There has been a sense of excitement through every facet of the rallying world here on the Emerald Isle for the past few months, on a par with halcyon days of old, and unequivocally different to the past decade. There’s a noticeable buzz.
It’s hard to pinpoint, but there is a feeling of optimism in the air. The stages, still a constant challenge of mud-splattered, gravel-littered and bumpy ribbons of tarmac have become busier all of a sudden. Crowds are flocking back in larger numbers by the week. The stretches of unkept ditch and shaky stone walls now heave under an even greater load underfoot.
Approach roads, once a consummate breeze to negotiate, are feeling the squeeze. Streams of spectators wander down tight lanes and through fields in a manner unlike the early 2000s, all hoping to get a glimpse of the action.
Even the helicopters are back.
The events, too, are riding the crest of this new wave. Entry lists are becoming longer, more astonishing, and full with of a depth of talent not seen in many years.
Since the dawn of Ireland’s economic crisis, rallying bore the brunt. An insatiable lust for speed and performance has long tipped rallying into the ‘not exactly affordable’ column on the sporting scale, and a global recession sure did its best to cut the viability of the pursuit.
Over successive years, entries dwindled, events suffered, and in some cases succumbed to the pressure of trying to even break even, and many cars slowly gathered dust in a garage corner or were packed off to a new owner.
The show went on, but it felt hollow, almost like a thin veneer papering over the multitude of cracks beneath the surface. When the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship concluded with the Cork 20 last year, if felt like a damp finish to a reasonably, if not overly, exciting period.
We, as a nation of rally-mad lunatics, were spoiled before, though. Pre-recession, this small Island on the west of Europe became home to all manner of exotic and incredibly quick rally machinery. We boasted the highest number of privately-owned WRC cars of any country in the early ’00s, with events like Killarney or Donegal often hosting more works-built cars than a round of the actual WRC itself.
Legends were made in the Subaru Impreza, Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla, but this soon dried up. There were years when even just turning up in a WRC car could have had you right in championship contention.
2019 though, so far at least, feels like a corner has been turned. The boom may very well be back in Irish rallying.The Rise
One of the hardest fallers over the last 10 years was the Galway International Rally, the traditional season opener in the west. The entry list dwindled, failing to come anywhere near selling out year after year, and come 2018 there was no event.
Galway was lost to the sands of time, a victim of vicious financial pressures and chaotic insurance issues. As the winter took its firm grip, and the Killarney Historic provided a fond farewell to the calendar year, there was little, if any, talk of proceedings in the City of Tribes.
Come February this year, though, it was a whole different story.
The Galway event’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes has acted a symbolic gesture for what the 2019 championship may perhaps have in store. A curtailed event schedule, the traditional two-day format condensed into a single day blast over three tightly located special stages, may have seemed a drastic move, especially for an international rally, but if felt fitting as a tentative step into the 2019 season.
As if stumbling into a room and blindly looking for the light switch, the illuminations most certainly shone the moment the entry list became public.
With rallycross star Derek Tohill in a Fiesta, Ray Breen in a Metro and Gary Jennings back in the Subaru S12 WRC, there were quite a few eye-catchers. But there was something even bigger that has become a focal point of the incredible excitement and buzz that has returned in 2019 – the utter deluge of R5 rally cars that have landed on our shores.
Designed as a more cost-effective car class, the R5 rules have resulted in a string of machines that can only be described as an incredibly potent package. With roughly 290-300bhp and four-wheel drive, these things most certainly do not hang about.
With the frightening lengths required to keep an ageing WRC car competitive, the costs had driven the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship to the point of becoming a race between three or four wealthy drivers, and a serious stifling point for any younger talent trying to break into the top level.
Swift decision-making, and the move to ban WRC cars from scoring points, gained widespread derision in 2016, but three years on it appears to have been a master stroke. Galway welcomed 20 R5s to the stages, more than double the number seen previously.The Stars
While the championship, and Irish rallying in general, seemed to stagnate over the dark years, the biggest concern was the future career paths being denied to budding local stars due to budget related stumbling blocks. A generation of supremely talented drivers fell through the cracks, hitting a brick wall that remains insurmountable without the correct backing.
To get to the top takes a lot in all levels of motorsport, but rallying especially demands a lot of help along the way. 2019 has brought a fresh wave of optimism and an injection of youthful exuberance right at the cutting edge and in the best machines.
Returning this year, Alastair Fisher bears a smile, charm and friendliness that endears him to rally fans, yet carries such a burden of expectation due to his surname and the revered nature with which his late uncle Bertie Fisher is held in rallying circles.
