Donegal, The end of the world?

Bertie manta
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

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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.

Dawn of a New Era in the WRC

ogier-fiesta

2017 has dawned, excitement is building ahead of the new World Rally Championship season and all the twists and turns it will take. The World Rally Championship has introduced a new breed of cars reminiscent of the glory days of Group B rally cars. With their aggressive styling and with increased power, the FIA has taken the decision to limit access to these cars to factory teams only with privateers confined to running 2016 WRC spec cars. The new car aerodynamics has been taken to a whole new level, with rear spoilers and rear diffusers that wouldn’t look out of place on a space rocket never mind a World Rally Car. The manufacturers have undertaken extensive testing throughout 2016 with their new monsters in the hope of gaining an edge over their competitors.  Starting with a fresh line up of new spec WRC cars we will not know who has gained the advantage and who is playing catch up until the flag drops in Monte Carlo.

Volkswagen’s withdrawal from the championship was unexpected after four years of domination, this put the driver market in to free fall as they had the four times world champion, Sebastian Ogier, on their books plus two other drivers who can compete and win at the highest level.

Ogier in particular had been the topic of much speculation with rumours of Citroen, M-Sport, Toyota and a privately financed Volkswagen team all in discussion with him.  In the end Ogier signed a one year contract with M-Sport which is a fantastic opportunity for the Cumbrian outfit to show its rally winning potential. Since losing Ford’s financial input this presents Malcolm Wilson’s best opportunity to potentially clinch a World Championship.  Could a couple of early victories by Ogier entice Ford to get the cheque book out to boost the development of the new WRC Fiesta?  Teaming Sebastian with Ott Tanak in the Fiesta could well be a masterstroke by Malcolm Wilson and his team, I expect these two drivers to bring the best out of each other. Tanak will not be as easily manipulated as other previous teammates of Ogiers! The third car at M-Sport is still leading to much speculation, what we do know is that Elfyn Evans is in for Monte Carlo, but nothing confirmed beyond.

tanak

With all the wheeling and dealing in the driver market it is interesting to note that Ogier has only committed to M-Sport for one year, this has left the door open for exit at the end of the year. The Fiesta has looked very poised and fast in testing and hopefully M-Sport have the resources to keep developing the car as the year unfolds. If the car doesn’t perform as he hopes some of the other main drivers should be very worried as every team boss will be clamouring to get his signature on a contract. Interestingly Nasser Al-Attiyah had been in discussions with Volkswagen to take over the financing of the VW manufacturer team but due to time constraints was not able to get everything agreed with the Qatar wealth fund who were interested in financing the project.  These discussions look set to continue with a view to putting a VW team in place for 2018, if this does happen they would have the funds available to attract Ogier.

High expectations are on Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle shoulders this year as the DS3 has been developed under Kris’s guidance. If results don’t fall in their favour, could a French man find favour within a French team once again?

meeke-c3

Citroen with the DS3 WRC have the most interesting driver line up from everyone in Ireland’s point of view, Kris Meeke is the lead driver and has completed the majority of the testing in the new car along with his co-driver Paul Nagle. Alongside Kris is Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre two young guns that are expected to be very worthy challengers as the year progresses. Citroen Racing took a year out last year to concentrate their efforts on this year’s car and they look extremely strong in testing. Citroen have been playing down their expectations ahead of this year saying they want to fighting for victories this year and looking for titles next year, but surely they have to be setting their sights on the main prizes this year. Meeke has shown he has the pace to win rallies and last year seemed to settle his wild streak. This probably due in no small part to the reassurance of having a three contract in his pocket. Could Ireland be celebrating a World Champion in our midst by the end of the season?

toyota-yaris

Another Ex-Volkswagen driver Jari Matti Latvala has been signed on a multi-year contract by championship returnees Toyota. Under the stewardship of ex four time world champion Tommi Makinen, the Toyota team has designed and built a car in approximately 18 months. The Yaris has been at the forefront of the aerodynamic revolution, how quickly they will get up to the ultimate pace remains to be seen. The car initially seemed to be lacking in comparison to others, but since Latvala’s arrival the recent test videos seem to show a car more in tune with the conditions. When Jari Matti is in the groove and feeling ‘SISU’ he can be unbeatable, maybe with Makinen as boss and being away from the whirlwind that is Ogier, Latvala will shine bright and he will regain his confidence and rhythm which has been lacking last season or two.  Juho Hanninen has been one of the main test drivers for the team, Hanninen showed rally winning pace and capability of building a championship bid in his time with Skoda in the Intercontinental Rally Championship (the fore runner to the European Rally Championship) but lacks WRC experience. Also Esapekka Lappi, will drive the third car which will come on stream later in the season, he is a young guy that big things are expected off and comes into the 2017 season on the back of a strong 2016 with the Skoda team with whom he won the WRC2 title.

