Back to the Future

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Reigning Tarmac Champion Josh Moffett

2019 looks as if it is the year for Irish rallying when the worm has turned and the glory days have finally returned! Next Sunday’s Galway Rally sees over twenty R5 crews entered and by all accounts the bulk of these have also registered for the Tarmac Championship. Craig Breen partnered by Paul Nagle are going back to their roots and are going to take on the cream of local Irish talent over the back roads near Athenry. Will they be able to unseat the winners from the previous two events Garry Jennings & Rory Kennedy who return in their Subaru S12b, can the world star be able to topple the world car?

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Craig Breen returns to Galway, this time in an R5 Fiesta, will he able to beat defending Galway Champ Garry Jennings?

The last two Tarmac Champions Sam & Josh Moffett once again are ready to take on all comers in their Fiesta’s the Monaghan brothers have the talent and speed to compete with the best. Alastair Fisher returns to the championship after a year’s hiatus, Fisher has undoubtedly the pace to compete with anyone of the championship regulars but will he be rusty next Sunday morning?

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Donagh Kelly has made the switch to a Fabia R5

This year sees two former champions finally make the switch from their WRCs to R5’s, with Donagh Kelly and Declan Boyle switching to a Skoda Fabia and the Ford Fiesta respectively. It will be interesting to see how quickly the Donegal duo adapt to their new mounts in a highly competitive field? Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan return in 2019 after setting some pace setting times last year, but misfortunes seemed to blunt Desi’s challenge in 2018.  If Henry can add consistency to his strong armory he cannot be discounted. Jon Armstrong swaps the virtual steering wheel for the real thing in Galway, his last appearances in a Fiesta R5 was in WRC Germany & WRC Spain in 2017 as part of his DMACK junior prize. Armstrong made the world take notice those two weekends, hopefully come Sunday evening we will be talking again about the performance of the young Fermanagh man partnered by Noel O’Sullivan.

 

 

Another interesting entry is triple Donegal Rally winners, Manus Kelly and Donall Barrett, not only switching to a new car but they also change to a left hand drive, will they be hampered by their lack of Galway knowledge. Donegal’s Joe McGonigle has entered in his MINI WRC, the power and drivability of the MINI could well suit the Galway stages especially if the usual wet weather prevails. Jonny Greer, Daniel Cronin and Stephen Wright also return for 2019, these three guys set consistent top 5 times when the event last ran in 2017, will they get closer to the podium in 2019? Meirion Evans, Cathan McCourt and Philip Allen have all registered for the 2019 Championship, these ‘new kids on the block’ have the pace to upset the regulars but will they have the consistency to challenge for the championship?

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Philip Allen ready to tackle the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship

This is only a small look at the one of the best Galway entries ever. The modified entry is somewhat lighter than what we are used to but the quality is strong, the top 4 entries of Tourish, Toner, Condell and Darcy are names that could win any modified rally in the country.

Next Sunday with just nine stages based around Athenry raises many questions, the answers will be coming in thick and fast. One thing is for sure we will all be glued to the social media as the times start to come in after SS1!

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The Unseen Costs

18c2d5c8-7b85-4925-ad83-5ce42b2afc58As the flashbulbs light up and the applause raises the roof in the NEC in Birmingham at the Autosport Show this weekend for the official launch of the 2019 WRC season, there are at least three drivers sitting on the sidelines that feel they had done enough in 2018 to deserve to be sharing the limelight in Birmingham.   For Craig Breen, Mads Ostberg and Haydon Paddon the realisation that they won’t be on the start line of Monte Carlo in less than 2 weeks will have truly kicked in.

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This time last year at the show Craig Breen’s star was on the ascendancy. Citroën had endured a difficult year in 2017, but Breen delivered what had been asked of him by the team. He’d consistently finished rallies bringing home manufacturer points and gaining valuable data for the development of the car. For 2018 the talk was of pushing for podiums and with a little luck maybe taking a win. The only cloud on the horizon was he was expected to step aside for three events to allow Sebastian Loeb to return.

