Saturday morning. 5:00am. The middle of nowhere.
It’s the thud of metal forcibly meeting wood that brings me to consciousness, yet it is the accompanying string of expletives that spill like the splinters from the wooden pole that truly wake me. Startled, I open my eyes. The air, thick with early morning chill of a pre-dawn hour is filled with radiant flashes of orange. A beacon fixed atop a rough-idling Jeep that chugs away over the crack of mallet and pole pierces the darkness.
This means it’s time to get excited. It’s almost rally time.
As the dawn breaks over Ireland’s most rugged expanses of coastline, an army of volunteers are already out, marking junctions, taping openings, and making the necessary alterations needed to turn a stretch of ordinary public road into a fast and exhilarating rally stage. Traversing the edge of the Beara Peninsula, the scenery here is special.
As the country goes into a frenzied period of excitement over ‘May Weekend’, a national long weekend with the Monday being a bank holiday, the town of Killarney swells to near breaking point as visitor numbers soar. Hotels and guest houses are booked out months in advance, and right at the heart of it all is the reason I keep returning to this corner of the world year after year.
As I said in December during my coverage of the Killarney Historic Rally, the pocket of roads within a small radius of the town are easily among some of the best in the country.
For the last 40 years, the Killarney & District Motor Club have utilised these to create one of the most exciting and definitely most scenic events in Irish rallying – Rally of the Lakes.
With a huge invasion of rally crews, spectators and all kinds of bemused tourists not prepared for the onslaught of senses that is ‘Lakes Weekend’, not to mention the long distances needed to be covered between stages, it made sense to fire up my trusty old Hotel de Peugeot, pack up some bedding and a couple of layers of waterproof clothes, and make the trip south.
As you’ll likely figure out from the photos, the waterproofs never came out of my bag.Friday Night Light
On Friday evenings in early May, absolutely any single piece of clothing could be deemed necessary on this isle, although for about the third year straight, the Killarney club had come up trumps with some rather glorious sunshine. As the evening rolled in, the setting sun laid a spectacular backdrop to the start ramp festivities in the town centre.
Once again, all eyes were on the pairing of Craig Breen and Paul Nagle. Both former WRC stars, the pair have become dominant on Irish tarmac this season, as well as showing winning pace in the Italian championship.
Wins in Galway and West Cork were further backed up by a third success in the Easter Stages Rally. Local star Paul had never tasted success at this event, but sat beside Craig it clearly felt like the best opportunity to correct this omission from his record books.
Behind the leading car sat a literal swarm of R5 machinery ready to take the victory should the leading pair make any mistakes.
Two drivers keen to make an impact over the weekend were Josh and Sam Moffett; the 2018 and 2019 ITRC champions have so far this season struggled to match the times set by crews around them.
On Friday morning, high up in the mountains around Killarney, the Monaghan pair were hard at work getting the settings dialled in on their respective Fiestas during a pre-event test.
As the start ramp action continued, a few kilometres away the event scrutiny was still in full swing. A vital part of any motorsport event, each competing car is checked over to confirm that they meet stringent safety standards, while homologated cars such as those in the R5 and R2 categories are inspected to confirm compliance with technical regulations.Beara Or Bust
Beara is a spectacular place. Just thought I’d start with that, keeping positive you know…
Its scenery is stunning, its people are incredibly nice, and the sense of being able to get away from the world is why I love getting down there whenever possible. The problem is that it’s roughly about a million miles away from anywhere. On the border between Cork and Kerry, the peninsula is about as remote as Ireland can be.
Leaving Killarney on Friday night, the drive still clocks over two hours along narrow and twisting roads, much if not nearly all spent in complete solitude, not meeting other traffic or passing many houses.
By the time I turn right at Ardgroom Village, the sun has long since passed over the horizon, but head torch at the ready, camp was made for the night. Walking distance to rally stage: 25 feet.
While this style of spectating may be a little hardcore – especially with a rather small hatchback as opposed to an estate or van – it’s the sense of adventure that I adore.
Waking up, having been startled from my uncomfortable slumber by the stage setup crew, the view out the windscreen was unlike anything any hotel (certainly within my budget) could offer. Sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean and a full field of rally cars due within a few hours – not much can beat that on a Saturday morning.
The first echo of an exhaust is a moment I cherish every time I go out to watch motorsport, and the oncoming blur of a Fiesta clipping along the most stunning scenery is right there with the epitome of a perfect spectacle. The sun came out to make it even better.
The beauty of rallying is that the spectacle you can expect to experience is a complete lottery. Seeing every car is far from guaranteed, as the early stages are notorious for claiming victims not up to rally speed from the off.
First running of the stage goes well until an accident blocks the road, but well over 100 cars have passed at this point. Wait over, back in position and ready for the second pass, only two cars arrive before word spreads of another blockage. That’s rallying.
With my day’s schedule now all out the window, and having not made the final stage of the day in time before the road was closed to traffic, I had to improvise. While not as action-packed as standing at a quick corner, the atmosphere around the start line was palpable.
