The arrival of December is often met with little enthusiasm for us in Europe.
Still a few weeks from the all-consuming madness of Christmas and the warm glow of delicate, twinkling lights, the days seem bleak. Wake up in the morning in complete darkness. Drive to work in complete darkness. Drive home in complete darkness. The few precious hours of light in-between welcomes a veritable never-ending palate of grey, rain, misery and cold.
It feels apt that as the clock slips past midnight and we roll into the twelfth month of the year, I’m wrapped snug in a thick duvet, the patter of incessant rain against glass acting as a soothing companion.
Come December, every major championship has been concluded and finished for the year. At times, you’d struggle to even find simple events on. A month of reflection, recharging and prepping for everything to begin again in the New Year. Far from the heady days of mid-summer, weekends sit free on the calendar.
It’s so very different from my usual all action norm, yet sitting like a beacon on the horizon is the big one. My favourite event of the season. Regardless of the December date, the expected rain, the dreadful light and the genuine risk of hypothermia, I just absolutely adore the Killarney Historic Rally.
I’ve mentioned before about the sense of adventure that has always been an integral piece of the rally spectacle; exactly like Matthew found on his trip into the wilds for Rally Australia. Not confined to a single circuit or venue, following an event leads to all manner of different experiences and locations.
With a passing interest in taking photographs, the sense of unpredictability drives me on. A stage stretches for countless miles, and every inch of that offers a totally unique vantage point. At times, it’s complete pot luck. Other times, a bit of decent research and a bit of a recce can come up trumps.
For the very best locations though, it sometimes involves extreme measures. That idyllic though of a warm duvet on a soft winters evening? Slightly less romantic a thought when it involves sleeping on the passenger seat of a Peugeot 207 on the side of a mountain.
That mountain is a bit special though, and it’s only for the absolute pinnacle of stages on offer that I have resorted to Hotel-de-Peugeot.
Stages like Cod’s Head and Bealleaghbeama are jaw-droppingly beautiful, both an utter joy to drive, never mind as a place to watch rally cars at maximum attack, yet they are comprised of not much more than a single lane of tarmac with little if any access roads.
Getting these shots means hoping against hope that a single parking spot has not been taken, and some very early drives to beat road closures. I don’t quite like early morning drives, so getting down the night before with a stocked mini-bar (an electric coolbox was an inspired purchase), a few downloaded films and a warm duvet was a much more inviting prospect. This time, it’s Moll’s Gap.
Perched on the south-west tip of Ireland, Kerry is a picture postcard onslaught of rugged scenery and natural beauty. As rural as could be, the county is a hot bed of Irish rallying. Rally of the Lakes, Circuit of Kerry, Banna Stages and the Killarney Historic all call this area home.
Killarney, the largest town, is a tourist juggernaut, a whole region devoted to gaining every precious dollar, pound or yen available from the influx of guests each year. The town is a buzzing mass of people year round and every approach road is littered with guest houses and hotels.
One of those routes is more special than the others. Starting in Killarney itself and ending in Cork City, National Route-71 (The N71) is a 190km twisting path that takes in much of the south coast’s major towns. Leaving the roundabout in Killarney town centre, the first few kilometres are pretty non-descript, but pass the turn to Mucross House, the following twenty are utter magic. It’s the route to The Gap.
Moll’s Gap is held in legendary terms in motorsport circles. Perhaps we’re a bit parochial, but this is our Col de Turini or Ouninpohja. A mecca for fans and a pinnacle for drivers, the stage is an unrelenting ascent intersected with countless bumps, dips, tunnels, camber changes, surface defects and corners.
Driving in a road car is chore, the never ending flow from side-to-side often met with the inner disbelief that this stretch is an often used major artery between two large towns. It’s hard to believe, but this is a main road in Ireland.
I could tell you about the experience of making it up the Gap, but just watch Craig Breen do it instead. As Paddy said, it’s still likely the best video you’ll watch today.
See that little blip on the left at 5m51s? Up to my ankles in mud, shivering in damp rain gear and laden down with a pair of cameras, people must have questioned the massive smile on my face.
But this is what I love. Having drove up in pitch darkness, I parked in a spot I was only slightly familiar with. Much of the allure of the Gap is the famous turn at the summit, but to me it’s also its downfall. So much of the coverage always just feels the same, a scrum of photographers all grabbing a single shot.
It was three years since I had ventured onto Moll’s Gap, often being put off by that very issue, but decided to be different this year. Waking up, the darkness was pierced by the constant stream of spectators passing on their way up. The road closed at 6:30am, the traffic noticeably building into a steady flow from 5am onwards.
Refreshed from having not driven through the night and slowly growing into the day, I sat and watched the day brighten overlooking one of the country’s most beautiful locations. A crackle of an exhaust in the valley below was the call to arms. Before the clock even struck 8, still very much shrouded in darkness, the Killarney Historic was go, and the best single day of action had begun.
The ‘Historics’ grew from a brave idea by KDMC to run an event with a strictly enforced age limit set on car’s entering. Setting the bar at a 30 year limit, the entry is rather expectably chock full of rear wheel drive – and often sideways rallying heroes – and is designed as a throwback to a time gone by which can now only be experienced through grainy YouTube videos and historic archives.’
While the spectacle may look similar, the reality of the modern world means that we aren’t treated to the week-long feasts of action that were the norm when these cars were in their prime, but Killarney has condensed all the elements needed to feel spot on.