The second round in Sweden saw Breen and co-driver Scott Martin in the battle for the win, with the duo eventually claiming a fantastic second overall. Craig set several scratch times over the weekend as teammate Meeke struggled, and new recruit Ostberg settled into his new surroundings. The Waterford driver had to sit on the sidelines for the following two events to allow Loeb to return. The Anglo-Irish crew returned for the remaining nine rounds of the Championship, a combination of mechanical gremlins, mistakes and rotten luck ensured the pair never reached the highs of Sweden. It was felt they had shown to be solid team players and that they would be kept as part of the 2019 Citroen Racing team.

The return of Sebastien Loeb for the three rounds and especially Rally Spain where he took the victory, seemed to reignite the fire in Loeb, coupled with the withdrawal of Peugeot from WRX all seemed to point towards a partial return to WRC for the Frenchman in 2019. It was an almost given that Breen would again compete in the remaining events.

Citroen is determined to get themselves back into contention for WRC titles, and have employed the services of five-time WRC champions Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia along with young Finnish hotshot Esapekka Lappi and Janne Ferme to help achieve this target.

Early December things started to unravel at Citroen Racing. Abu Dhabi announced a sabbatical from motorsport for one year. Redbull was returning as the principal sponsor but without the Abu Dhabi money the decision was made to run a two-car team, this left Breen, Loeb and Ostberg without a drive in 2019.

Over Christmas, Craig released a Facebook video saying how disappointed he was to be without a drive for 2019, but he was working hard at putting a deal together that should hopefully see him return soon. Breen has unfinished business in the WRC and certainly deserves a chance to show his talent.

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Mads Ostberg was announced on the morning of the Autosport show launch last year to compete for Citroen in Sweden and possibly one or two other events. This deal had only been completed the evening before and caught many by surprise. Sweden went well for Mads after just a half day testing himself and co-driver Torstein Eriksen consistently set top five stage times and in spite of small handling issues, they claimed sixth overall. The pair returned for Rally Portugal. It was Ostberg’s first time driving the C3 WRC on gravel and only had a very short gravel test prior to the event. Mads struggled to get the car handling to his liking but another sixth place ensued. There was a bombshell after Rally Portugal when Kris Meeke got fired by Citroen Racing, the silver lining for Ostberg was he was drafted into the team for the rest of the season bar, Rally Spain where Loeb returned. Over the second half of the season, the Norwegian pair certainly stepped up their performance, with three top-five places including two podiums. Many felt that Mads had shown his worth to team but late in November he took to social media to announce he wouldn’t be returning to WRC in 2019. He has recently tested a WRX car and has an entry in for Rally Otago in New Zealand in a MKII Escort. He has also said on social media he’ll consider any opportunity to get behind the wheel of a rally car. Ostberg is fighting hard to get back in 2019 and no doubt he’ll be behind the wheel again soon.

a15eaf9f-28d8-40a6-a3c4-950dd03eae79Kris Meeke who was fired by Citroen in 2018 and lambasted by the team, is the one driver who has landed a prime drive for 2019 with Toyota.  This is the team tipped to start as favourites to lift the manufacturers and drivers titles with their star-studded line-up. Kris finally has a car that should allow his talent to shine, will the Dungannon ace challenge for the driver’s title or will he be expected to assist other team drivers in their quest for the title?

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The one driver who probably feels the hardest done by has to be Hayden Paddon.  Following a difficult 2017, Paddon was to share the third Hyundai with Dani Sordo in 2018. With limited seat time and testing in the car, Hayden only had seven rounds to prove his worth to the team. Five top-five finishes, including two podiums, showed a real return to form by the Kiwi native as he outscored his fellow car-share teammate Dani Sordo.  Paddon completed the 2018 season only eleven points behind teammate Andreas Mikkelsen who had competed in all thirteen rounds. It was Mikkelsen that was seen as the weakest link in the Hyundai camp. When it was announced that Loeb had signed for a partial programme with Hyundai and the team signalled Sordo was to continue in a part-time basis many felt it should have been Mikkelsen who should drop down the Hyundai pecking order. Unbelievably it was Paddon who was offered a one rally contract, he decided to walk away from the team at this point. It is difficult to know what 2019 will bring for the New Zealander as he’d invested so much with Hyundai and is backed by Hyundai New Zealand.