hyundai-line-up

Hyundai with the i20 WRC has a very strong driver line-up Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon & Dani Sordo, these three drivers they are very capable of winning on any surface and the Hyundai team have really upped their game and are seen as very serious contenders for the coveted titles come the season end. Hyundai have been very impressive since they entered the World Rally Championship with 2016 bringing two overall victories, plus second in both the drivers and manufacturers championships. Can they go one step higher in 2017? Neuville seemed to get a little lost towards the end of 2015 and early 2016 but really found his speed again from mid-2016 and has signed a multi-year contract to keep him at Hyundai. Paddon has excelled at Hyundai he took his maiden championship victory last year in Argentina. Sordo is still seen as one of the fastest tarmac drivers in the championship and is a reliable and constant point scorer; could Hyundai be considered a good bet for the manufacturer’s title this year?

The calendar this year sees the crews contest 13 rounds from Monte Carlo in January to Australia in November.

1 20 January 22 January  85ème Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo GapHautes-Alpes Mixed
2 10 February 12 February  65th Rally Sweden KarlstadVärmland Snow
3 10 March 12 March  31º Rally Guanajuato México LeónGuanajuato Gravel
4 7 April 9 April  60ème Tour de Corse – Rallye de France BastiaHaute-Corse Tarmac
5 28 April 30 April  37º Rally Argentina Villa Carlos PazCórdoba Gravel
6 19 May 21 May  51º Rally de Portugal MatosinhosPorto Gravel
7 9 June 11 June  14º Rally d’Italia Sardegna AlgheroSardinia Gravel
8 30 June 2 July  74th Rally Poland MikołajkiWarmia-Masuria Gravel
9 28 July 30 July  67th Rally Finland JyväskyläKeski-Suomi Gravel
10 18 August 20 August  35. ADAC Rallye Deutschland TrierRhineland-Palatinate Tarmac
11 6 October 8 October  53º Rally RACC Catalunya – Costa Daurada SalouTarragona Mixed
12 27 October 29 October  73rd Wales Rally GB DeesideFlintshire Gravel
13 17 November 19 November  26th Rally Australia Coffs HarbourNew South Wales Gravel

 

 

derek-mcgeehan-turkey-run

Closer to home the Irish Tarmac Championship underwent a major change in 2016 with the introduction of the R5 cars as the main point scoring class. 2016 was seen as a successful introduction with lots of positives. 2016 saw Alastair Fisher and Keith Cronin committing to a full season attack, these two drivers understandably were the yardstick by which others were compared and some of the other crews raised their game accordingly. Who will commit to the championship this year? Rumours and stories are circulating at the moment; Cronin in particular seems to be swaying towards returning to the British Rally Championship with a possible move to a Fiesta R5 being mooted. With two date clashes between the Tarmac Championship and the British Championship plus Donegal in June which comes in the middle of two counting rounds of the BRC it rules crew trying to compete on both championships.

Fisher meanwhile has committed to Galway and a possibility of selected other rounds. The closest challengers to Cronin & Fisher last year were Monaghan brothers Sam & Josh Moffett (recent winner of the Billy Coleman Award); will they be tempted to sets their sights further afield? It will be interesting to see what other crews step up to fill these guys’ wheel tracks.

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The championship has also been dealt a blow in 2017 by the news that the Circuit of Ireland is not running; this gave our crews the chance to measure their pace against the best that the European and British Championships had to offer. Unfortunately no other round could be found willing or able to fill the breach. The 2017 calendar will now consist of six rounds, kicking off with Galway at the beginning of February. One interesting addition to the 2017 Championship is the M-Sport supported Fiesta R2 National class, this will pit crews in a one make championship, and this will allow talent to shine as all cars will be built to the same exacting regulations and be equal in performance.

The premium class was well supported last year not just with quality but also quantity as between 10/15crews registered crews started every round. The other supporting classes should be a cause for concern with a lot of the classes attracting 3/5 consistent competitors along with crews who dip in to do the occasional round in their own area. With three of the events not running a full field in 2016, these entries could be even lower in 2017 with the insurance levy hanging heavy in everyone’s thoughts. Thus increasing the financial demands on the organisers of each championship round as clubs cannot afford to run events which are costing them money.

