Musical Chairs

The merry-go-round that has been the 2019 drivers’ market has proved to be very interesting for us enthusiasts! It’s been a case of speculation, rumours and lies in abundance! We’ve been extremely lucky in that our two drivers from the Island of Ireland have featured strongly on team managers wish list.

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Kris Meeke has been given a fantastic opportunity for 2019. Toyota Gazoo Racing has the form car in the Yaris WRC can it propel Meeke to World Drivers Title

The drama began early this year when Kris Meeke was unceremoniously ejected from the Citroen Racing team in May this year. Toyota team boss Tommi Makinen has shown continued faith in Meeke. Previously Meeke turned down an offer to go to Toyota in 2015 and despite Meeke’s off-road excursions and the recent reputational damage inflicted by Citroen (dumping Meeke mid-season and questioning his ability to remain calm and follow team orders) Tommi has still taken a chance on signing Meeke for 2019.

Few would argue Kris has had his fair share of accidents over the last few years. Some of these accidents can be traced back to driving a car beyond its limit to try and keep up with the competition. The DS3 WRC was once the ultimate world rally car clocking up 23 wins between 2011 and 2013. Unfortunately, very little development of the car took place after Sebastien Loeb stepped away from a full-time drive in WRC at the end of 2012. By the time Kris had a full season (2014) in the DS3 the car was being outclassed by the competition and he continued to drive the DS3 for a further two seasons in the WRC. Meeke managed to claim 3 wins over the three seasons and cemented his position as one of the fastest drivers in the championship when he established a record for the fastest WRC round in Finland 2016 with an average speed of 126.60 km/h.

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Meeke made the DS3 WRC fly in Finland 2016

Come 2017, the new generation of World Rally Cars arrived to much fanfare and Citroen was expected to be the class of the field as the official team had taken a step back in 2016 to develop the C3 WRC. After extensive testing, something went badly wrong before homologation as the crews preferred differential and suspension settings weren’t homologated. This led to a very nervous car and meant the crews struggled to fully commit in the car. Kris managed to take two more victories in a difficult car.

Tommi has a management style that appears to let drivers accentuate their positives and works with them on their weaknesses. Jari Matti Latvala no longer seems lost in his own head at stage ends when things are not working out. Also, Ott Tanak is mentally stronger this year, dominating the latter part of this season is a testament to this. Can the Makinen ‘magic’ help Kris reel in his wild streak and make him a consistent point scorer? If so, there’s no reason why the Dungannon ace can’t be in the mix for the Championship lead at the end of the 2019 season.

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Tommi Makinen has taken the Toyota Yaris WRC and made it a world beater

Kris has signed with the Toyota Gazoo Racing team for 2019. The Yaris is seen as the perfect car this year especially in the hands of Ott Tanak. Meeke’s speed is not in doubt and Kris has reportedly been delighted with the chassis and engine of the Toyota. What role he will play within the Toyota team that has yet to be announced. Will he be able to battle for victories or will he be expected to play wingman to Ott and take points off the other challengers?

A change of co-driver may hinder Meeke initially as it will take time to gel and have that 110% commitment required, but once all clicks into place, have no doubt Meeke will be setting scratch times and keeping us on the edge of our seats. Who will fill the co-driver’s seat is subject to much speculation, names such as Daniel Barritt, Ilka Minor, Seb Marshall are just a few of the names that have been suggested. The previous incumbent in the seat Paul Nagle is highly regarded by many in the service area, could we also see a return by the hugely popular Kerryman in 2019?

Craig Breen has proved his potential in the Citroen Racing Team, without doubt, he has suffered from the same issues that hampered Meeke. Craig had a role to play in the team and that was to bring the car home and gather manufacturer points. As the car set up improved Craig was given opportunities to shine, Sweden this year was a prime example as Breen partnered by Scott Martin took a magnificent second overall.

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Where will we see Craig Breen in 2019?

Breen has also been cursed with extremely bad luck this year, unfortunate punctures, getting caught in downpours are just some examples of his traumas this year.

Rumours are rife as to what colour overalls Craig will find himself in 2019. He has been linked to remaining with Citroen, and also every other team. This shows the high regard with which the Waterford driver is held. Will he remain at Citroen? Toyota look to have their super team in place for 2019 so the door seems to be closed there for Craig.

Citroen has made their intentions of getting back on top very clear by signing five-time world champion Sebastien Ogier and the latest flying Finn Esapekka Lappi. Citroen’s sister car company Peugeot have withdrawn from World Rally Cross, this confirms the seriousness with which the PSA Group are taking the 2019 Rally season. It also means a certain nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb is without a drive. Loeb has ruled out a full-time return to the sport but he may be tempted by a part-time season. Would a partial season benefit Craig? Citroen originally seemed reluctant to run a third car, but Loeb winning in Spain has not only relit Loeb’s desire for the WRC, but it may also well have opened the purse strings of the PSA group. Loeb has said he hasn’t retired and intends competing in 2019 but not indicating where. A chance to work with the two greatest drivers of this generation would be fantastic for Craig, the lack of seat time may be seen as a hindrance. Would it help him develop to the next level? Undoubtedly it would be a fantastic opportunity and if it allowed Craig to compete in at least eight rounds in a WRC and the remaining rounds in the C3 R5 it could well be an attractive proposition.

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Sebastien Loeb & Daniel Elena showed their class by winning in Spain. Has this reignited the fire within this pair to compete in more rounds of the WRC?

Hyundai has an extremely strong car, and in the hands of Theirry Neuville, it is a proven winner. Andreas Mikkelsen has a contract for 2019 but he has struggled this year to challenge the leaders. Paddon and Sordo have shared a car this year and have both been solid if not spectacular. Could Breen be the missing link in the Hyundai chain?

MSport Ford is a likely opportunity in 2019, the Fiesta is well sorted and a proven winner. The concerns raised by Ogier that lack of investment by Ford Performance could mean the car slips behind the others in latest developments. Ford Performance seem reluctant to get too involved with the Fiesta world rally programme, is it because it doesn’t appeal to their American market or that Rallying is not seen as “green” enough for their corporate credentials? Another worry with the MSport team is that they have been known to have drivers who can pay for their seat in the team, or bring budget as it’s politely called. Would Breen be in a position to compete with say the likes of Mads Ostberg in this regard? It would seem unlikely or is it even a road that Craig would want to go down!

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Malcolm Wilson seems to be the team principal who will decide which drivers remain in World Rally Cars in 2019.

Another possible lifeline for Breen in 2019 is the revamped R5 category. The category is being split into two sub-categories one solely for works teams and the other for privateers. WRC 2 Pro will have ‘works’ drives available in Skoda, Hyundai, MSport (Ford) and Citroen and also possibly Volkswagen returning in 2019. Could Craig take a step back in 2019 to take a step forward?