Away from the sport for 15 months, his was a name welcomed back atop the entry list. An event winner in JWRC and WRC Academy, there was a sense that Ali had this year set as a real target to finally taste glory.
Standing very firmly in his way are the Moffetts; brothers Sam and Josh. Both are ITRC champions, elder brother Sam’s 2017 crown being matched by Josh in 2018, and both are incredibly at home in their R5 Fiestas with nearly 100 event starts logged between them.
The battle between both Moffetts and Fisher was expected to be the leading storyline for the season, but a few dark horses have shown up to join the party and show their potential.
Galway got the boost of seeing Jon Armstrong make a welcome return, while West Cork gave us Callum Devine. Both, it could be argued, are the brightest talents to emerge in the last few years yet to get a break; each has seen the highs and lows of the sport in glittering short careers to date.
Having both risen through the R2 ranks, Jon competed in WRC 2, whereas Callum simply had a single shot at WRC 3 on the back of his Billy Coleman Award win for ‘Best Young Driver’. With avenues closed, both have taken different turns in the hope of staying visible to sponsors and potential backers. Jon turned to sim racing and was crowned eSports WRC World Champion in 2018, while Callum has got backing to make sporadic appearances in a privately-owned Fiesta R5.
The move to R5 has been a triumph to some, but the older guard who had dominated in the WRC days are certainly finding the transition a lot more difficult.
A more rewarding car to drive, the R5 is perhaps a lot more involved than something like an Impreza or a Focus, and as such the guys making the swap just aren’t featuring as of yet at the head of the times.
Manus Kelly, Declan Boyle and Donagh Kelly, each dominant in their own way over the last few years, seem unable to live with the rapid youngsters energising the sport. New names are grabbing at the baton, but somebody must be the one holding it the firmest, right?
You see, while so many of the drivers above – and plenty others as well I must add – have intentions to perform well in the ITRC this year, there was a name at the very top of the entry list for Galway that eclipsed them all: Craig Breen. Still an incredibly young man, Craig has the air of someone that has been there and seen it all in the sport.
Trust me on this, the story of Craig Breen is crying out to be made into a compelling film, but the 2019 segment will hopefully be a brief, yet enjoyable, transition into bigger and better things. A works WRC driver with Citroën for the last three seasons, the driver merry-go-round in the off season left Craig without a seat, much to the amazement of the general rally world.
Unperturbed, the drive to reach the top was still the same, just that this year would be a slight detour from the already winding map this guy has travelled. The blast around Killarney in the Metro was as much a chance to relieve frustration as anything, but the dalliance with Irish tar is about staying sharp and fit within a car.
Two wins from two would have seemed inevitable, but neither came easy or without a fight.Battle In The West
The Galway International Rally in summary? Rain, mud, more rain, speed and mud.
The buzz factor that I mentioned at the start oozed through the windswept fields and damp lanes all weekend. The night before the event, the city centre ground to a halt at the first crackle of a loosely-silenced exhaust. Crowds thronged in numbers I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in Ireland, all with a feeling that something big was brewing.
Pubs and clubs in a town so enthralled with its own distinct bohemian culture became overrun with an influx of rally jackets and country music, as the rally crowd rolled in. There was a sense of enjoyment in the air.
Come the next morning, the city laid on its finest Galway welcome, as can only be expected in early February. Wind, check. Mud? Oh, yes. Rain? Bingo!
It’s one thing to witness a rally car at maximum attack on dry, warm tarmac, and another notch above watching boundaries being pushed on our rather unique interpretation of the surface. Add rain showers to the equation and it borders on full Spinal-Tap-turned-up-to-11 levels of excitement.
While the plethora of 4WD cars steal the headlines, the abundance of 2WD entrants kept the thrills coming. Standing at the solid perimeter wall of a school, designed primarily to keep children in (and by default to keep rally cars out), the stage runs directly behind before approaching a hairpin right.
The road, at least to the eye, looks no more than damp, but this is deceptive. The R5s deal with this effortlessly, the all-wheel power gently swings the car round on a controlled arc before shooting off into, well, not exactly the sunset as I don’t remember seeing the sun, the next section of stage.
Come the RWD cars, the difference is incredible.
The approaching note is evidently more hesitant, brake squeal roaring longer and longer before the turn. Tiptoe around, there is no flare of revs except from the odd brave driver. Instead, the first sound is a succession of clunks; the sound of the sequential box announced with a forceful and affirmative bang often unheard over the engine.
Today, it seems in an odd order.