 

  1. Galway International Rally – 4-5 Feb 17
  2. West Cork Rally – 18-19 Mar 17
  3. Killarney International Rally of Lakes – 29-30 Apr 17
  4. Donegal International Rally – 16-17-18 Jun 17
  5. Ulster Rally – 18-19 Aug 17
  6. Cork 20 International Rally – 30 Sep-1 Oct 17

Photos Courtesy of World Rally Teams and KG Rally Pics 

We have missed our time to shine!

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Kris Meeke after winning in Finland. In the eye of the press storm

2017 has it been a very big opportunity missed, To have a round of the World Rally Championship back on our shores?  The provisional 2017 calendar has recently been announced and next year’s championship so far has 12 confirmed rounds with the possibility of adding two further rounds from three potential candidate events: Poland, China & Turkey.  Poland has been dropped from the main championship because of spectator safety fears; Turkey was previously a round of the championship but has to have a big question mark over it with the political difficulties it and the region are facing right now. China is definitely very appealing to the manufacturers as it is a rapidly expanding sales market for them.  China was meant to be a round of the world championship this year but it didn’t run due to heavy rains damaging the roads but there was also a feeling that certain authorities within China didn’t want the championship to visit their country.

Marc Mac Sherry TD from Sligo has recently stated that he would like to bring Rally Ireland back to Sligo. Marc was very supportive of the plans of the organisers back in 2007 & 2009 and in his time in the Senate he raised rallying to a new level in the political think tanks. Although, some questions need to be asked before we should consider if Rally Ireland should return. One of the reasons that was stated at the time as to why Rally Ireland was withdrawn from the WRC calendar was the high costs of accommodation and entertainment for the teams and fans that had travelled to the North West. No one wants to feel their event is being used to line the pockets of others, but many of the teams felt that hoteliers had inflated the prices to an unacceptable level.  Though we have seen with other sporting and entertainment events taking place in Ireland that the cost of accommodation is not just an issue with Sligo.

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Nine times world champion Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elana came and conquered our unique roads.

Was Sligo a big enough City to host a round of the WRC? Hotel beds are not exactly on the Dublin or Belfast scale but there were enough rooms to cope with the numbers off people who did attend when Rally Ireland ran in 2007 & 2009.  Would it make more sense to run a rally based on the east coast of Ireland?  Closer to main airports, ferry ports and larger centres of population, all these would mean a larger audience on your doorstep, easier for teams, crews and spectators to access accommodation, and all the other services they require and reduce their transport costs.

Rally Ireland ran as a cross border venture and no doubt repeating this would be advantageous in securing funding as the previous events attracted money from the governments both North and South of the border. This helped bring a scale of promotion and professionalism never seen before to Irish Rallying. Rallying was main stream for those events; something we hadn’t seen in Ireland since the mid 80’s and was getting positive news coverage and dedicated TV local slots.

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Lappi compared Hamiltons Folly to Ouninpohja

Bobby Willis who resurrected the Circuit of Ireland in recent years has seemingly been in contact with the promoters of the WRC. Bobby and his team have done an amazing job in reviving  the Circuit of Ireland during a financial difficult period, bringing the cream of both the European & British Championships back to our shores. The last couple of years have demonstrated that drivers from beyond our shores love the challenge posed by our roads. The bumps, jumps and high speed nature are unlike any other tarmac events they have experienced.   Helicopter shots from stages such as Torr Head and Hamiltons Folly where awesome and purely from a tourist point of view they sold the beauty this country has to offer. Listening to the comments of the drivers at stage ends was breath-taking, they described the stages amongst the best they had ever driven anywhere. Esapekka Lappi (works Skoda driver and a Finn) described Hamiltons Folly as the tarmac equivalent of Ouninpohja, one of the world’s greatest stages.

Bobby’s Circuit of Ireland plans for 2017 have been scuppered by lack of funding from the Northern Assembly, budgets could not be agreed for 2017 and he had to take the difficult decision to pull the event for next year. As I said earlier next year could well have been our year to shine, with Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in a works Citroen as lead driver and Craig Breen hopefully securing some form of works drive for next year the will would surely have been there to promote these guys and the sport on a larger scale in Ireland and beyond.

