An old story about one of Ireland’s most successful rally drivers resurrects itself from some deep place in my brain as the awesome headlights from a Hyundai i30 N fill the mirrors of the Peugeot 106 Rallye I’m driving, and even some of the road ahead. Even the lenses of my spectacles are beaming reflected light back into my eyes, making the small patch of dimly-lit tarmac within the beam of the 106’s puny candles difficult to read.
The story goes that Austin McHale, prior to his first rally, went testing down a backroad at night in his Ford Anglia, which was unfortunately devoid of any usable lighting. A friend followed behind in his road car in order to illuminate things ahead to some degree, but come the first corner the Anglia was ditched as the shadows became disorienting. Obviously the only way I can avoid a similar fate is to keep the Rallye at the limit and try pull away from the vastly-quicker Hyundai.
Behind me are 30 or so homologation specials and rally-inspired road cars, all flashing through the gloomy pre-dawn in a comet of light, noise and fumes. A fuel station in Co. Kerry has been given advance notice of our arrival, but the first few of us have beaten the target arrival time by quite a few minutes – something that would lead to road penalties on a competitive rally – and the station is only just opening up.
My rudimentary road book, time and distance schedule only exists to keep track of the shooting plan for the day, but in this case the folks who arrived ‘on time’ find themselves at the back of the queue for hot breakfast rolls.
Being early also allows us to savour the arrival of the various machines, chuntering and barking as they pick their way through the sleepy village followed by the odd squeal of exotic brake pads as they pull up to a halt at the pumps. Highly-strung turbocharged machines are not known for their fuel economy, so most owners take the opportunity to brim their tanks before it’s time to move again.
There’s some new faces and cars this year, along with plenty of returning attendees from the first Rallye Omologato in 2020, but no one is as happy to be here as Carlos from Spain. He’s flown over especially for the event, and is sitting in with a good friend of ours from Cantabria named Rafa. It’s 6:00am and Carlos is grinning like a Cheshire Cat despite nursing a monumental hangover, and happily poses for photos with the local politician who also happens to be the owner of the petrol station.
I’d collected Cian’s 106 a day or two prior to the event, and on my way home I spied a blue Subaru WRX Impreza STI Type RA with its roof vent open, one side jacked up as Rafa played with suspension settings to get the car just right for the challenging roads. On the phone to him that evening, he mentioned some issues with tyre scrub when veering wildly from lock to lock like a McRae or a Liatti warming tyres before a stage. Some people take Rallye Omologato very seriously!
Rafa is one of the biggest rally nuts you’ll ever meet, and after eight years in Ireland has headed back to Spain – with the Type RA. It was a lovely sentiment to have an international flavour to the day, and maybe we’ll bring the Rallye Omologato experience to a different country in the future.
Arriving at the top of the Healy Pass, my heart sinks a little. After the perfect weather on the 2020 event, and a week of hopeful-looking weather forecasts, we are met with thick, soupy fog. Letting the 106 tick itself cool after the spirited drive up here, I grab Will’s Renaultsport Clio 197 support car to do a quick recce of the road below and check out the conditions. It’s immediately evident that grip is at a premium; the surface is almost ice-like in places and the Clio’s Michelins transition from slip to grip and back again at what feels like 17km/h.
Breaking the bad news to Cian and Ross, we elect to wait it out for a bit and see if it lifts, although they don’t seem as disappointed as I am. In fact, I think they’re excited about the opportunities for atmospheric shots. They were correct, of course.
There’s a super one of Dave in his red Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III with me in my big stupid 555 Subaru jacket nearby – like a time control at some mid-1990s rally – and that’s exactly the sort of vibe we want to achieve with this event. Anyway, if we did things in Ireland only when the sun was out, we’d have about nine days of fun per decade.
The delay also allows people to chat, catch up and look at stuff. Stuff including rarities like a Mazda Familia/323 GT-R, Mitsubishi Pajero Evo and a Lancia Fulvia. Among the support cars are BMW M3s of the E46 and E92 generations. It’s a pretty serious line-up, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of quality metal around.