 

It has to be so difficult for these three drivers, one day you are amongst the elite of world rallying, being applauded and lauded everywhere you go and then to be told your services are no longer required, especially when you appear to have done nothing wrong. There is no back-up plan, no move to another department or gradual redeployment, it goes from driving the fastest rally cars in the world to being left sitting at home! Also, being away from the pinnacle of our sport no matter what other types of car you drive will never live up to the same thrill and excitement of the latest spec WRC, will this dull their desire and make it difficult to drive at this level again if the opportunity happened to present itself again. Naturally the longer they are away, the harder it will be to drive at the 10/10ths required to be successful at the highest echelons of the sport.

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When two of the 2018 teams have been forced to reduce to a two-car line-up is the WRC becoming too expensive? To build a car it is costing in the excess of 800 000 euros according to the boss of Ford Performance, Gerard Quinn. This doesn’t include running costs or spares. Malcolm Wilson is reported to have said Toyota spent in the region of 200 000 euro on repairs to their aero package alone in Australia these figures appear to be unsustainable for the teams. The current cars are the fastest we have ever seen and no doubt are spectacular to view but are they driving rallying down a very dangerous road?

At a time when other forms of motorsport are looking at ways to reduce, emissions, environmental impact, speed and costs, rallying appears to be turning a blind eye indeed giving them the two fingers.

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Are the huge aero package and high technology really necessary?

The R5 category has shown that less is more! There are currently seven different car brands who have homologated R5 cars and at least another three manufacturers are said to be evaluating the category! These cars are built to strict guidelines in terms of regulations and costs involved. The cars have been adopted around the world as the car of choice by many Championships. MSport and Skoda Motorsport have each built close to three hundred cars in the short time that the regulations have been in place. Because of the strict control’s cars are very evenly matched and rallies are being decided by seconds and various brands are winning. Of course, we want to see the fast cars on the stages, but in the long-term, we want to see as many competitive cars as possible slug it out for victory. For the sake of approximately 2sec/km on tarmac and 1.5sec/km on gravel, costs are spiralling out of control. Very few spectators would be able to notice this difference it is just that the noise of the WRC is throatier and the aero makes them appear more aggressive. If the R5 cars sounded louder I believe that it would go along way to overcome the perceived lack of speed on the stages.

If more brands saw rallying as a way of doing research and development of upcoming products or marketing their current model of car this would mean more drivers would be required and of course, we’d all benefit by seeing more gladiators battling to be the best in the world.

Photos courtesy of Conor Edwards & WRC Teams

 

Where do we go from here?

With the 2018 season drawing to a close, it’s time to look back at the Irish performances that stood out, not just nationally but also internationally. In drawing up this list it’s not just overall results that are taken into account but the way the local crews promoted Irish Rallying.

This island as a whole has produced competitors and personnel who have delivered at the highest level. Drivers of the calibre of Paddy Hopkirk, Billy Coleman and Bertie Fisher were household names and not just known within rallying circles. Co-drivers such as Terry Harryman, Fred Gallagher and Ronan McNamee have won rounds of the World Rally Championship and nearly every World Rally Team past and present have had an Irish presence at some point.

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Frank and Lauren sideways on three hard wheels!!

Frank Kelly once again flew the MKII Escort flag, not just at home but on his many adventures. He was one of the guests of honour at the largest gathering of Escorts in Belgium earlier this year and also won the rally attached to this show. The Kelly family may be small in number as a team but they have a legion of fans around the globe. These fans are treated to big slides and plenty of sideways action from Frank and also whilst at these events he loves meeting the fans and sharing stories with them.

