Alarm rings. Ugh. Screen reads 4:00am. Major ugh.
Running on empty, curtains pulled and greeted by pure darkness, the inside and outside world shrouded in a shared bleakness. The house is still and quiet, save for the incessant patter of rain against the window. I can’t see it, which is frustrating, but have prepared. One layer of thermals, followed by another of regular clothes, and topped off with waterproofs. Camera bag thrown into the boot, bobble hat fixed firmly upon head, and deep melodic tunes queued up, it’s go time.
The destination today is Galway, a handy 400km round trip, and the opening salvos of the Irish rally season. On the drive up, passing little if any life along the darkened motorway, I had time to plan out – in my head at least – what I wanted to shoot. Of course, rally being an incredibly fast-moving and ever-changing discipline, this went completely out the window.
Before the sun had even risen, I had a breakfast stop done, media accreditation picked up, and was parked on the first special stage of the Galway International Rally, specifically at a tight and twisty hard left. Being early February, damp and cold were to be expected, while mud and shiny tarmac is so intrinsically linked with Galway that it is almost accepted. A bag for muddy clothes had been neatly packed the night before in preparation for what lay ahead.
As the sun rose, the state of the surface became even more apparent. Standing water patches, spreading of mud from tractors, and the run-off from soft road edges littered the surface. Tyre choice is vital here, and all the while gravel crews travel through assessing the situation. Go with intermediates, wets or a brave call for hard slicks?
As the sun finally broke through the clouds and grey transitioned to slivers of yellow, the action kicked off. It’s the standard fare that I’ve missed in my life for the past three months, with Rally Legend being the last event I had shot.
Sitting patiently as the engine notes loom into ear shot, judge the bang through the gears as the previous corner is negotiated and then, camera primed, meet the action head-on as the cars arrive into sight already well rotated.
The tyres, whatever the choice, scrabble for any grip to prevent an excursion into the solid banks that line the stage. Into sight and gone again took just 4.7 seconds for the quickest guys.State of Play
2020 has kicked off to an odd set of circumstances, stemming from a number of factors that have taken hold over the off season. On the one hand, Galway welcomes a raft of brand-new, cutting-edge rally cars that are, in some cases, tasting Irish tarmac in a competitive setting for the first time. The second-generation Ford Fiesta R5 made its debut in the hands of Joseph McGonagle, while the VW Polo R5 seems to have become the ‘go-to’ car for the season.
These Ingolstadt rockets, developed on a semi-works basis by the all-conquering Volkswagen Motorsport team, first appeared sporadically at the end of 2019. Three Polo R5s lined up at Galway, and indeed they would top the times all day and eventually take the win, third and fourth places.
The rest of the R5-dominated field was filled with Mk1 Fiestas, quite a number of Hyundai i20s, and even a pairing of the semi-works developed Proton Irizes. Oddly though, the world championship flag-bearer at R5 level – the Skoda Fabia Evo – was nowhere to be seen
For all the good that the influx of high-end machinery brings to the image of an event, the reality of Irish motorsport’s current predicament was stark further down the field. Years and years of rising costs, ill thought-out measures and a general sense of apathy towards the governing body have seen a revolt from competitors. To competitively drive 105km (65miles), the entry fee alone was €925 ($1,010 or £780) which was simply too much for many of the ordinary club-level competitors who fill entry lists on every event.
The issue does not lie with the organisers of the Galway Rally who ran an incredibly well organised day’s action – the entry fee is more dictated by incredibly high insurance costs to run an event in today’s environment, and the levies that are charged for administrative purposes. Crews spoke with their feet, and only 69 cars crossed the start line on Sunday morning, a 31% decrease from 2019.
This feels like a crossroads point for rallying in Ireland. We have some of the finest young talent heading towards incredible heights, but at the same time the sport is struggling to survive on the home front.Love When A Plan Comes Together
As the morning headed towards afternoon, the plan I made in my head while driving up the motorway was slowly unravelling. Roy Keane famously once said “Fail to prepare? Prepare to Fail”, and it began to feel like it was ringing true. The location I had picked out for my first stop was a burst; changes to the stage meant the action would finish not where I had planned to shoot from, but a few kilometres back down the road. My only option was grabbing the closest spot on a ditch at a nearby section, but it was far from ideal.
While not the best visually, it allowed me to properly see the incredible skill required to wrestle a 280bhp rally car down these roads that could barely be classed as lanes. Square left, straighten up and pin the throttle – sounds easy, right? Instead, the cars bucked and weaved as the tyres fought for grip. Left, right, on the road and up a bank, this was mad to watch.
Back in the car bang on time (want military-style precision second in your life? Follow rallying), map open and heading to a stage start, the dysfunctional plan was back on track. Not. Things just don’t work out like that – they never do. The first blow was a heavy downpour of rain – how joyous – and then when I finally got to where I thought the stage start was, it turned out to be a further 2km walk away.
Feeling weary, wet, reasonably tired and knowing that an imaginary clock was ticking away within my head, I made my start line stay brief. As the cars rolled slowly towards the LED clocks and the open road that lay beyond, the colours seemed to be drained from each and every one, instead covered in a thick layer of grime and dirt.
Others wore all the scars of a hard day.
Back in the car, a quick cross-country spin to the final stage of the day began. And then the heavens opened.
This was torrential now, and really not pleasant to be out in, never mind pinned up against a barbed wire fence in a cow-trampled field. This is the rallying life, and I adore it, but I don’t think anybody I describe this to really thinks I’m all there at times.
The Black Road, final stage of the day, is tricky on a warm afternoon, but during a downpour it’s treacherous. Puddles cover the road surface and tyre choices made hours before in totally different scenarios now come under incredible scrutiny. Some are brave and push harder; others play it safe. The finish line is in sight, and to go off so near the end would be galling.
Come the end of the day, there was to be a winner, and a worthy one at that. Ali Fisher, brilliantly navigated by Gordon Noble, has been around the sport for quite a while, and I was shocked to realise that this was his first Irish tarmac rally win. New to the Polo R5, the die was set with a fastest time on Special Stage 1, and the lead never changed from there. Watching him up close at the start of SS7, the intense focus was clear for all to see. 2020 so far seems set in stone as the strongest opportunity Ali has to emulate his legendary uncle Bertie Fisher, but it’s early days in a long and winding season.
In the door 18 hours after leaving, it’s dark again; the inside and outside world shrouded in a shared bleakness. The house is still and quiet, save for the incessant patter of rain against the window.Cutting Room Floor