Bang, second gear. Bang, third gear. Bang. So here we are, an Escort barely 50 metres from the corner, in fourth gear without touching the throttle. The car, in tarmac setup, wears 16-inch full wet tyres. This is set up to handle this, right? With the tiniest poke, 350hp is sent to the rear wheels. It breaks traction immediately, and the whole car gets out of shape.
I’m thankful to be behind the child proof wall.
With Galway out of the way and Breen with victory number one in the bag, things turned to West Cork, and round two of the ITRC, as well as a rather special round of the British Rally Championship; the first time that the series has travelled to the south of Ireland.
Perched right alongside the southern coast, Clonakilty in Co.Cork is the definition of a perfect location to host a rally. Stages start within 2 kilometres of the town centre, and wind their way along the coast for mile after mile of stunning scenic beauty.
While Galway has been a championship regular, West Cork is a more rebellious event that has shaped its own unique identity over many years away from championship pressures. Running for over four decades, the event only joined the ITRC in 2015, and that was very much at the request of the championship.
Things seem less frantic and panicked in Clonakilty, not only over rally weekend but across the town itself. The event may only last two days, but to many this becomes a week-long pilgrimage. A Thursday night forum with drivers attracts a few hundred people, while the bars all over town record a roaring trade. It certainly helps that the event runs on St. Patrick’s weekend.
The West Cork Rally entry list counted nearly 200 cars across five classes, an unprecedented figure for an event in Ireland. Familiar crews, perhaps seen in the top 10 during previous years, were now running door numbers in the 40s and 50s. The unmatchable R5 entry of Galway was blown asunder as 24 cars hit the stages, although for many the stages most certainly hit back.
When I said West Cork was rebellious, it was meant in terms of the fact that the event is run in its own unique way. The stages are close together, in both time and distance, giving competitors an unparalleled ratio of stage-to-road mileage to cover.
For spectators and media alike, the beauty of a 12:00pm start and only a six minute drive from our accommodation is a very rare, but incredibly welcome, treat.
While all the ITRC stars returned, as well as the big guns of Matt Edwards, Tom Cave and David Bogie from the BRC which I would have only really seen in Ypres before, there was a true superstar lurking amongst the modified class entries. With the rise of buzz and excitement that rallying is creating in 2019, the sprinkling of proper magic has been the commitment of some real stars to come over and sample what Ireland has to offer.
Actor and global film icon Michael Fassbender has committed to doing the Rally of The Lakes in Killarney in May, while Ken Block will bring his ‘Cossie World Tour’ to Donegal in June. While both have massive followings for their entertainment, West Cork attracted a real touch of driving class when Mikko Hirvonen came out to play in a Mk2 Ford Escort.
A 15-time WRC event winner and four-time championship runner-up, Mikko is right up there in the pantheon of rallying gods, not that you would have guessed in Clonakilty. Instead, this quiet, humble Finn floated around in a whirl of excitement based on the opportunity to experience the magic of an ‘Ultimate Escort’.
Everyone seemed to grab a photo, each welcomed as warmly as the last and afforded time and a chat. In the car, the speed was there from the off, and out of it the smile grew larger by the stage. Gary Kiernan, an absolute wizard in an Escort, kept Mikko honest and held the lead for much of the rally until his clutch failed on Sunday afternoon, leaving Hirvonen to claim the Modified class win.
He looked very much like a man that will be back.
After near monsoon conditions on Saturday morning and the damp afternoon which followed, a drying line emerged on the final stages of the day, although a few errant drops of rain still caused panic. Such is the challenge of any Irish event, and especially one located so close to the coast, that having endured the mix of Saturday, crews woke up to bone-dry tarmac and searing sunshine on Sunday. It’s all just an added drop into the mixed bag of challenges thrown at a rally crew over a championship season.
Rather surprisingly, the visitors looked the sharpest with Matt Edwards and Tom Cave taking four of the six fastest times, yet both were unable to get in touch with the Breen and Fisher battle at the front.
There is plenty that lies ahead this season, with Killarney and Donegal standing out in the schedule as real gems, even if Breen’s navigator Paul Nagle did declare at the West Cork prize-giving: “I’m fed up of hearing Donegal this and Donegal that. This weekend is the best rally that Ireland has to offer”.
If the pair continue their title charge, incredibly dependant on whether a WRC opportunity arises in the meantime, they may travel to the northwest in June with a lot of locals looking to prove a point. The same can be said for Killarney, The Easter Stages or the rest – Breen and Nagle remain the marked men to catch.
The excitement around the hunt to beat them is palpable, and it’s a narrative that is getting people back engaged with the sport. Crowds are up, entries are up, speeds are up and the future is looking up.
I think it may be fair to conclude, the boom is back.Cutting Room Floor