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Barry McKenna & Leon Jordan flying high in the USA

Barry McKenna from Monaghan was a relative unknown in Ireland until 2017 when he purchased a Fiesta S2000 fitted with a Focus WRC engine. This car was rallied in America establishing McKenna as a force to be reckoned with, he lead every rally he entered but bad luck prevented Barry and his co-driver Donegal man Leon Jordan from taking the results there pace deserved. 2018 saw Barry purchase an R5 Fiesta and the plan was to compete in the Irish Forestry Championship whilst keeping the S2000 turbo in the States. The first four rounds of the Irish charge brought McKenna to everyone’s attention with one victory and three 2nd places finishes, which left McKenna in a strong position in the Forestry Championship. The Monaghan man made the trip to Scotland for the Grampian Rally to keep himself match fit after the summer break. Despite a strong entry of Scottish Championship regulars, McKenna blitzed them all, fastest on every stage to claim the victory by almost a minute. Unfortunately, the last two rounds of the Valvoline backed Irish Forestry Championship didn’t go to plan for McKenna and his run in the American series was also blighted by bad luck but McKenna has shown he’s out to win. 2019 will see Barry looking to compete on both sides of the Atlantic once again and is promising an exciting programme of events.

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Devine impressed in JWRC

Callum Devine by his own high standards had a difficult year, but to step up to the Junior World Rally Championship after competing in the BRC and ITRC over the last couple of years and look comfortable in his surroundings says a lot about the talents the young Co. Derry driver has at his disposal. From the snow banks in Sweden the many yumps in Finland to the rocks in Turkey these were all new adventures to Callum but he impressed many with his speed and ability to learn new terrain. If as planned Devine returns to the series in 2019 this experience should see him as one of the championship favourites. Away from his JWRC commitments, Callum competed in the Joule Donegal International Rally in his Fiesta R5. Delays getting the Evo 2 package meant that only a very short test was conducted before the Rally. Callum expressed the view that he would start steadily and build his pace over the weekend. He was immediately on the pace of some of the championship regulars and by the end of the event was trading times with the front-runners. Devine’s Donegal performance was overshadowed by Rob Duggan who was also competing in a Fiesta R5 for the first time on Irish tar. Duggan only competed in four events in 2018 but every time he was challenging at the top of the leaderboard. If Duggan can pull together a deal for more outings in 2019, he will no doubt be the one driver all other crews will be watching, he is one of the most naturally talented young drivers at the minute.

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Kris settles in with new navigator Seb Marshall in the Yaris WRC

Kris Meeke will probably want to forget 2018. He was once again aboard the ill-handling Citroen C3 WRC. There had been a significant shake-up of the technical team at Citroen Racing and the car had been upgraded considerably but some of the fundamental issues couldn’t be addressed later in the season as parts needed to be homologated. The Dungannon man started the season solidly, having one retirement in the first five rounds but there had been small incidents on a couple of these events and the car seemed to have a narrow operating window. Then in Rally Portugal Kris co-driven by Paul Nagle had a big off into trees whilst running in the lower reaches of the top 10. The off crumpled the roll cage and there were questions being asked surrounding the safety of the car. Later in the week, Citroen Racing terminated the contracts of Meeke and Nagle, citing that Meeke wasn’t under control. The press release announcing the termination was brutal and seemed to catch even Meeke by surprise.

‘Due to an excessively high number of crashes, some of which were particularly heavy Citroen Racing WRT have decided have decided to terminate the contracts of Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the 2018 WRC’

This was humiliating for the crew and there was a huge public backlash, with fellow competitors and motorsport media amongst the most vocal.

Kris stayed out of the spotlight and remained tight-lipped about the whole saga. On the 10th October, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT announced that Meeke had signed with their team for 2019. Meeke was reluctant to draw comparisons between his new team and his previous employers. He was quoted ‘The team was completely different to his previous experiences and more forward thinking’. His new team boss Tommi Makinen said he wants ‘Kris to come and enjoy being with us, I want him to enjoy driving’. This is the lifeline Kris’s career needs so hopefully, 2019 will see a new improved and relaxed Kris Meeke.

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Josh Moffett equally at home on gravel or tarmac

Josh Moffett had a bumper 2018 taking eight overall victories plus two other top point scoring finishes. This culminated in Josh winning the ITRC, Celtic Rally Trophy, Irish Forestry Championship and narrowly missing out on the National Tarmac Championship. Taking victories on both tarmac and gravel shows the natural talent that the young Monaghan driver has in his armoury. 2018 saw the family business Combilift open a multi-million facility in their native Monaghan. To be able to commit time to rally during this busy time shows true dedication and determination. Josh stepped between the family Fiesta WRC, his own Fiesta R5 and brother Sams’ R5. As the calendar became congested, on one weekend alone he won on the forest tracks of the Lakeland Rally on the Saturday and Sunday saw him competing in the Sligo Rally based on the tarmac. Josh has developed as a driver this year, in previous years he would have pushed at all costs but on the Donegal and Ulster Rallies he settled for point scoring rather than getting into a scrap. This more mature approach bodes well for 2019 and beyond.

