a venerable car spotters dream. As a Gran Turismo Era child, all manner of JDM monsters became visible, and among my group of friends we began messing about here and there working on our own cars. Although the show scene died out massively during the recession, events like VAGE become an annual staple of my calendar. Although I’d happily admit that I’m not the biggest fan, the build levels and details really sucked me into that world. Although I still doubt I’d ever have the patience to build a nice VAG car, I began to notice more and more each year. How do you cure this growing interest, era a year out of Ireland should do the trick? Where to go I asked? Ah Klagenfurt in Austria should do. Quiet, sleepy, picturesque, no discernible car scene……..bar for one month of the year, when it’s at the heart of Worthersee Treffen, the world’s biggest VAG show. I swore to the parents it was a coincidence, although study was abandoned for 3 weeks to go and sit in a petrol station. I’ll put together a lookback in a few weeks!!
Going from being into cars to actually photographing cars was a complete fluke. I’d carried a small pocket camera to events the odd time for a few years, but had no real mass on the pics taken. Then in 2011, I went off one day with a month’s pay in my pocket to buy a gaming racing wheel. The shop was sold out, so I bought a Nikon DSLR instead, as you do. What an expensive mistake that was!! Since then, I took more and more interest in photographing cars, studying techniques, trying out things. I’d never even shot a car alone until last year my friend Maurice Malone from CompleteCar roped me into his new feature series.
So being into cars has to mean being into driving cars right?? I was 19 when I Ianded home with my own wheels for the first time. 2 lessons completed, full license in hand and a few bob saved, I went all out. Siting outside the house was a bit of a dream car of mine, an AE92 Toyota Corolla Gti. A fantastic car, but of course I’d never even once thought of insurance or that lark. Turns out, having something that includes the words Twincam, 16 Valve and GTi in the title isn’t the most insurance friendly when your 19!! After 4 months sitting in the shed, the time was night for my 4AGE dreams to begin, but I treated the car like a baby. I think I brought it to 4000 RPM once, I spent silly amounts of money on it over my 2 years ( Looking back, a €345 bill from Toyota just to replace Bolts, Washers, Clips and Hoses was a bit extreme) and ultimately ended up upside down in a ditch.
Between going abroad for a year and everything that entails, it was nearly 14 months before the next proper car arrived. The Puglet was found feeling sorry for itself down the very back of a dealer’s yard, covered in dirt and its paint flat as a pancake. Over the past 15 months it evolved bit by bit, pats coming from all manner of second hand sources. Bumpers from crashed rally cars, interior from crashed road cars. At the height of things, I was driving just shy of 450 miles a week in a 21 year old city car, with a straight through exhaust, hardened race suspension and sitting about 3 inches off the ground. I was almost thankful to be at work some days, but give it a back road and my face would light up. I grew bored (read: weary, dishevelled or defeated) of the daily grind in the Pug, so I’ve gone against my hard-core, old skool mentality and now waft around in the luxury of an E46 318CI. It’s just so nice, I don’t even want to do silly stuff to it.
I look forward to the new era of FreshFix and I hope you enjoy what I’ll be sharing on the site. Look forward to plenty of Rally action from around Ireland, grassroots drifting, various shows and the best of Munster’s modified cars. I have a few large events abroad that I’m planning to get to this year as well, so make sure to stay tuned for that. Here to 2017 and a new era of FreshFix. I