Government funding has to be an absolute must for any event on this scale, and needs to be seen as a long term plan not just a one year plan and the following year left up in the air until it’s too late.  This year Bobby and his team included local councils in the rally, having regroups, fuel stops, ceremonial starts etc. This brought local councillors out in force and local newspapers all happy to cover rallying in a positive light. If they feel they got good coverage out of it they will only be too happy to keep it in their area again and this would lead to more exposure and more money in the coffers.

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Local Council representatives always happy to get their photos taken.

It is said that it is unlikely that the WRC promoters would entertain another event under the jurisdiction of the MSA (UK Motorsport Authority) but a joint effort with the MSA and MI (Motorsport Ireland), would surely be a more attractive proposition.  Unfortunately it is unlikely that Ireland will see the WRC here in the short term; we have a small car market, so it has little appeal to the manufactures. Also the WRC promoter is looking to reduce European events in terms of distance, time and possibly number of events, so current events are likely to fight tooth and nail to remain in the series and likely new events will be in new terrain or territories that appeal to car manufacturers.  In conclusion those of us lucky enough to have witnessed the WRC on the roads of Ireland in 07 & 09 were extremely lucky, and we will have to wait a long time if ever we get a chance to see the likes of it again! Also is the will there to bring a round of the WRC back to Ireland, no doubt spectators would welcome it back with open arms on the provision they were not asked to pay to get on the stages. This idea was floated last time and went down like a lead balloon and was shelved but ‘free’ rallying is not the norm at most other European rounds on the WRC, this may be story for another day!!

 

 

The Highs and the lows

Meeke Finland

Irish rallying has recently been in the spotlight for all the right reasons, Kris, Paul, Craig & Scott have us believing that our talent is capable of taking on and beating the best in the world. Reading David Evans report in Motorsport News (The weekly Bible of all motorsport enthusiasts) following Rally Finland, in his opinion Kris and Paul’s performance in Finland was as good a performance by an Irish/British crew that he’d ever seen on the WRC, surpassing anything he’d witnessed by McRae or Burns. This is awe inspiring, as Meeke has had his critics in the past (including myself) but this year he has reached a new level. Without a doubt the confidence of a three year contract and increase testing has been a huge factor in this upturn in pace. The way Kris and Paul dealt with the jibbing from Volkswagen Supremo Jost Capito was exemplary as they used facts and humour to brush aside his cribbing. Meeke’s  win is all the more impressive when you consider he’s driving a 2015 spec car which has seen little development since Loeb left the team, also it was the fastest average speed ever recorded on a WRC event with Kris and Paul beating last year’s winner Jari Matti Latvala on his home event.  In securing second place Jari Matti Latvala clocked an average speed faster than his 2015 winning average!

FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 2016 - WRC FINLAND

Not forgetting Craig and Scott, they dug deep and raised their own personal bar, right from the start in Finland they made their intentions clear for all to see. Comfortably remaining inside the top ten and increasing their pace over the event. They got into a podium position, holding off many more experienced crews as they held their nerve to take a fantastic third on that Sunday afternoon which will live long in the memories off all Irish rally fans.  To have two non Scandinavians’ on the podium is practically unheard of in Finland, to have two of our own is something we all should be immensely proud off.

Armstrong Poland

Jon Armstrong along with Noel O’Sullivan have also been very impressive in their first year stepping up to world level. They have shown pace on all rounds of the Drive DMack Fiesta Trophy including a fantastic win on Rally Poland. In my opinion they have been the class act of the DDFT 2016.

H&L

As the expression goes “for every high there is a low” and the disappointment of Bobby Willis announcing that due to funding issues there will be no Circuit of Ireland in 2017. After attracting the British Rally Championship in 2016 to add to the European and Irish Tarmac Championship we all thought the rally was in a good place. Unfortunately funding was not forth coming for 2017 and the difficult decision had to be made. There have been many keyboard warriors lamenting that the Circuit of Ireland is only a shadow of its former self and Bobby was only in it for the money. The reality is that if Bobby hadn’t put a team in place there would almost certainly be no rally as the Circuit was on a downward spiral. Definitely we would not have had the joy of seeing the works Skodas, Santileoc Peugeots and the cream of European drivers gracing our roads. Hopefully Bobby will once again pull the Circuit up the by the scruff of the neck in 2018.

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The British Rally Championship regulars were back on our shores again for the Ulster Rally last weekend, joined by our Irish Tarmac stars the rally was nail biting as initially Alastair Fisher took the lead only to drop back following a puncture. Elfyn Evans charged into the lead but with Keith Cronin breathing down his neck until Cronin suffered late mechanical dramas. Elfyn won the rally and took the British Rally Championship.