Josh’s brother Sam stepped back a small bit from front-line competition after his record-breaking 2017. Business commitments saw him missing the final two rounds of the ITRC but he’d done enough earlier on the season to still secure runner-up in the championship standings. Probably even more impressive were Sam’s results in the Triton Showers backed National Championship, in his three outings he took two wins and was narrowly defeated in the third. What makes these results so impressive was the fact Sam was competing in his Fiesta R5 against WRC rally cars.

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Breen flying high, will he get the opportunities in 2019?

Craig Breen had an extremely frustrating 2018 before the season had even commenced it was confirmed that he wouldn’t be contesting all the rounds. He was due to step aside for three events to allow for the return of nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb to the Citroen Racing team. Two of these events, Rally Mexico and Tour de Corse were close to the start of the season thus upsetting his momentum early in the championship. Breen partnered by Englishman Scott Martin had a troubled start in Monte Carlo, getting stuck in a ditch on an early stage and then running without brakes for 3 stages which resulted in a ninth-place finish. Sweden was next round and the Waterford driver had arguably one of the finest drives of his career. Setting consistently fast times over the weekend including several scratch times producing a fine second overall, less than 20 seconds short of winning the event outright. The elation of this magnificent result was tempered with the fact that Breen was to be substituted for the next two rounds. By the time he returned in Argentina an ill-handling car zapped his confidence and an accident resulted in retirement. The next few events saw Breen have a run of extremely bad luck, especially on the Friday stages, unexplained punctures, getting caught in downpours and niggling car problems. This contributed to an unfavourable road position for the rest of the weekend and made getting a good result difficult. Through it, all Craig kept his head and brought the car home in point scoring positions. Wales Rally GB is the closest to a home event that Craig can enjoy, he was well in contention for a podium all weekend and finally finished fourth overall. Car issues returned for the last two rounds resulting in a few spins and a couple off minors offs.

Citroen Racing hasn’t extended Breen’s contract into 2019, financial constraints within the PSA group have meant the team will only field a two-car team in 2019. This leaves the man from Waterford seeking employment elsewhere, Breen has recently been linked to both Hyundai and MSport, but unfortunately, the Hyundai option appears to have now closed with the announcement that Loeb has signed for the team on a part-time basis. MSport have committed to Evans and Sunninen for 2019 with the third car being open to various drivers. That option appears to be gone now as well. Could there be opening in the new for 2019 WRC2 Pro class? Here’s hoping Craig gets an opening to keep his talents on a world stage.

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Craig realising a childhood good. Driving the magnificent 6r4 on Irish Tarmac

An aside to Craig’s year was that he recently ran as 00 safety car in the Killarney Historic Stages in his father’s recently acquired Metro 6R4. This was a boyhood dream fulfilled as his father competed successfully in Metros in the Mid ’90s. It was great to see Craig relaxed and thoroughly enjoying his rallying. It also saw Paul Nagle return to the navigator’s seat, for a day of fun rallying. Will we see Paul make a return to Rallying in 2019? He is regarded as one of the best, so hopefully we’ll see him back.

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Gary McElhinney celebrates winning the Tanzanian co-drivers award

