Donegal, The end of the world?

Bertie manta
Bertie Fisher on route to his maiden Donegal Victory

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

Lovell
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.

Donegal End_-3
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!

Donegal End_-2
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!

Donegal End_
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.

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

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

So could Donegal once again be last chance salon for the World Cars to shine before they are superseded by the R5, who says history doesn’t repeat itself??!!

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

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