We will await news in the coming days/weeks to see which team Craig has signed on the dotted line with and look forward to cheering him on in whatever colour car he is in.

As a side-note Callum Devine made his mark in the Junior World Rally Championship in 2018. He set competitive times on all surfaces but was blighted by bad luck and also an unfamiliarity with the events. The 2017 Billy Coleman Award winner has promised to return in 2019 and with the knowledge, he gained this year we can expect him to be a title contender. Devine has the talent to compete with the best the rest of the world has to offer and to see him triumph on the world stage would be magnificent.

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Callum Devine starred in 2018, hopefully, he can put experience gained to good use in 2019.

2018 has once again proven that this island with a population of just over six million can compete on the world stage with the best and be highly successful.  Here’s hoping 2019 we continue to have ‘our own’ to cheer on at the top of the time-sheets.

 

Images courtesy of Conor Edwards, Mark McCullagh, Kris Meeke (Facebook Page) and WRC Images

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A Slice of Maderia

Rali Vinho Madeira (1)

As most people do we had booked our holidays earlier in the year and had kind of forgotten about it until a few days before! The panic set in so I Googled “things to do and what’s on in Madeira.” Imagine my surprise when I came across a link to a Rali Vinho Madeira.

The event was running on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday that we were on the Portuguese Island.  Further, Googling showed the rally was a round of the Portuguese Championship and the European Rally Trophy so a top-class line-up of over 60 cars was on the start list. Led away by 16 R5 cars!

Thinking the rally wouldn’t be anywhere near where we staying I put it to the back off my mind. I thought it would be like flying into Dublin and discovering a rally on in Donegal, I might consider travelling for hours to see the event but family certainly wouldn’t!

But we had barely touched the ground before we caught our first glimpse of Madeira rally fever. Walking through Madeira’s airport didn’t there just happen to be a Renault Clio R3 in its full livery parked up with lots of information on the event but with a trolley load of suitcases and a bus to catch, we’d no time to stop.

The next morning after we got settled into our hotel and I’d the sun lounger sorted I spoke with the Hotel Concierge. She told me that the island goes rally mad for the week, it brings in huge tourist numbers.

Rali Vinho Madeira (10)

There was to be a ceremonial start on Friday afternoon and a super special around the streets of Funchal, (the Islands capital city) on Friday night. Best of all this was happening less than 10 minutes away on the bus which stopped outside our hotel!

After a few days relaxing and enjoying the sunshine we thought we’d take a trip into Funchal and visit the sites. According to my good lady wife, this involves visiting the local shopping centres as well! In one of these shopping centres I saw a rally-prepped Ford Escort Mk2 on display, obviously, this had more appeal to me than the latest high street trends…

The enthusiasm and helpfulness of the guys and girls on this stand was brilliant. They took time explaining all I needed to know. Also, I had my four-year-old boy with me and they kept him entertained whilst Daddy asked the stupid questions!

On Friday, I set out not exactly sure what to expect only to be left amazed by what greeted me. From lunchtime, the main road through the capital city was closed off. The local police were on hand to manage the traffic. An army of marshals and workmen were constructing grandstands and erecting barriers and chicanes, it really was like a military operation.

At 3pm the crowds had gathered to see the cars go over the start ramp, this was done in reverse order so two guys in a Fiat Cinquecento lead the field across the ramp. The line-up of cars was completely different to what I am used to at home in Ireland. Not a single Mk2 Escort to be seen in the line-up, their modified cars were Citroen AX’s, Saxo’s and Toyota Yaris’s.

One car that caught my eye was a Datsun 1200. My father had a road going version in the late 1970s – early 80s. I grew up in that Datsun, sitting in the back travelling to rally events. So to see this really pulled at my heartstrings and to see a rally prepared Datsun was like finding Willie Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Turns out the driver of the Datsun, Claudio Nobrega was a born entertainer, with loads of sideways over the weekend and definitely worthy of a YouTube search!

The super special was a sight and sound to behold and will live long in my memory. The crowds lined the streets from stage start to end; in many places the crowds were massive. I spoke no Portuguese and the people around me spoke a little English but once the action started we all immediately spoke the universal language of rallying!

The cheers of the crowds only drowned out by the bark of a Porsche 911 GT3, a Peugeot 306 Maxi scrabbling for grip or the latest Citroen C3 R5 braking impossibly late to dive through the chicane.

Rali Vinho Madeira (9)

Of course, there was a part of me yearning to see a Millington powered Mk2 Escort eating the tar but sure being from Ireland I’m spoiled the other 51 weeks of the year!

One thing is for sure though, the rally people of Madeira really know how to put on a show.

Rali Vinho Madeira (4)

40 Years living the dream

Ari Vatenan Donegal 1975--L
Ari Vatanen & David Richards impressing with their speed and flamboyant style

In 1975 a relatively unknown 23-year-old Finnish driver Ari Vatanen made the trip to Donegal to gain asphalt experience.

Ari takes up the story.

My first Donegal Rally was in 1975, I drove to Donegal with David Richards (Now the Chairman of Prodrive) in his rusty old Mini.

David had managed to negotiate a drive for me in an Opel Ascona, and of course part of the deal was that David got to co-drive. I’m not sure he knew what he had let himself in for!

The unlikely pairing borrowed a car from local Opel dealer, Andy Hegarty, but it wasn’t long before David had to revisit Andy’s garage to explain that the loaned car had been reshaped during recce by Mr Vatanen.

David hadn’t even been in the car at the time as I was reversing when I rolled the car,” Ari confessed. “During the Rally, we had some problems with the Donegal stone walls, but I put that down to the car being RHD!

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1978 saw Ari return with Peter Bryant guiding him in the original Black Beauty

By 1978 Ari had caught the eye of Stuart Turner, the head of the Ford competition department based in Boreham. Ari was competing across the world in works backed Ford MKII Escorts, which were proving very successful on gravel events but struggling on the asphalt events.

To help develop the tarmac capabilities, Ari, who by then was accompanied by Peter Bryant, was tasked with taking a David Sutton prepared Escort MKII RS1800 to finetune its tarmac set-up. Still regarded as the original “Black Beauty” it had been driven by other drivers, but it was mainly seen as Ari’s car.

Ari & Peter recount their memories of Donegal;

You were making a return to Donegal in 1978 after leaving a mark three years earlier in the Ascona. How did the deal come together to compete in 78?

Ari Vatanen (AV): Suti (David Sutton) was good at making deals everywhere! We had a great variety of rallies all over the place! Very often I had a new one-off co-driver. None of these life-enriching things happens these days.

Peter Bryant (PB): Ford was interested in getting the RS1800 to perform better on tarmac and Donegal was a good place to test out various developments.

