When the Killarney Historic Rally’s first special stage kicked off in Ireland’s southwest last Saturday, talk centred on one man and a very special car.
I was sat perched on a stony outcrop, shutter finger twitching, eyes on stalks looking for the first glimpse of headlights. The final shades of the previous night’s darkness begin to ebb away as a grey-tinged morning broke through. The chime of a turbo, the harsh squeal of competition pads on ever-warming brake rotors and the unmistakable, animal-like whooshing only a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth seems to be able to make came into earshot – WRC star Craig Breen was just seconds away.
Chatter stopped once the yellow halogen lights of the Ford pierced the darkness below, and rounding a tight left-hander a beam cast across the landscape signalled that Craig was very close. Silent, the handful of nearby spectators stopped and stood. Louder, more visceral, the noise grew.
And then, resplendent in blue, white and orange, the unmistakable shape of the three-door Cosworth blitzed by.
As flash guns erupted and the Sierra’s tyres momentarily broke contact with tarmac, even with my index finger jammed firmly to camera and eye pressed firmly to the viewfinder, I became giddy. This was an emotion I knew of purely from years of admiration and watching videos. For others, the moment was more real.
To try and explain the context is difficult, as here at 8:00am on a dreary early winter’s morning were groups of rally fans out to watch Craig Breen pushing a Cossie up Moll’s Gap. But it was so much more. This was the late Frank Meagher’s Sierra.
Frank was a legend, perhaps the ultimate underdog star of Irish rallying in the ’80s and ’90s. After 30 years, his car was back.
The Killarney Historic Rally has grown to be such an important event on Ireland’s motorsports calendar. This is thanks in part to the emotions instilled in a generation of fans who grew up following the local rallying icons, many of whom, like Frank, are now sadly no longer with us.
Following Craig and navigator Paul Nagle up the road was another Ford Sierra, specifically the 4×4 Sapphire Cosworth of Johnny Greer and Niall Burns. The Historic class also included an ex-works Subaru Legacy RS and Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, as well as numerous Group A-spec BMW E30s.
Historic rally competition is slowly adapting to four-wheel drive, turbocharged machinery becoming eligible for entry, as to be expected given there have only been three WRC events won by a 2WD car in the last 35 years.
As time has marched on – and as seen on last year’s RAC Rally – the dominance of the Mk2 Ford Escort in historic rallying has started to erode in the past few years, but that doesn’t stop them dominating the field in numbers.
Stood on the side of ‘The Gap’ in the early morning, the haunting bark of a BDA engine at full chat is guaranteed to stand neck hairs up on end.
As the daylight began to take hold, the reminiscing began to fade away as the final cars in the Historic class passed by on their way up this iconic stretch of tarmac. A a quick pause in proceedings signalled that Modified class cars were up next. I hunched behind a rock for some semblance of safety.
For all the nostalgia of a straight-cut box and a sweet BDA, time has marched on, and here in Ireland we’ve embraced all the change – once its fitted in an Escort, Starlet or Corolla. It’s no secret by now, but these machines are spectacular, with the majority of front-runners utilising 2.5L Millington Diamond engines mated to sequential gearboxes, WRC-spec suspension dampers and 15-inch semi-slicks.
The speed differential is obvious from the jump height achieved over what looked like a pretty inauspicious crest in the road, and the stage times didn’t lie either. By the end of the seven special stages – including three runs up the legendary Moll’s Gap – Kevin Eves and Chris Melly arrived back in Killarney as winners in their Toyota Corolla AE86 – nearly two minutes quicker than the leading Historic class car.
The battle for the Historic victory was an incredibly tense one, with both Breen/Nagle in the 2WD Sierra sitting dead even with Green/Burns heading into the final stage of the rally. But all hopes of a shootout for the ages was scuppered when the Q8 Oils-sponsored Sapphire appeared into sight first. Unfortunately, the two-door Cossie suffered a driveshaft breakage on the way to the start line.
The Killarney Historic Rally has grown year-on-year at a rate unlike anything in Irish rallying, and it seems set to get even bigger. If you like rallying of the tarmac variety, and have a love of all things ’70s through to the ’90s, a trip to Moll’s Gap in December might well be something you should consider adding to your bucket list. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an extensive image gallery from this year’s event below.