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The shake up in the Irish Tarmac Championship has definitely lead to a more competitive championship. Going in to the final round in Cork it is poised to be a classic winner takes all scenario with local ace Keith Cronin chasing Alastair Fisher.  With points and a half available Josh or Sam Moffett could also claim the title if the top two falter.

As many of you will know there were a few serious incidents during this year’s Ulster Rally, with enquiries underway as to the rights and wrongs of what happened but the stark reality is people are in hospital and there are others who had a very lucky escape.  Safety has also raised it’s head again in the WRC with the FIA finally looking at the hinkelsteins that feature on the Panzerplatter stage, they are huge lumps of concrete designed to keep military tanks on the road and when a car hits them at speed the results are devastating.  We saw this recently when Lefebvre and Moreau in the Citroen WRC DS3 were pitched at speed into a tree following a collision with one of the hinkelsteins lining the stage and previously Petter Solberg and Phil Mills only escaped serious injury due to the strength of their Subaru’s roll cage when they hit and rolled over a hinkelstein in 2004

Locally we need to remember that motorsport is extremely dangerous; we all need to take responsibility; be prepared to say when something isn’t right or dangerous. The powers that be are increasing the demands on officials, marshals and media. This has lead to a lot of the older more experienced people finding other ways of spending their free time and unfortunately it looks as if there are fewer volunteers willing to step to fill the void. Is increased training for all volunteers required? First aid training, how to deal with cars on stages that are partially blocking the road or spectators being uncooperative.

Rallying is on the brink in Ireland and the UK, it’s time we all pull together and ensure our next wave of talent have the chance to shine on our stages before they reach the world level.

 

Making the call

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My heart is routing for Craig Breen in the Lakeland Tyres backed Citroen DS3 R5

To follow on from last week, I will now preview the classes in the International Field and the National Rally.

The R2 Category is almost going to be as hotly contested as the main rally, with 26 starters in the International section and 12 of them registered for the ERC, it is difficult to guess who will be victorious, but I think the winner will come from one of the following drivers; Chris Ingram, Steve Rokland, Rob Duggan & Callum Devine.

Unlike the R2 class, the R3 category is very poorly supported, with only one crew making the start. Joao Correia, in his R3 Clio, makes the trip from Portugal, so fingers crossed he gets a good run and makes the finish ramp on Saturday afternoon.

The R4 category is a lot more open, with two ERC registered crews and nine others. Favourite for the win has to be Philip Morrow in his Evo 9. Sure to be on a big push will be the two ERC registered crews of Daniel Dymurski in a Subaru N16, and Paolo Zanini in an Evo X, although I’m not sure if they have the ultimate pace of Morrow. Some others who will be in the shake up for the podium are Patrick O’Brien & Matt Edwards.

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Wesley Patterson has to be considered a hot tip for the podium of the National Rally

The National Rally

With only one World Rally Car in the line-up for the National Rally, Derek McGarrity has to be considered hot favourite for the title, but rumours are circulating that he won’t make the start! This leaves the battle for victory wide open, with the weather likely to play a pivotal role. If the roads are wet, four-wheel drive will be a big advantage for guys like Robert Blomberg in the Mirage R5 or Ollie Mellors in the Proton S2000. If the roads are dry or only damp, the Millington powered Escorts of Wesley Patterson, Keith White, and Frank Kelly will be hard to beat. If Derek McGarrity starts it’s his to lose.

So prediction time!!!

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My head says Elfyn Evans is favourite for victory! Image courtesy of Aidan Collins

Overall, I am torn between my heart and my head. My head says Elfyn Evans and my heart is screaming Keith Cronin or Craig Breen, so hopefully the heart rules the head and we get a home victory, as this will be the icing on the cake to an absolutely fantastic event.
In the R2 class I think Chris Ingram will be in with a very big shout of taking victory, closely followed by Rob Duggan.
In GpN I can see this going to one of our European visitors, as it seems highly unlikely that Philip Morrow will make the start.

This week has been short, but it has been a busy one, with the chance to see some of the main contenders getting valuable test miles in. Also, trying to find locations that are not only safe, but will help to show the beauty of the area isn’t easy and takes time. It is very clear by the reaction and photos that drivers completing the recce have uploaded to social media that they love the stages and the scenery. So it’s all systems go and hopefully everyone has a fantastic rally and remembers to listen to all safety instructions.