Looking at the 1978 entry list, you were up against defending champion, Billy Coleman, in the Lancia Stratos plus the cream of Irish Rallying at the time. Did you start the rally confident of taking victory?

AV: When you are young you go for it and see what happens. Nothing was calculated, just the pure pleasure of driving and discovering life.

PB: No, but we knew that we had a fighting chance.

Were there any crews that you respected before the start, whose times you kept an eye on?

AV: I do not remember who was there or not there but apart from Billy he was always one to watch in Ireland as was Bertie (Fisher)

PB: You learn that when competing on Irish Tarmac, there are a number of people who can come out of the woodwork. It was much less predictable than UK stage or road rallying.

The car was a David Sutton prepared RS1800 MKII Escort, it ran with an X pack body kit, rather the conventional MKII wide arches. Were there any other differences in the car?

AV: I can’t remember the details, but it was a very good car with a lovely engine. ‘The Black Beauty’ image did not come from nothing.

PB: Yes, lots, but my memory serves me badly! Engine and suspension were the critical areas.

It was said that David Sutton was concerned about the speed you guys were doing, especially as you had a comfortable lead. Did you feel comfortable with the pace?

AV: I enjoyed driving (as did the public….) so slowing down would have been like spoiling the party…

PB: I always felt more comfortable going at speed rather than trying to back off. More mistakes tend to happen when backing off.

At that point in your careers, you were competing in the best events in the World Championship, British Championship and around the world. How did the stages and level of organisation in Donegal compare to these events?

AV: Was it not the 1978 event that the re-start was delayed because the party the had gone on too long the previous evening?

PB: Up with the best, plus a great atmosphere, together with a touch of mystery!!

Are there stages or sections of the rally that stand out in your memory and if so why?

AV: The Atlantic Drive, that sticks out in my mind. During the 1975 event, I said in an interview regarding our off there (I was struggling to find a verb) that ‘I demolished a bank’ David Richards continued ‘yes… we do not hit banks we demolish them…’

PB: I wish I could, but memory is a bit blurred – blame Ari!! The roads running along the coast, are always a key memory though.

Folklore in Donegal can add to the story, with the passage of time there are numerous stories about the speed and angles that “Black Beauty” achieved over the rally weekend. I recently spoke with a guy who cycled 8 miles after school every day to look at the rubber laid down at one particular junction by you guys. Is it good to be remembered in such a way 40 years later?

AV: It touches me profoundly. People often come up to me and say ‘thank you, Ari, for the dreams you have given us’. It is the most beautiful compliment one can have in life. All I was doing was running after my own dreams! Without asking any questions, is it reasonable or not, is it possible or not. By definition dreams have no boundaries and they belong to me, nobody else. Dreams lift us above the grey ordinary life, they give us wings! A boy cycling 8 miles after school to see my rubber marks on the road is in fact with me in the car! Nobody can stop those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

PB: It is wonderful, wonderful also that guys like that exist to tell us their memories. The real beauty of rallying was the community involvement at every level, with access for all. As the co-driver, I was also a fan of the man!!  Win or crash was the basic ethos!!

Rallying has changed a lot over the last 40 years, do you feel these changes are for the better or have they taken the challenge out of the sport?

PB: As a grumpy old man, you already know my answer, but I do also believe that I was lucky enough to be born in an era when rallying was in its prime.

AV: I agree with Peter, those were the days! They will never come back!

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Black Beauty wasn’t just the usual Gp4 Escort MKII 

Is there anything you would like to add to your memories of the Donegal Rally and the people you encountered?

PB: Yes, I do remember that the car was very new to all of us. Basically, the combination of race spec engine, hard suspension and wide rubber, was very different than normal. This caused a lot of consternation in that the behaviour of the car it was very different, particularly at speed over bumpy roads. There was one almighty spin, which to his credit Ari sorted out without destroying any of the Irish countryside- quite a blessing!!!

Just carry on, and organising and competing in one of the best events in the world.

AV: I always enjoyed the ambience in Ireland and meeting Irish people. I have very warm memories of competing in Ireland, thanks to the people who are so warm, hospitable and sincere.

Long live Ireland and the Donegal Rally.

40 years later the Ford Escort MKII is still one of the most popular cars in Irish Rallying with drivers and spectators alike. It is safe to say that many of the drivers sitting in their MKII’s will believe in their heads they are Ari Vatanen and that proves the legendary status that this man is held.

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What’s not to love, a beautiful car, fantastic views and one of the worlds greatest ever Rally drivers.

Special thanks to Rallyretro.com and Leslie Ashe Photography for the pics

Show Time

 

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Dance to Tipperary, the New Title Sponsor for the Irish Tarmac Championship

2018 is here and Irish rallying has arrived with a new event, #Herospec Rallysprint seizing the opportunity to kick off the new season. This event seemed to promise a lot but for whatever reason, it didn’t seem to attract the imagination of drivers or spectators. Will it return?   Donegal End_

With news that the traditional first round of the Irish Tarmac Championship, the Galway International has been cancelled, due to a lack of sufficient finance, the Tarmac Championship will not commence until St Patrick’s weekend in West Cork. The new year also sees a new sponsor for the Tarmac Championship, Dance to Tipperary, being “revealed” late last year. It would be false to say announced as it appeared more a soft launch! The limited details that have been made available of the sponsorship and promotion of this year’s Tarmac Championship have left both competitors and rally fans underwhelmed.  I’m not aware of the full details of the deal but to say they have not been welcomed with open arms would be an understatement.

From the outside, and with the limited information available, it seems to be a very unusual deal that has been brokered between the TROA and Dance to Tipperary. There are questions being asked on social media such as; why haven’t TV deals been announced, at official launch why were no motoring/rallying press invited, the existing social media team have been removed and don’t seem to have been replaced? Is it unusual for a Championship organiser to hand over all promotional activities to a sponsor? Dance to Tipperary has hinted at exciting plans to take the Championship to a new level with innovative plans. They have yet to put any flesh on the bones of these plans but it’ll be interesting to see what these ideas are.

In the modern era when there is a lack of information, rightly or wrongly, social media becomes the platform to thrash out these issues. Questions do need to be asked and answers need to be given!  Competitors are trying to secure sponsorship deals and the promise of television coverage would make the sport more appealing, clubs also need to secure sponsors and raise sufficient funds to ensure the events can still run with falling competitors’ numbers. When you have journalists, drivers and senior officials asking questions should we as Irish rallying fans be concerned?

Clonakilty Blackpudding sponsored the championship for the last four years and during this time the championship underwent a revamp. WRC cars were virtually outlawed, no longer being eligible to score championship points. Two new TV deals were brokered in this time but it is fair to say the championship has been revitalised. Hopefully, the upward trend continues into 2018 and beyond.

