Ireland has always been a Mecca for ex-works rally cars. We have had the pleasure of watching local drivers taking on and taming famous cars for over 40 years.
In the mid-eighties Dave Richards set up a rally preparation firm which would become Prodrive. With backing from Rothmans cigarettes, Ireland saw some of the best cars off their times the Porsche 911 SCRS, MG Metro 6R4 & BMW M3. The M3 became a rally legend in the hands of Bertie Fisher & Austin McHale as well as a few others.
In the late 80’s early 90’s four wheel drive was seen as unsuitable and to fragile for Irish roads, this was gradually changing. Ford had developed the highly successful Sierra Cosworth, it was now four wheel drive and was becoming the car off choice.
Dave Richards had persuaded a small Japanese car manufacturer called Subaru that he could make them a force in world rallying. Whilst developing the cars on the world stage he also took a young Scot under his wing, with Rothmans sponsorship they competed in the British Rally Championship visiting these shores along the way, a star was born. Anyone who had the pleasure of seeing Colin competing in the Subaru Legacy will still tell off the bravery he showed but also of the noise of the four cylinder boxer engine.
The following year Kenny McKinstry had an ex Ari Vatanen Legacy the flat four engined monsters arrived and changed Irish Rallying. Bertie Fisher soon upgraded his Sierra Cosworth 4wd to a Legacy. The Legacy was developed by Prodrive and superseded by the Impreza again Ireland followed suit.
Fisher, McKinstry & Nesbitt in Imprezas, had some fantastic battles with the Ford Sierras, Escort Cosworths & Toyotas Celicas of McHale, Meagher, Finlay, Greer, Boland, Cullen etc.
In 1997 a new breed of World Rally Cars was introduced these 2.0T cars had more open regulations than the GpA cars. It wasn’t long until the first WRC arrived in Ireland. Anyone who seen Eamon Boland in the Escort WRC popping and banging like a firecracker will still light up telling the story! More and more WRC’s arrived with Toyota Corollas, Subaru Imprezas (S5 up to the S14), Skoda Octavias & Fabias, Mitsubishi WRCs & Hyundai Accents joining the line-up. We had the pleasure of seeing Nesbitt, Donnelly, Boland, the McHales, Meagher, McGarrity etc slog it out on the stages.
In the 2000’s the Celtic Tiger started to creep into Ireland and this brought money into rallying, it really was a golden era, we had two rounds of the World Rally Championship, this brought the worlds best drivers in the worlds best cars and they conquered our unique roads. A crazy amount of WRC’s were in the country and these competed regularly all over the country.
In 2011 another era of WRC regulations were introduced, this involved 1.6 turbo cars that were based on smaller bodied cars.
Gradually the 2.0T WRC’s are running out of homologation and will no longer be eligble for International rallies. The 1.6T WRC’s have been slow to find their feet in Ireland as it has been thought they were not quick enough to beat the 2.0T cars.
The last of the 2.0T WRC’s including the Subaru S12(b), S14 & Ford Focus 08 will go down as the fastest cars in Irish hands on the stages as the likes of Boyle, Kelly, Jennings, etc fought for every second.
From a personal point of view, I’ve been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to sit in the passenger seat in three of these cars during tests. I have seen first-hand the preparation and dedication required to run these cars at this level.
It is fair to say these drivers and the others throughout the years deserve our full admiration for giving us the chance to enjoy the best rally cars in the world on our doorstep.