Breen Comes Full Circuit

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Craig Breen & Scott Martin on their way to victory in 2015

The Circuit of Ireland has produced an entry list that any rally in the world would be extremely proud off. In my humble opinion, the entry for the International section will not be bettered in any ERC (European Rally Championship) or BRC (British Rally Championship) event this year. The WRC may have the World Rally Cars but they will not have the strength and depth the Circuit has produced this year. Something pretty special was expected, but the organisers have succeeded in surpassing the expectations of many. The icing on the cake was persuading Craig Breen back to defend his title. With the help of Lakeland Tyres, Davy Greer Motorsport and a few other sponsors, the deal was done to bring Craig and Scott Martin back, this year in a DS3 R5 Citroen. Craig said that the call to defend his title was too hard to resist, especially when he heard the plans for this year’s route! He has to be considered one of the favourites for the win again this year. Who else needs to be considered for the top step of the podium is going to be a difficult task; it might be easier picking the winning lotto numbers!!! Number two on the road is Elfyn Evans, leader of the DMACK team, in the R5 Fiesta, will be out to prove they are serious contenders on tarmac as well as on the loose, and to discount them could be dangerous. Third off the line is Kajetan Kajetanowicz (Kajto), in another R5 Fiesta. Last year the Polish driver came within 6 seconds of taking victory, and no doubt will be doing his best to secure the top step this year!

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Kajetan Kajetanowicz / Jaroslaw Baran can they improve on second overall last year?
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Alexey Lukanyuk arrives as ERC leader

Alexey Lukyanuk comes to the Circuit on the crest of a wave, having scored maximum points on the last two ERC events, and while he finished a distant 6th last year, with his confidence high he will be a major threat, and will definitely be aiming to be closer to the front! With five and six on the door plates are local drivers, Keith Cronin and Alastair Fisher. Cronin,with navigator Mikie Galvin, in his DS3 R5, should be on a high as he has taken maximum points on the first two rounds of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC), and has to be considered one of the favourites. Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble, in a Fiesta R5, are the only ITRC crew that have been on the pace of Cronin, and will be gunning for the top of the leader board in an attempt to turn the tables on Cronin.

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Robert Consani is always a welcome visitor to the Circuit of Ireland

The next four starters have also to be highly rated. Tom Cave, in another R5 Fiesta, is at number 7, and has an ace up his sleeve as he is running on Michelin tyres, which are considered by many to be the tyre that will best suit the stages. At number 8 is Robert Consani in a DS3 R5. This is Robert’s 4th visit to the Circuit and his pace is increasing every year. Fredrik Ahlin was the surprise of the first round of the BRC in his Fiesta, as he was matching and beating Evans on some of the stages. Will his first visit to Irish tar hinder his progress? At 10 is David Bogie, and although he has a relative lack of experience in his R5 Fabia, his times from the last loop of stages at the recent Midlands Stages Rally show he has the potential to fight at the front. There are another 12 ERC registered crews that can’t be discounted, but I believe they will be battling for top 5-10 positions.

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Josh Moffett & John Rowan jumping to 3rd overall in 2015, can they get closer to the top step off the podium this year?

There are another 16 R5 / S2000 crews who are not registered for the ERC but are still eligible to score points in either the ITRC or BRC, with the leading contenders amongst these guys having the skill and the equipment to be mixing it up at the sharp end of the field. Josh and Sam Moffett have shown in the first two rounds of the ITRC that they can set some blistering times, while Max Vatanen is another driver in a DMACK shod Fiesta; he comes here with high expectations. Desi Henry and Euan Thorburn have set competitive times in their Fabia and 208 T16 respectively…have they the pace yet to challenge for victory?

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Euan Thorburn & Paul Beaton come back this year, after a spectacular drive in 2015

Next week I will take a look at the other classes within the International field plus the National section of the rally but in rounding up, any crew that makes it back to Belfast on Saturday afternoon in the top 10 will have had a mighty rally, to make the top 5 will have required being very brave, to have made the podium they will have been driving on and over the limit. To be crowned the winner they will have risen above a top class field and no one will be in any doubt that this driver has star potential. Whether we will be celebrating another victorious driver from Ireland (either North or South) it is hard to know, we have drivers very capable of making it happen but equally we have another  30 odd crews trying to stop it happening. So it’s going to be an absolute battle and the place to be is on the ditches, cheering on our giants, and fingers crossed the sun shines and everyone has a safe and enjoyable weekend.