Autosport Launch
2018 World Rally Cars ready to be unveiled at the Autosport Show

Speaking about the promotion of our sport, I note the vast amount of Irish who travel to the Autosport Show, indeed it was described as like walking round Milford service area at the Donegal Rally! Is there an opportunity being missed out here? Should representation be there from our main championships to highlight all that is positive about Irish Rallying? We have the 100’s of ambassadors already onsite ready to tell everyone and anyone how much of a challenge Irish Rallying poses. Approximately 90,000 people visit the show over four days and it would be an ideal opportunity to sell our sport. The BRC has a stand at the show and this showcases their Championship, Den Motorsport exhibit at the show as it acts as a showroom for their top-class product.  Initial reports from this year’s Autosport Show are extremely positive about the launch of the WRC Championship there and already there is talk to repeat this next year.

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The British Rally Championship see the show as a shop window for their Championship

In 2017 six of the top10 points scorers in the Historic Tarmac Championship were UK based drivers. These crews have come to these shores based on the recommendations of fellow competitors who have come over and loved the stages and the camaraderie. Looking at the other five main Championships across the island of Ireland there were only four crews from outside Ireland. Should it be left to other competitors to promote rallying?

Speaking of the Autosport Show, Eugene Donnelly caught us all on the hop by announcing a three-year deal with MRF Tyres to run a Hyundai R5 in the Tarmac Championship. Thursday was to be the day all the World Rally Teams showed their 2018 cars to the public for the first time.  Donnelly being an astute man saw an opportunity; the unveiling of the World Teams was to be at 11 O’clock so he announced his plans before 10 and he was the buzz in the arena for the first hour of the show. Eugene divides opinion but he can still capture the public imagination. Not only were the Irish contingent at the show filling our news feed with this launch but the British guys were equally excited.

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Showstopper!! Eugene Donnelly grabbed the headlines on day one of the show

To attract a sponsor of the calibre of MRF Tyres into Irish rallying is massive, they are a multibillion-euro company and a deal of this magnitude needs to be warmly welcomed. It’s not so long-ago Donnelly started using Kumho Tyres and at the time everyone scoffed but look how impressive that has turned out to be. Has Eugene still the prowess behind the wheel? At 51 years old he may struggle against the young guns, but with Eugene has development driver and McGeehan Motorsport on the spanners anything is possible. Eugene has stated if he feels he isn’t producing the goods at the end of year one the team will look at bringing a young prodigy in to take over the driving.

Unfortunately, the ‘social media’ critics were quick to jump on the story. In 2015 Eugene had derided the S2000/R5 cars saying he didn’t agree these cars should be the pinnacle of Irish Rallying and that the World Rally Cars should be kept as the main points-scoring cars. At the time Eugene felt the Championship organisers were making a big mistake. Interviews from the time were shared and much mocking was done. These same ‘critics’ only a few weeks ago had congratulated Joe McGonigle on doing a deal to compete in the Irish National Championship in a MINI WRC moving out of an R5 car. Joe in 2015 had been one of the strongest advocates for the move to S2000/R5. (Work that one out!).

Personally, I believe anyone should be free to compete in whatever class or type of car they wish. How often have we ‘heard’ when entry lists are published, “why hasn’t such and such entered”? Everyone who enters a rally in Ireland has had to earn the money to be there, they don’t have to justify their right to be there or in some cases not be there. Work, family or other commitments take precedence over their hobby.

2018 is here so let’s be positive, welcome everyone who is able to get on the stages for our entertainment and shout to everyone what an exciting sport we have, “come and take a look, we know you’ll love it”.

 

Images thanks to Conor Edwards, Adam Hall, KG Rally Pics, Irish Tarmac Championship & BRC

The best of the best

2017 is coming to an end and its award season, so I thought I would award my top five Irish crews who lifted the profile of rallying not just at home but around the world. The Island of Ireland has a population of approximately 6.6million and we are definitely punching way above our weight. Our drivers and co-drivers have ventured beyond our shores with fantastic results. Drivers like Keith Cronin, William Creighton and Marty McCormack, Alastair Fisher and Josh Moffett all deserve an honourable mention as do their co-drivers plus many others are among the best in the business. Here goes with my top five:

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In at five is Callum Devine and Keith Moriarty, these guys entered the BRC Junior Championship this year. I thought it was an incredibly brave move considering Callum’s lack of driving on gravel events. He made the transition from his private run Opel Adam to a Fiesta R2 run by MH Motorsport. On the opening round the Borders County Rally based in Southern Scotland, Callum and Keith set about their year in a sensible manner, taking a creditable fifth in class and gaining gravel experience. The second round based in Carlisle and again on gravel, saw the guys come within a whisker of winning the junior class. Their strong performance continued with the pair losing out on the last stage by only 0.4secs on the third round, securing a solid fifth place at the end of the two days. Callum took time out from his BRC commitments to compete in the Donegal International Rally. The Opel Adam was wheeled out and Callum burned up the stages on the way to a class win. The decision was taken to split with MH Motorsport for the rest of the BRC. Next up was the trip to Belgium to compete in the Ypres Rally and back to asphalt. Callum had competed in Belgium on the 2016 event, so for the first time this year he had a slight advantage. Benefitting from his previous experience he came away with a class win as well as impressing the locals with his speed and commitment. Wales was next on the agenda and after a difficult first day on gravel the guys shone bright on day two which was based on tar, charging up the field to another impressive victory. Next was the Ulster Rally, Callum’s home event with stages very close to where he lived. The dream home victory wasn’t to be, whilst leading the class the alternator packed in within sight of the finish but it was game over. The Isle of Man was to be the final showdown for the junior championship; the event was split into two counting rounds. Callum needed two strong results to take the title plus the added bonus of £30 000. Callum and Keith drove a very mature rally to take first and second in class and that was enough to walk away with the prize. A last minute decision was taken to use a Fiesta R5 on Wales Rally GB, this was to be the crew’s first WRC event and they stepped into one of the most competitive classes. Also it was only the second time Callum had driven a 4wd car competitively on gravel. The car was one of the original R5 Fiestas and was lacking the upgrades of the latest cars. Once again a mature drive saw the Co Derry native defy his lack of experience to take a cracking twenty-fifth overall and thirteenth in class. Callum and Keith have impressed many with their maturity and skill. We all await their plans for 2018 to see where the next adventure leads.

