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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