Distinguished mentions in this year’s roll of honour go to the following competitors who brought their talents to distant shores; Gary McElhinney, the Donegal man has recently been crowned Tanzanian Rally co-driving champion winning four out of the eight rounds, his driver Ahmed Huwel had never previously won the Championship, Gary also co-drove on various historic rallies across Europe and Africa. Garry Jennings and Rory Kennedy had no luck on their Irish campaign this year but a late change of plans saw them taking two victories in France, Allan Harryman enjoyed six trips to foreign climates this year and had one overall victory in Greece. Paul Barrett from Omagh clinched the British Historic Championship, Chris Patterson competed in four rounds of the WRC alongside Khalid Al-Qassimi in the C3 WRC, with the Abu Dhabi sponsorship gone from Citroen will 2019 see a year on the sidelines for this pairing? Aaron Johnston from Omagh competed in the French 208 Cup co-driving for Mohamed Al-Mutawaa and got the opportunity to co-drive in tests with Petter & Oliver Solberg aa well competing in various events throughout Ireland and the UK. Finally, husband and wife team Matt and Catherine Shinnors competed on the Safari Rally in wildest Africa in their MKII Escort and then later in the year the Shinshiro Rally in Japan was tackled and they finished a fine 50th overall in a Toyota GT86.

 

Here’s hoping rallying in 2019 continues in a positive way for crews from this Island, and we get the chance to cheer on our own guys and girls as they take on and beat the best in the world.

 

Credit to photographers for images, Citroen Racing, Toyota Gazoo Racing, Craig Breen (Facebook), KG Rally Pics, unknown.

Abu Dhabi, now you see it, now you don’t!

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The world rally circus continues apace, with Australia only over a matter of days 2019 preparations are already stepping up a gear. The Toyota drivers have been to Japan for an end of season party. Kris Meeke has been welcomed with open arms by the team and looks very relaxed in his new environment. The Japanese culture runs strong through the Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC team, it’s very much about honour and respect. Hopefully, this gives Meeke the confidence to drive well within his ability and the results follow.

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Citroen has already been testing with their two lead crews for 2019. Ogier and Lappi have both spent time behind the wheel of the C3. The one interesting thing to come out of this test was on Thursday Ogier started the day with the 2018 Livery on the car but part way through the day the Abu Dhabi signage disappeared. This seems to confirm that the Abu Dhabi will not be on the Citroen cars in 2019. This would appear to be a very blunt way of conducting their affairs. To remove the livery halfway through a test was a very public rebuke to a Country/brand that has stood behind Citroen Racing over the last few difficult years. It appears Red Bull will be the team’s main sponsor and it seems the door is closed for Craig Breen. Ogier has been quoted as saying he doesn’t think drivers competing in three or four rounds benefits the championship. Is this a thinly veiled warning to Loeb who has been rumoured to be contemplating a part season with the Citroen Racing Team? Loeb has opened the door for other teams to try and persuade him to compete in 2019, will any other world rally team try and lure the French man back? Mads Østberg has said he will not be taking part in the WRC next year in a manufacturer backed team, is this all pointing to a two car Racing Citroen team in 2019?

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As the saying goes “when one door closes another door opens”. With the Abu Dhabi money leaving Citroen could they find Malcolm Wilson and his MSport team a very welcome partner? They have a history as the Abu Dhabi named adorned the Focus and Fiesta WRCs in the late 00’s early 10’s. Wilson has been reported as saying that they need a commercial partner to continue to fully participate in the 2019 season. This is a very sad state of affairs for the team as over the last two years they have the best two years in their history by claiming the manufacturers and drivers titles in 2017 and drivers title in 2018. They have done all this with a fraction of the budget of the other Manufacturers teams. Ford has endorsed the team but is not fully behind it the same way Toyota, Hyundai or Citroen are.  If this sponsorship deal comes together could this help with their driver recruitment?

So far the team have only confirmed Teemu Suninen has a contract and it is rumoured that Gus Greensmith has a partial year. The driving force behind the Abu Dhabi brand is Khalid Al Qassimi he has taken part in a small number of events each year when he sponsors a team so this may continue. He is also said to be a big fan of Craig Breen, could this help Craig find a seat with the Cumbrian based team? Craig spent a large proportion of early career in MSport cars and these brought him a lot of success, could this be an ideal fit for both parties?

Breen

Hyundai has so far announced that Neuville as their lead driver for 2019 and that Sordo will contest 10 events in 2019, three more than 2018. What does this signal for Paddon and Mikkelsen? Paddon had a strong end to his season this year whereas Mikkelsen struggled but it is the Norwegian who has a contract for 2019. There is talk that the team may rotate the three drivers between the two cars over the year. It will be interesting to see how this will affect the morale of the drivers.

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

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