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At number four is Frank and Lauren Kelly, we’ve known Frank’s never give up attitude, right from his early days in the Fiesta up to his modern day adventures in Baby Blue. Over the last few years Lauren under the guise of LK Media has produced some outstanding YouTube clips and the Baby Blue phenomenon has spread to all corners of the globe. We’ve all seen the clips of Baby Blue taking jumps at maximum attack, corners at amazing angles and this has attracted the eye of rally organisers and spectators across the world. They have contacted the Co. Tyrone steering wheel attendant and we have seen Kelly Motorsport spreading their wings. 2016 saw Baby Blue make trips to Trinidad and Barbados but 2017 has got mental for the team. So far they’ve been in New Zealand, Australia, Lithuania, Italy and of course Ireland!! Everywhere Baby Blue has arrived the madness ensues.  Over the last couple of foreign adventures Lauren has taken on the role of co-driver, a role that she has taken to with ease. It has been a baptism of fire stepping into an ultimate MKII Escort, reading rapid fire pacenotes. For these trips abroad there is a requirement to write the pacenotes as organiser supplied notes are not available. Lauren has also kept up capturing all on her trusty GoPro camera and has produced great video diaries of their travels.

Kelly Motorsport has had a dedicated team of sponsors who along with a few others have enabled the team to compete at this level over the last few years. With Rosemarie in charge of merchandise sales, no matter where in the world you go there will be someone at a rally with a Kelly Motorsport Fleece or T-shirt such is the appeal of Baby Blue.

8F269832-4069-42A6-B54D-0FF0C80534D7At the recent Rally Legend event in San Remo, Frank and Lauren set out with to entertain the crowds. This wasn’t going to be easy as 100+ crews had assembled in San Remo with the same plan. Right from the moment Baby Blue rolled over the ramp at the ceremonial start the crowds parted at a roundabout and bayed for crews to do a donut. Frank was only too happy to smoke the rear tyres and the crowds instantly fell for the charms of Baby Blue! Over the next two days the father and daughter pairing tyre smoked, slid and leaped across San Remo much to the delight of the thousands of fans lining the route. In 2017 the small family outfit has lifted the fun factor to another level and Irish Rallying is the better for it. Before the end of2017 there will be another Australian adventure. We wait to see what 2018 will bring for the Kelly family but no doubt it will be done sideways!

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Sam Moffett is at number three; Sam has had an exceptional year at the wheel of his Fiesta R5 and the family Fiesta WRC. Sam has won all the major Championships in Ireland in 2017 plus the FIA Celtic Trophy. He was co driven mainly by Karl Atkinson, but a few others took on the role over the season.

2017 saw the second year that the Clonakilty Blackpudding sponsored Irish Tarmac Championship had the R5 car as the main point scoring category. Overall numbers in the R5 class may have been down this year but competition at the sharp end was even more intense. With Alastair Fisher and Josh Moffett as his main challengers Sam had his work cut out. Where he gained the upper hand was not just his outright speed but also his consistency. Moffett took two outright victories but also was on the podium of each round of the Tarmac. This points tally also was enough for Sam to capture the FIA Celtic Trophy which ran in conjunction with most rounds of the ITRC.

The Triton Showers National Championship was the first title the Monaghan man claimed and he did it with maximum points in all six rounds he contested in the Fiesta WRC, he also claimed maximum points on every power stage bar Sligo where his brother Josh pipped him by 0.9secs

Winning every round was an awesome achievement as he beat previous Champions such as Donagh Kelly, Declan Boyle, Roy White and Niall Maguire plus many more.

23167D28-7B7B-4872-8E0C-F9DFA1540B48In the Irish Forestry Championship supported by Vavoline. Sam swapped between the R5 and WRC Fiestas. He took one outright victory and took podium finishes on the four other events he contested. Josh could have been closer but only contested three rounds; he took maximum points in all three. The Forestry championship is on the up, with more competitors signing up to the full quota of.

It’s unlikely we will ever see a quadruple champion again; it was an absolute prime example of a driver who has the speed to push for victories but also has the understanding that points on the board are sometimes a better result in the end.

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Number two goes to Craig Breen and Scott Martin. The guys stepped into a full time drive in the Citroen works team in the WRC. With only two C3 WRC Completed in time for Monte Carlo, Craig and Scott started the year in the 2016 spec DS3 WRC with a fine fifth place, Sweden was next and the guys finally got their hands on the C3 WRC, again fifth overall was the reward. Mexico was the next round of the championship but the crew were not on the start list as the team still only had two cars completed. Corsica saw the guys return to the championship and another fifth place. The crew were doing what was asked of them by the team, getting to the end of events and collecting data. Argentina didn’t go to plan. Handling issues lead to the car bottoming out over a jump and the car left the road. The damage couldn’t be repaired so rally over. Portugal was next on the agenda and Craig once again claimed fifth, this was with a car that was far from filling its drivers with confidence due to the car’s suspension issues. Rally Sardinia was a low point but also a turning point for the team. Andreas Mikkelsen was drafted in to help with trying to get to the bottom of the handling issues. Craig had another incident over a jump early in the rally meaning he had to continue under Rally two. Moral was at an all time low on the Saturday of the event, Craig went as far as to say the car was scaring him and was dangerous at times. He kept working away at the set up and by Sunday the guys were setting some top three stage times.

8D6D06B1-2B50-4C0E-BE79-051B7415BE59Craig has lifted his career to another level this year; a stage win in Australia coupled with consistent top six times in arguably the most competitive WRC championship in many years. He has impressed the way he has conducted himself through difficult times, working away and taking results out of the car that has not been at its best for the whole of the 2017 championship. Getting the car to the end of events not only helped Craig build experience but also allowed the team to gather data to help develop the car.   With a car that improved towards the end of the year but was never completely fixed, Breen and Martin continued to consistently set stage times that showed they deserved their place at the top table of world rallying. For the season ending WRC event, Rally Australia was told by Citroen Racing management to show his pace and push the limits. He set some competitive times and held a podium position on Friday. On Sunday he was in fourth overall when he ran wide and rolled the car and that was rally over, but he showed he had the speed to mix it at the top of the field.

Throughout the year Craig has been helping to develop the all new C3 R5, this will debut in early 2018 and has been touted as the car to have in the R5 category next year although this time last year we also heard that same said of the C3 WRC car. Craig also took time out of his busy schedule to give his good buddy Patrick Croke a perfect birthday present. They hired a Millington powered MKII Escort for the Raven Rock Rally; their local event. The two guys had a ball throughout the day and finished a fantastic third overall. Patrick, an avid rally fan and wheel chair bound, has always dreamt of being able to compete in a rally car at his home event.

1462FB93-362D-4D9D-8FD1-B0836FE046AEWe all know the difficulties Craig has dealt with in the past, 2017 has shown that he deserves his place in the team. He can do it with a smile on his face and enjoy the opportunities as they arise.

What will 2018 bring for Craig and Scott? We are assured they have a contract with the Citroen team for next season, so hopefully the two guys can build on this year’s experience and gain a few podium finishes or can we dare to dream possible a victory along the way.