All around, crews made their own final preparations. Some took a moment to grab some air and clear their heads, while others took an opportunity to run through the first few notes that would be fired at the driver at full speed in a matter of minutes.
Weary, tired and exhausted, there was only eight further kilometres of technical, twisty asphalt that lay between the crews and completing day one. As the clock ticked on, cars began to edge forward ready to launch down the narrow, tree-lined laneway of Killmickalogue.
Tired, sunburnt, and knowing another full day of action lay ahead, I skipped out on a few organised meets around town and instead made routes towards my second planned overnight location.
While on a bit of a reconnaissance mission the week before the event, a particular spot on the iconic Molls Gap stage caught my eye, mainly as it was a point I don’t remember seeing photos from before.
What I didn’t expect is that it would be an absolute stunner of a spot to watch that evening’s sunset from.The Stars
While all the cut-throat business of swapping tenths of seconds over the stages was going on, and well after the leading cars had passed over the route, a final bunch of cars tipped away at the back of the field for much of the weekend.
Timing gear turned off, the Killarney Rally Fest crews were most definitely not out to set the world alight, although anyone who caught the spectacle was most certainly all the better for the experience.
Incorporated as a way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the event, the Rally Fest was focused on bringing star cars back out onto the stages, although the biggest attraction for many was a local sitting behind the wheel of a Mk2 Ford Escort.
Academy Award nominee actors rank pretty high among the Hollywood elite, and Michael Fassbender sits right up there with the A-list heavy hitters. The star of X-Men, 12 Years a Slave and others, it was a surprising announcement that he would drive at this year’s Rally of the Lakes, and also act as an event ambassador.
Having grown up in Killarney, it made sense for the petrol-headed star to take on his home patch.
The car that Fassbender would drive just had to be a Mk2 Escort – it really couldn’t be anything else – but this was no ordinary breed of the species. With a 2.5-litre Millington Diamond engine, sequential gearbox, and all the best of bits, this car is certainly up there in terms of the quickest Escorts in Ireland.
The learning curve was understandably massive for someone who had only ever previously competed in circuit racing.
On a private testing road early on Friday morning, Michael got a first chance to experience his chariot and get to grips with the prospect of having 325bhp at his right foot. Over a few hours, speed definitely increased as familiarity to how the car would react to different inputs grew.
Craig Breen was on hand to give a few words of advice, and all was set for a blast up Molls Gap.
While Fassbender drew the public interest, the cars that would form the Rally Fest section of the event grabbed the rally geeks’ attention. Audi quattros, Toyota Celicas, Ford Sierras and more were a reminder of a period in the sport that I have only experienced through YouTube and video games.
And then there was GXI 9427. I got very, very excited in this car’s presence.
Although it may look like just another E30 M3 rally car, this thing is incredibly special, and has a story that I really have to document on here in the near future. There is a reason that Prodrive have tried on quite a number of occasions to get this car bought for their own museum.Up The Gap
‘The Gap’ is so stunningly beautiful that it may be impossible to put into words. A winding stretch of road, this place is special, and it sits right at the heart of the Irish rally identity.
While I’d travelled further up the stage during the Killarney Historic Rally in December, this time I went for a spot known as Five-Mile Bridge, the lowest point of the road before it shoots upwards towards the summit.
The overnight leaders, Breen and Nagle in their Fiesta R5, passed in a flash, yet it was the duo of Ali Fisher and Callum Devine that looked slightly quicker. The time sheets confirmed it, with Callum going quickest. The two both took stage wins over the weekend and kept the foot right on Craig Breen, who knew that the smallest mistake could be disastrous.
As the sun began to rise over the mountain peaks, the cars raced up one of the most revered stretches of tarmac in the country, while we as photographers cursed the horrid shadows and difficult lighting.
For some, the stage would bite back, as the attrition of rallying reared its ugly head. Engines made final rattly, smokey notes before going silent, or driveshafts clunked loudly with each final rotation. A cruel exit made worse by the prospect of being stuck for quite a few hours before the road would open again.
Back in service, the unsung heroes of the rallying world got to work. Up and down the entry, armies of service crews swarmed atop each car as it arrived in. Vital repairs and tweaks were the order of the day for some, patching damage for others, or a few gentle checks and perhaps some new rubber for the more relaxed teams.
As the crews headed off for a final loop of stages, it was just a matter of waiting for times to roll into the online result system. Nervous moments passed until the news flashed: yet another victory for Breen, a mere 19 seconds being the difference after two extremely hard days of racing.
In the Modified section, Chris Armstrong took a comfortable win, although second place Rob Duggan arguably gave the drive of the event, having hauled his Escort back up the results after losing five minutes to a puncture.
Leaving Killarney tired and exhausted, I did so with a smile. No other event in Ireland provides such incredible backdrops and scenery, and inversely no other event encourages my sense of adventure quite like the Rally of the Lakes.
Checking out of Hotel de Peugeot and returning to normal civilian life was a welcome step up in comfort, but the morning views are nowhere near as good as waking up truly in the middle of nowhere with a smile on your face. Rallying brings us to these incredible places, and I’m incredibly thankful for that.Cutting Room Floor