By around 9:00am the visibility has improved to the point where runs up and down the pass can commence, and letting cars go at 30-second intervals to give the photographers space and time for shots allows me to have a quick chat with owners just before they engage first gear and move off, some more aggressively than others.
The slight downhill gradient helps the two-wheel drive cars get off the line easier, and one previously-featured Mk2 Ford Escort sounds more like a Group A Cosworth than any of the actual Cosworths present. There is a more varied spread of machines in terms of eras than the first event (which mostly concentrated on Group A homologation cars), but the constant is quality.
On a dry day the Healy Pass is quite grippy, though surface temperature plays a role. Today, it is fascinating to see different people take different approaches, some playing with tyre pressures to try and get more rubber onto the road. That doesn’t prevent a Lancer from understeering for Japan on the tighter stuff, or a Legacy from a lurid slide on a sequence of hairpins. I don’t think anyone even comes near exceeding the speed limit on any section of the road, which tells you something about the challenge posed by this classic test.
With the majority of rolling shots done, it’s time to head to a quarry familiar to returning attendees and grab some group shots.
As I stuff my things into the small boot of the 106, James wanders up dangling the keys of his Version 2 WRX STI Type RA, and asks me if I’d like to drive it. It takes me about four milliseconds to say yes, and he seems almost as excited to give Cian’s 106 Rallye a go.
James’ Impreza is one of my dream machines, fitted with all sorts of cool Group A-style touches like carbon fibre mirrors, 18-inch wheels, big Alcon brakes and a serious exhaust. As I sit in and belt up, he points to the switch that enables the anti-lag and rotational idle. My type of switch.
Pulling the seemingly weightless door shut, I’m immediately struck by how small the cockpit is. It doesn’t feel cramped as such, but I feel as if the extremities of the car are within touching distance. They aren’t of course, but it’s a sensation that brings confidence and comfort straight away. The dashboard looks familiar from years of watching old rally onboard tapes, though again smaller than I’d expected.
Starting it up and flicking the magic switch, I convince myself I can feel each explosion in each cylinder, such is the aggression of the map. There’s a Prodrive shift knob on the gear lever, as was found in the works rally cars, and the Momo steering wheel came out of V10 WRC, a famous Impreza WRC for those knowledgeable in Irish rallying history, it’s worn Alcantara telling a story.
Many things strike me about the Impreza, probably chief of which is the sheer punch of the thing. The gearing is manically short, a result of the Type RA being homologated for Group N rallying where ratios were fixed. Coupled with some engine enhancements to bring power well over 300hp, the Scooby simply eats up any road between corners in a flurry of growling, whooshing and popping from the anti-lag system. The car stops on its nose thanks to the Alcon/Prodrive callipers, turns almost before you’ve told it to, and seems to hold a very slight balance towards oversteer throughout corners, without ever feeling unpredictable. With a weight of around 1,200kg (2,645lb), I imagine it’s pretty close to the sensation a full Group A Impreza 555 might have given, just without the awesome Hewland dog box noise.
By the time I get to the quarry I’m raving slightly, and don’t want to give the keys back to James. I really should have bought one of these before their value exploded.
After a long, relaxed lunch in Kilmackilloge Harbour, most go their separate ways, but some of the support team continue on over some nearby passes before a chilled BBQ at a friend’s house. It’s while travelling up one of these passes, pushing a UK-registered Lotus Elise out of the way with the little Rallye, that the magic of the homologation special becomes apparent yet again. Ordinary cars transformed into special machines, all in the name of competitive glory, while remaining (at the time) affordable to the everyday customer.
That we can gather so many quality examples together on a small island on the fringe of Europe gives me hope that the enthusiasm for these cars will endure, despite the general doom and gloom regarding the future of the internal combustion engine. Therefore, we’ll run Rallye Omologato as long as we’re allowed to put petrol in a fuel tank.
Photos by: Ross Delaney
Instagram: Ross Delaney Media