 

4E7F0C59-BD30-4AFA-8DEF-63418CB9ECE2There really only can be number one, Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle.

Kris from his early days has shown raw speed and a total belief in his ability to win. Under the guidance of Colin McRae his career quickly ascended, he was soon campaigning in the Junior World Rally Championship. There were wins and accidents along the way, unfortunately there were no championship wins, other drivers drove more conservatively and took the spoils. By the end of 2006 Kris was getting disillusioned with the sport and the finances required to secure a works drive. Taking time away, 2007 and 2008 saw only sporadic outings mainly in Ireland.

82C14BE6-7758-4D15-A8BB-7AFC45756C3B2009 was the year Kris got the break his talent deserved; Peugeot UK signed Kris and Paul to compete in the IRC series in a 207 S2000. Four victories and other strong drives saw the pair claim the prestigious title. 2010 they returned to defend their title but by now the 207 was getting a little outdated and they had to settle for third in the championship.

They had done enough over the two seasons to attract the attention of Dave Richards who was returning to rallying with his Prodrive team and was bringing the MINI name back to the WRC. Early 2011 saw a lot of testing and development but by the time the car hit the stages it was far from the finished article. Times were encouraging but issues slowed progress, towards the end of the season the pair finished fifth in Spain and fourth on Rally GB. Things were looking positive for 2012, once again Kris had the knack of being in the wrong seat at the wrong time! BMW withdrew its support the Prodrive team and the finances were not there for Kris to compete with the team.

2013 saw Peugeot sign Kris up to help develop their new 208 T16 R5, this helped open the door at Citroen. Kris got a chance to do Rally Finland and Rally Australia in the full WRC team, with minimal testing and big expectations to produce results Kris set impressive times but accidents blighted his two rallies. Everyone thought he’d blown his big opportunity but Citroen saw the potential in the Dungannon man and offered him a fulltime seat in 2014. Kris and Paul stepped up to the plate and despite limited knowledge of the events they set some encouraging times and finished the year with five podiums.

2015 saw another full season with Citroen, the DS3 WRC was by now getting outdated and it struggled against the more modern WRC’s but Kris took three more podiums and his first WRC victory in Argentina. 2016 saw Citroen step back from a full works team in order to develop their all new C3 WRC so Kris and Paul competed only a partial season. It was to be their most successful season to date as they took two more WRC victories. Rally Portugal and Rally Finland, Finland in particular was a standout performance as the guys took on and beat the might of VW and the other teams in a car that hadn’t seen development for over four years. Finland is regarded as one of the fastest rallies in the WRC and Kris and Paul set the fastest ever average rally winning speed.

Before the start of the 2017 season much had been expected of Citroen Racing and there was talk of Kris challenging for the drivers title. Citroen Racing had taken a year out to develop the new generation C3 WRC, it had been extensively tested. Unfortunately things didn’t work out. The car proved difficult to drive on the limit and was especially difficult on gravel. Many levelled the problems at Citroens door! They had tried to bring the experience they had gathered in the World Touring Car Championship to the rally stages, and as we know rally stages are vastly different from race tracks.

Kris is one of the more senior drivers in the WRC, but because of his past part seasons he has had over the years, there are still many events he has limited knowledge of. This made talk of a championship challenge a little fanciful. The guys have had a season from hell with issues with the car and they’ve made mistakes as well. What has to be remembered they have claimed two emphatic victories. In Mexico they took the lead on the second stage and never relinquished it over the following three days. On the very last stage Meeke slipped off the road into a crowded car park, managed to negotiate round all the cars and back on to the road. We were all screaming at our screens thinking he’d thrown it away but the guys were victorious by over 13secs in the end. Spain was a master class, right from shakedown the guys felt comfortable in the car. Nagle reported they could win this rally and quite a few of us scoffed at the idea, but Kris and Paul had confidence back in the car and more importantly in themselves. They set a couple of scratch times on the gravel roads on Friday and sat a comfortable fourth at the end of day one. Day two and three were on the sealed asphalt roads and this allowed the C3 WRC to really show its potential. On the first stage of day two the guys took the lead, a lead they would not lose and took victory by over 25secs.

Of course they’ve had their lows this year; Kris is the type of driver who wears his heart on his sleeve. We all know how Kris is feeling just by the expression on his face. No doubt he has been the cause of some of the retirements this year, he would claim he was employed by Citroen Racing to win rallies and that entails driving hard and taking risks. Sometimes these risks work and sometimes it all goes wrong. With all the issues the guys have had this year; they have still set 20+ fastest stage times and have been close to the top of the leader board on most events before they hit trouble.

As the year stuttered along from highs to lows they were rested for Rally Poland. Kris took this as a slight on his position. When he arrived at the next event, Rally Finland he looked a haunted man. They had taken victory in Finland in 2016 but there was to be no repeat as Kris struggled with no confidence in the car. He was quoted as “saying the car was not giving him back the energy he was putting into it” and it was felt that he wasn’t receiving the full support of the team, all this lead to a lacklustre eight place finish. Germany was the next event on the calendar which is an asphalt rally, great things were expected. It all went horribly wrong on the first super special stage. Kris clipped a barrier and damaged the suspension and went no further in the stage. This darkened the mood in the camp; Kris rejoined under Rally two and used the event as an extended test session. The times were impressive as the rally progressed and confidence was being restored in both car and driver. Cooling issues towards the end of day two halted progress and the car was withdrawn before the engine was damaged.

275617CC-DADE-43E1-8ADE-F99CB2F8E24ABetween Germany and Spain there had been a shakeup in the engineering department and the team all worked hard to get everyone working in a positive and productive way. Kris also took the time to re-evaluate his performances and came to Spain with a renewed belief in both himself and the car, the rest is history! The last two events in Wales and Australia showed that the car’s performance window is widening and the guys are starting to get the times they deserve. Australia Kris ran marginally wide and damaged the rear suspension. The guys were forced to retire for the day whilst holding a comfortable 3rd overall and setting times that were closing in on the guys in front.

Kris felt Australia summed up his season and was quoted as saying

“I made one mistake   in here, lost a few seconds, but we had to retire for the day.If we put in the work and do what we’re talking about, we’ll be alright next year”

What will 2018 bring? Kris and Paul have a contract in place for all rounds of the 2018 Championship with Citroen. Spain and Rally GB show that the team look to have finally gotten the car to their liking. Can they be world beaters? Personally I would love to see our local lads be crowned champions but I feel it is unlikely. I feel there are definitely more wins on the card for them in 2018 but a championship victory may be a step too far, hopefully I’m wrong!

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So that concludes my top 5 Irish crews of 2017, they represent all that is positive about rallying on this Island. It’s hard to believe that we have two drivers from here competing at the absolute pinnacle of our sport. There are also many behind the scenes, guys and girls who are working on cars or helping organise events. Every one of them should be proud what they have helped to achieve and put our little corner of the world up there with the best. We should be proud of our sport and the high regard we are held in around the world.

