The best of the best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Donegal, The end of the world?

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Bertie Fisher on route to his maiden Donegal Victory

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

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Mark Lovell in his very special TAR Sierra

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

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Keith Cronin 2016 Irish Tarmac Champion

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

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Declan Boyle in his 1.6T  Fiesta WRC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The car in front is a Toyota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Breen & Martin flying high in Sweden

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

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.

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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.

derek-mcgeehan-turkey-run-2

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.

H&L-6

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.

H&L-5

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.