It’s that tiniest of pauses, no more than a matter of seconds, before day seemingly turns into night. This is what gravel rallying is about.
A huge amount of photography is about anticipation. Knowledge and practice helps too, as does a degree of forward thinking. What movement should be expected? What twitch or turn will look visually appealing? When’s the right time to mash the shutter? All of these things need to be anticipated.
Anticipation is paramount in photographing rally, because all going well you only get a handful of seconds to grab the shot. The nature of the motorsport means there is no guarantee that a competing car will be seen again at any point, so each click has to count. Every last little glint of paint or bark of an exhaust is a trigger to get ready.
Sight and sound, as a duo, play a key role when I’m stage-side getting myself set, cameras primed and reasonably giddy. I play a game of guess the car – although here in Ireland simply saying ‘that’s definitely an Escort’ keeps you guessing right more often than not – and strain my eyes for a quarter panel colour through the ditches. This doesn’t really work in a hot forest though, as sight is very quickly eliminated from the equation.
Dust. Horrible, horrible dust. It gets everywhere, covers everything, and turns sunlight into dark when propelled at speed from the wheel arches of a fast-moving rally car.
It became a rhythm for the afternoon: car passes, exhaust popping and loose stones peppering the underside shielding. Click, click, click goes the camera. Round the sweeping left-hander and out of sight, the count begins. One… Two.. Three… Whoomph, a wave of misery wafting in the car’s wake. Before long everything is white. Camera – white. Clothes – white. Luscious hillside – white. But then again, this wasn’t the first white-out of the Irish Forestry Rally Championship season…Snow Way, Jose
This story was originally due in March. I’d looked on at the mega WRC experience Matt had in Australia, and the ARA goodness from Trevor stateside, and thought I really need to get out into the woods more often.
Over the past number of years, the Irish Forestry Rally Championship has grown to become a major player, with large entries and great stages. A reasonably close event in Limerick would be perfect, right?
Nice and cool mid-spring morning, a little dampness in the air, but all looking good. Arriving at Stage 1, the weather seemed fine. A light misting of rain started about 20 minutes before the first car was due to leave the line, but things quickly changed.
By the time the main field approached the opening test, a light shower had turned into a full-blown blizzard. I have never experienced such a ferocity of snow at any motorsport event before, and it was clear that many of the crews hadn’t either. Many battled condensated windscreens and inadequate wipers as the deluge continued. Within minutes, the flurry began to cover banks and the road, leaving only the tracks of the previous car to act as guidance.
Heavier and heavier it fell. The hardcore fans earned their stripes that day; it was quite an experience.
With one stage in the bag and now a very, very damp camera bag, I edged my way tentatively back onto the road in search of more action on the second pass through.
Getting to the stage start, a convoy led by emergency respondents sat waiting, tasked with guiding the masses back off the mountainous roads and into the safety of the service park. Reports filtered through of multiple cars going off, and it came as no surprise when the event was cancelled. It was heart-breaking to see the effort involved in organising the event go to ruin at the behest of the weather, but it was for the best. It also meant I didn’t have much gravel rallying to bring to these pages.Welcome To The Jungle
As time and events passed, it became clear that I had the answer. Right at the end of July – and fairly safe in the knowledge that I could discount the possibility of snow – the Cork Forest Rally seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase this side of the sport in Ireland. In my mind at least, this event represents the pinnacle of Irish loose-surface rallying.
I may be a bit biased as I act as an official for the event, but it was quite a good’un.
The hills of North Cork are some of the finest woodland areas of the country, and with the addition in recent years of multiple big-investment wind farms, it’s littered with a never-ending sequence of fast, flowing and incredibly maintained gravel lanes that work rather well as rally stages. The transition from heavy woodland to wide-open wind farm is immense, and the two days of shooting – yes, it is Ireland’s only multi-day rally not on tarmac – really highlighted the difference.
Saturday morning was spent in what felt like the Amazon rainforest. Deep, luscious vegetation lining the roadside, at times threatening to engulf the gravel, was a feature of the opening loops, putting more emphasis on precision than outright speed. That’s not to say this was a slow section, as it was plainly obvious from the rapid pace at which each car flashed by just feet away from where I stood.
Amongst the earliest crews on the road were the Junior 1000s, a real stepping stone championship that has flourished in the past number of years. Originally developed in the UK and enjoying a third season on our side of the water, the championship is a massive opportunity for the future of the sport to find their feet. Open to drivers 15 years old and up, and with the public touring road sections driven by the navigator, no other event can offer the chance to compete on full-blown special stages from such a young age. With cars that are mechanically limited and running on a controlled tyre, there is more of a focus on driver skill, learning and progression.
As the last of the 2WD machines ran through the stages – running in reverse seeding (240-201) – the ante picked up as the quickest of the 4WD machines made ribbons of the tight and twisty test.
The afternoon offered the biggest treat of the weekend for the crews, an 18.5km (11.5mi) test over Boggerah Drive. Taking in everything from wide-open new gravel, short tarmac bursts, and technical forestry sections, this was as good as Irish gravel rallying gets. The elation in the crews’ voices at the stage end was palpable.
Come Sunday, the temperatures were up, and so came the dust. Lots of dust.
As the cars rounded off the testing 150km weekend’s challenge, the toll taken on some was becoming clear to see. Quick repairs, missing panels and numerous scrapes littered the once pristine paintwork of the previous day.
The battle at the top of the pack had been intense, barely stretching to a full second for a time on Sunday. But it was Sam Moffett who took his Ford Fiesta R5 home for the win, ahead of Barry McKenna (Fiesta R5) and James Wilson (Hyundai i20 R5). Over two long days, it was deserved, with Moffett adding his name to the Jim Walsh Cup for a second time.
While it may not get as much coverage or attention compared to its tarmac cousin, gravel rallying is booming right now in Ireland. And it’s only getting more exciting by the year.Cutting Room Floor