 

Thanks to all photographers for use of their photos. Trevor Foster, Conor Edwards, EWRC, Mark McCullagh, Kelly Motorsport, Rally Through a Lens, LAT Images & BRC plus others.

Donegal, The end of the world?

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Bertie Fisher on route to his maiden Donegal Victory

30 years ago Bertie Fisher won the Donegal Rally for the first time in his GpB Opel Manta 400, in fact he lead home a Manta 1,2 &3 with John Connor & James McDaid filling the other two steps of the podium. A few short weeks later Bertie once again battled for victory on the Ulster Rally but this time he lost the fight to Mark Lovell in his GpA Sierra and this was the beginning of the end of GpB in Ireland! By early 1988 Bertie Fisher had made the switch to a GpA Sierra as well and Mark Lovell had been sent to Ireland by the Ford team to claim the Tarmac Title.

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Mark Lovell in his very special TAR Sierra

Is this the last year we will see the World Rally Cars as the main attraction in the Hills of Donegal come June? Are they becoming more of an issue for the organisers of the Tarmac Championship? Last year’s Tarmac Champion Keith Cronin, didn’t get to spray the champagne as overall winner of an event; this makes it hard to sell to the casual observer, TV and no doubt a hard sell to sponsors! When approaching potential sponsors trying to explain that you are hoping to claim the Irish Tarmac Championship, but you may or may not win rallies outright doesn’t really make sense! There is no doubting Keith Cronin’s talent as he has been signed to the prestigious MSport team to spearhead their British Rally Championship campaign.

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Keith Cronin 2016 Irish Tarmac Champion

Is 2018 the year to make the break away from World Cars in the Tarmac Championship?   This year’s Galway International Rally saw just three World cars make the start and this week’s West Cork Rally has only two of the revered World Cars on the entry list. Last year, the Killarney Rally of the Lakes had just two World cars make the start, and the Donegal International Rally, one of the championship’s most popular event, saw seven world cars cross the start line, but even then three or four of these were crews who only compete once or twice a year. The Cork 20 at the end of the year had just two world cars on their entry list.  The homologation runs out on nearly all the two litre world cars in the very near future but the new generation 1.6Turbo cars will remain homologated for a few years to come.  Is 2018 the right time to bite the bullet, if the WRC Subaru’s and Ford Focus go out of homologation and run only as part of the national rally section they are still more than capable of winning the overall rally.  This will add to the confusion of trying to explain that the outright winner of the rally is not the winner despite beating all of the other competitors but is only the winner of the National rally within the rally! Try explaining that one to the casual punter!!  This leaves the newer 1.6 litre cars, should they be allowed to remain? Probably not, the time has come to make the R5 cars the out-front and centre piece of the championship!

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Declan Boyle in his 1.6T  Fiesta WRC

We have been incredibly lucky in the last thirty years, seeing some of the best cars on our roads and before the economic downturn Ireland was home to a large proportion of the World Rally Cars produced. At its peak we had 10-15 World Cars on the entry list of many of the main events up and down the country. The newer world cars with the 1.6 litre turbo engines have been slower to make an impression here. If Eugene Donnelly had won in Galway in 2012 when he debuted the then New MINI WRC, we could well have been looking at a very different championship now. Since then the 1.6 litre cars have rightly or wrongly been seen as lacking the grunt to beat the all-conquering Subaru and Ford Focus with their two litre turbocharged engines. Declan Boyle took the bold step of buying the 2015 Fiesta WRC, in time for Donegal that year. Within weeks it had been decided that from the start of 2016 all world rally cars would be ineligible for points. This not only sounded the death kneel for the 2litre cars but also the current spec 1.6litre cars. This decision was met with much derision, the Tarmac Championship has always prided itself on being open to all comers. To be fair to the organisers, television coverage has continued to show the world cars and give them equal coverage and they haven’t tried to airbrush them out of the results as was seen back in the mid 90’s when the British Rally Championship (BRC), outlawed GpA four wheel drive cars in favour of the F2 cars. When the two championships combined on the Ulster and Manx roads Fisher, Meagher etc magically disappeared from the results pedalled by the organisers of the BRC!

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Eugene Donnelly in one of Ireland’s most loved World Rally cars

The new generation of drivers coming through see the R5 cars as a better opportunity to show their talents. It is argued that the cars are more affordable to run and maintain with readily available parts. Last year was an exceptionally close year with scant seconds covering the top registered crews on nearly all the events and going into the last event in Cork four crews could still claim the Irish Tarmac Championship title. Even down to the last stage the rally and the title was still on a knife edge. Josh Moffett took victory in the rally and became the first outright winner in a R5 in the Tarmac Championship by a registered crew.

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Who was the winner in Galway? Seemed even Garry Jennings was confused!

2017 has seen Alastair Fisher returning for his second attempt to take the overall title, the Moffett brothers are back and looking to fight for wins, Aaron McHale and Joe McGonigle have stepped up from S2000 to R5 cars, plus Wright, Greer, Cumiskey and Rowley etc all returning. The Fiesta powered crews are getting an upgrade in April, which sees an increase in power, which should see their times improve and take them even closer to the World cars. One very interesting addition is Robert Barrable. Robert had taken time away from rallying, in Galway he returned and finished fifth overall and third in the points, the exciting news is that he has acquired the latest Hyundai  i20 R5, for West Cork. This is the first Hyundai R5 in Ireland and it is hoped that he commits to the rest of the championship.  Robert has a fine rallying pedigree and his 2015 Circuit of Ireland drive has shown he has the ability to mix it at the top of the timesheets.

So could Donegal once again be last chance salon for the World Cars to shine before they are superseded by the R5, who says history doesn’t repeat itself??!!

Images Courtesy of Conor Edwards, Martin McCorriston, Lorcan Barron & Kevin Glendinning

The car in front is a Toyota

With the 2017 World Rally Championship, only just getting out of the blocks there have been surprises and shocks in equal measures. The new regulations gave engineers more freedom in designing and building the new breed of World Rally Cars resulting in increased size of turbo restrictor, reintroduction of electronic diffs and more vivacious aerodynamics.