The first wave of cars are the true ‘historics’. Keeping to rather exacting rules, some governed by the FIA, these cars are built to the exact specs of their competitive heyday, bar the necessary changes required for modern safety upgrades. If your idea of rallying from the ’70s includes BDA engines, H-Patterns, leaf springs and factory door cards, this is exactly what you get here.
The noises, the smells and the aura of these cars is truly magical. The weapon of choice is mainly the Ford Escort, a natural result of its success in-period, as well as the never ending fondness the rallyists here have for the small Fords.
The entry is punctuated by noticeable exceptions though. Jimmy McRae roars past in his Can-Am V8-engined Vauxhall Firenza, the multiple former British Champion and father of Colin and Alistair showing absolutely no signs of slowing down in later life.
A few Porsches are dotted throughout, but a rare pair most certainly catch my eye. With the passing of time, Group A cars have somehow managed to slip beyond the 30-year mark, and vehicles that still seem modern, are now into the realms of historic rallying.
The Greers, of father David and son Jonny, the latter a renowned car builder and the former a leading ITRC driver in R5 Fiestas and C3s, debuted the result of a seven year build, the ex-Francois Delecour Sierra Cosworth finished in a stunning Q8 Oil Livery.
The other was a real gem, as the Sierra is a shape I have experienced before, although ever diminishing on the stages, the sight and sound of a Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 popping and banging through the Irish countryside was utter joy.
The historic battle raged all day. Early favourite Marty McCormack hit mechanical issues and retired his Escort on Stage 3. A tit-for-tat battle for the lead began to take shape between the leading pair though, as Mark Falvey in the Mk1 Escort gave it everything in pursuit of 2018 Irish Historic champion Owen Murphy in the Lotus Sunbeam.
As the night drew in and the rain got heavier, Falvey attacked hard on the final stage. Murphy went cautious, determined to bring home a much sought after victory, but eased off too much. The clock had the final say though, and despite having blitzed the Sunbeam’s time, Falvey and James O’Brien finished an agonising 1.1-seconds behind Murphy and his co-driver Anthony Nestor.
While the Historics led proceedings – and after Breen and the 6R4 served as the interval act – the ante upped rather quickly. While the entry of both sections may look similar, naturally full of Ford Escorts with 108 in total taking part, the ‘modified’ class are a complete different breed.
Imagine the speed and power of a modern WRC car, mated to the chassis characteristics of a 40-year old Ford design and you’re in the ball park. Millington Diamond engines sending north of 300hp straight to the rear wheels, sequential ‘boxes popping up and down the cogs in milliseconds and carbon fiber body panels.
This wildness has become a normal sight in Ireland, and the top-ranked Class 14 cars fly past at mind warping speeds in the conditions.
On a road surface that seems to change from bone dry to soaked wet and back again in a matter of meters, the battle for grip is immense. Ragged edge is an apt description of what it’s like trying to tame these beasts. The Killarney stages and the conditions wreaked havoc on the field, as one after another crews were forced to retire. The stunning Escort of David Bogie has only just been completed, and with a prototype Millington engine, is a beautiful sounding thing at full chat.
A mechanical fault would end his day, but others had more spectacular conclusions to their event. Colin O’Donoghue, in his father’s work of art BMW E30 went quickest on Stage 1, just ahead of defending champion Robert Duggan in an Escort. The BMW would finish, but issues would see massive time losses, while the Ford was yet another Killarney casualty.
For all the Ford presence though, and much like the Historic section, the title would elude the blue oval fraternity.
Declan Gallagher, or ‘The Milkman’ as he’s known, is a special talent. Always quick while appearing silky smooth, the Donegal man has become synonymous with the KP Starlet, the small Toyota having clocked up victories all over the country.
Having come off a spell away from the sport, Gallagher took little time to get back up to speed. Besides a huge spin on the very first stage that saw the rear come perilously close to meeting a stone wall, the wee Starlet romped home to victory with quite a gap to the chasing pack.
Leaving Killarney, I felt invigorated. The thought of a near four week gap to the next event I’d get to seemed less demoralising than expected, such was the enjoyment following events that day. A week later though, that feeling changed to sadness with the news that Maurice Nagle had passed away.
A long serving member of the Irish rallying community, Maurice saw an opportunity all those years ago to create a special event. With Killarney & District Motor Club moving the Rally of the Lakes from its traditional December date to the now more familiar May weekend, Nagle had the foresight to begin the work of creating the Killarney Historics in its place.
Over the last 25 years, Maurice ran the event on numerous occasions, acted as Clerk Of Course and worked countless other rolls to leave the event as truly one of the finest on the calendar. With his son Paul sitting beside Craig Breen in the Metro, Maurice passed us on Moll’s Gap in his Lotus Cortina, acting as the official ‘road closed’ car. It would be his last blast, one final drive over Moll’s Gap, a trip so fitting.
I had the pleasure of his company in an Irish Bar in Nice before Rallye Monte Carlo this year. All hopes of a quiet night went out the window as stories flowed and craic was had, just rally folk just talking about this weird fascination we all have. On Saturday evening, Maurice finished his duties and headed home. Only a few short days later he passed away, leaving behind a huge legacy and eternal mark on the sport here.
On behalf of myself, and the whole rallying community, I would like to pass on my condolences to the Nagle family at this time.
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