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Arfon Jones captured Jari-Matti & Miikka leaping to victory in Sweden

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year so far has been the resurgence of the Toyota team, with lead crew Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila. Latvala is currently leading the drivers’ championship after a fighting second in Monte Carlo and a very accomplished victory in Sweden. We have seen a much mentally stronger Jari-Matti so far this year. Tommi Makinen has given him a car that he can get in and drive and not get caught up about the set up and probably more significantly a team were there is no mind games to overcome. When Jari-Matti is feeling ‘SISU’ he can fly and there is probably no other driver who can match him. Hopefully Jari and the team can continue their excellent start to the season. On the other hand not everything is going to plan in the Toyota camp with Juho Hanninen who has had a poor start to the season, going of the road in both events. Partnered by Kaj Lindstrom they have had more time in the car but lacks the experience of the technical events in Monte and Sweden; his times have been sporadic up to now with a couple of third fastest times in Monte have been his best showing.  No doubt more will be expected of Hanninen and Lindstrom in the upcoming events and it will be interesting to see what kind of times Esapekka Lappi can set when he gets his chance in the car. He was on the VW/Skoda books until mid-2016 and was being tipped to take a seat this year with the VW team but he took the risk of moving to Makkinen’s fledging Toyota team.

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Neuville & Gilsoul on Monte, the moment it all went wrong! Captured by Trevor Foster

Hyundai have had a promising start to the year, and I would argue they have the best car at the minute. Theirry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul have been the class act on the first two days in both Monte and Sweden having set twelve fastest times over the two rallies to date. With a lead going into the last stage on Saturday on both rallies Neuville has made small errors that have had big consequences. He has picked up a few points on the power stage but he was in a position to have been leading the championship comfortably at this point in the championship. Dani Sordo co-driven by Marc Marti has had a lack lustre start to 2017 and Dani seems to lacking confidence in his new car. Saying that he has had two solid fourth place finishes and has picked up the majority of the team points so far, he can be relied to have a steady drive and bring home valuable points in the constructors’ championship but so far seem to lack the ultimate rally winning pace. Hayden Paddon has had a very unfortunate start to 2017.  An incident on Monte Carlo resulted in a fatality of a spectator and in Sweden he needed to rebuild his confidence; unfortunately this drive was marred by power steering difficulties.  Hopefully come Mexico, Paddon and John Kennard will be back to their best.

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Ogier threading his way through the narrow streets. Photo credit Trevor Foster

MSport have taken the fight to the manufacture backed works teams with a double podium on both events so far. Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia had a fantastic debut victory in Monte Carlo. The four time world champion had minimal testing and to be setting top times and looking comfortable shows the class of the guy. Malcolm Wilson had almost the dream result in Monte with Ogier leading and Ott Tanak riding shotgun behind in second place, with three stages to go Ott’s car lapsed on to two cylinders and after much working on the car by Ott and his co-driver Martin Jarveoja they battled on and drove the stages off their lives to manage to keep third place overall with a very sick car. It could be argued that Tanak had the stronger drive off the two Fiesta drivers in Sweden; Ogier was hampered by road position on day one in Sweden but even in days two and three he seemed to struggle. Ott reeled of three fastest times on the Saturday morning where as Ogier hadn’t set a scratch time since the Satuday afternoon in Monte Carlo. This year has not seen the steam roller that is usually Sebastien. He normally sets and controls the pace as others try to catch up. This will probably change as he gets more acclimatised to the car and the quirks of setting it up.  Elfyn Evans & Daniel Barritt have settled in well after getting a last minute call up to the MSport team, it had long be mooted that he was getting the third seat but it was only confirmed two weeks before Monte Carlo. He had a torrid first leg in Monte but once he got the tyres working he flew on the second leg, climbing from a lowly eleventh overall up to sixth, setting three fastest times along the way, he remained in sixth to the finish. Sweden brought a puncture and a loss of almost two minutes and the guys battled back to sixth overall and again a solid haul of championship points.

 

This video demonstrates some of Citroen troubles both Meeke & Breen were having. They are on the brakes after the jump, all the other crews were fully committed to next corner. Great video by Ernest Cooke

Perhaps the biggest shock of the 2017 season has been the pace or lack of from the Citroen Racing Team. Much had been made of the team taking a year out in 2016 to build and develop this year’s challenger. Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle where spoken about as possible World Champion in 2017 but things are not looking rosy in the team at this stage. The car seems to lack poise and is reported to be down on power compared to the competition.  Pre-season video clips showed a car that looked to balanced and exceptionally quick but somewhere along the way the team seem to have gone down a blind alley. Monte Carlo started with a couple of top four stage times and then an off road excursion saw the end of the first day’s rallying. Returning for leg two times were steady if not earth scattering punctuated by an electrical issue which cost more time and their misery was compounded when they were sideswiped on the road section after the last service of the day and the damage put them out of the event. David Evans from Autosport suggested that the team seemed to be struggling with the setup. At a section he was spectating on, the car seemed to be bottoming out and Kris needing to change down a gear where every other crew was pinned in sixth.  We hoped above hope that somehow they would be back on track in Sweden.  Again in Sweden, Kris seemed to lack his usual swagger and his stage times were not at Kris’s normal level. Whilst lying fifth overall on Saturday afternoon the Citroen crew took an innocent left hand corner when the back of the car suddenly seemed to step out and the Kris and Paul slid off the road and were stuck for over 7 minutes. On Sunday Mr David Evans once again reported that Kris was in foul humour and was having a torrid time with the handling. Whatever the problem is with the car is it possible that it is related to the aero package? We all marvelled at those early test videos and thought this was going to be a world beater. As the aerodynamics got more refined was this the point that things started to go wrong? Can Citroen and Kris get on top of the issues and become the realistic title contenders that we dared to dream off. Craig Breen as he has said this year is living the dream; he started Monte Carlo in last year’s Citroen DS3 instead of the latest spec C3 with Scott Martin on the notes. He kept his head down and drove a brilliant rally to take a fine fifth overall.  In Sweden he finally got his hands on the C3 and was hoping this would take him closer to the top off the timesheets.  He set mid leader board times throughout the weekend and also seemed to struggle with the rear of the car, which seemed to have a mind of its own at times. Stephane Lefebrve had the latest spec C3 at his disposal in Monte Carlo; unfortunately he slid of the road on the Thursday evening and was on the back foot for the rest of the weekend. His times were average on Friday and Saturday and on Sunday he had one quickest and one second quickest time and by the finish he had clawed back up to ninth overall. In Sweden it was his time to step back to the 2016 DS3, Stephane has limited knowledge of driving on snow and his times reflected this as throughout the weekend his time were in the lower reaches of the top ten, by Sunday afternoon he had claimed eight overall.

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Breen & Martin flying high in Sweden

Drivers of the calibre of Andreas Mikkelsen are on the sidelines eager to get back behind the wheel of a world rally car, there was hope of a privateer VW team but that is dead in the water for 2017 at least. It is unlikely that he will be parachuted into any of the teams to provide an extra steel edge during the 2017 season. He finished third on last year’s championship, claiming two victories plus four other podium finishes, he certainly has the CV to warrant his place at the WRC table, hopefully he came secure a competitive drive for 2018.