by Brian & Liz Patterson
On last Saturday’s Mourne Rally Darren Gass scored a convincing win, with the added bonus that it was a proper shakedown for the impending Donegal International. 24 year old Tarmac Champion Gass was co-driven by Enda Sherry in his Subaru and finished over a minute ahead of Derek McGarrity/James McKee. McGarrity was driving a newly acquired ex Pieter Tsjoen Focus WRC for the first time. Paddy McVeigh/Paul Hamill, despite having little experience of their Impreza WRC, produced an extremely accomplished performance to take 3rd. Darren Gass is not registered for the NI Championship, so Derek McGarrity’s 2nd place netted him maximum points and further increased his lead in the current series. Derek McGeehan holds 2nd in the points and Kevin Barrett, despite non-finishing the last round, the Sperrins, is 3rd. Keith White heads the McGrady Insurance 2 wheel drive category, Jonny Leonard the Juniors and Stanley Orr the Historics.
The Mourne rally switched this year from it’s more established route through the forest drives of Camlough and Gullion to proper closed road stages to the West and North of Newry town. Brilliantly clear hot weather was the order of the day as the cars headed for the opening 8.5 miles of the tight and gravelly Black Hill stage. Gass was unhappy that his Subaru’s suspension was too low but was still a handful of seconds quicker than McGarrity and the rest of the field. The tough nature of the stage was emphasised with the news that Camillus Bradley, such a sensation on the recent Sperrins Rally, had crashed his Escort and the stage was ‘interrupted’.
Proceedings were soon back to normal and through stages 2 & 3 Gass continued to set fastest times. He had tweaked the settings on his Impreza’s struts and was a lot happier when he reached 1st service with a 28s advantage over McGarrity. For his part McGarrity was somewhat frustrated with niggly problems in his new Focus WRC, mostly centred on the car stalling, plus an intermittent intercom fault.
Towards day’s end McGarrity was able to set a couple of fastest times, which gave him some confidence in the ability of the Focus, but really Gass had the job sewn up by 2nd service after six stages. Paddy McVeigh surprised many with his 3rd place in his Impreza. He did have a couple of ‘moments’, but then so did nearly everyone on the narrow stages.
Kevin Barrett had one of his best runs of late to be 4th throughout the day, Kevin determined to beat Derek McGeehan in the Mini WRC in their personal battle for NI Championship points. McGeehan was 5th for a large part of the rally but made no impression on Barrett, and indeed the Mini WRC man eventually fell into the clutches of the very hard charging Frank Kelly and David Armstrong in their respective Escorts. McGeehan finished 7th, David Armstrong 6th and Frank Kelly 5th.
David Armstrong held the upper hand initially in this particular battle of the Mk2’s, but acknowledged Escort master Frank Kelly dug very deep indeed to edge ahead by 3s at the finish, and that was despite a broken gearchange lever.
Jonny Leonard’s GpA Lancer suffered a broken rear shaft early on and he did well to battle back to finish 8th. Keith White was 9th in his Mk1 Escort and admitted to not only being ‘whacked’ at the finish, but also that he had no answer to the speed of Kelly and Armstrong in front. Norman Armstrong was another to have a good run in his Escort and came into 10th.
Rally sponsor Rory Byrne appeared to be heading for a Gp N win with his new Lancer Evo 10, but a gearbox problem on the final stage cost many minutes. This let a very surprised Damian Toner, who had more than his fair share of mechanical woes, particularly a down on power engine, win the category.
Further top end retirements besides Camillus Bradley included Adrian Hetherington (Escort clutch) and George Robinson (GpA Lancer, mechanical). Visiting Norfolk man Ray Brammer finished well down the order, his Impreza suffering several delays, one caused by a puncture, one an excursion.
Meanwhile George Condell/Paul Twomey scored a 7s victory over Trevor Culbert/Ray Fitzpatrick on Sunday’s Laois Heartland Mini Stages. Both crews were in class 13 cars – George Condell in a Starlet RWD, Culbert in an Escort. Another Carlow crew, David Condell/Andrew Browne, were 3rd o/a in a class 14 Escort. Indeed, Mk2s occupied 7 out of the top 10 finishers. George Condell used to co-drive for his brother David. George’s maiden win could alter the family rallying status quo!
The rally got off to a hesitant start when the first stage and then the second stage were ‘interrupted’ for the top runners by two separate accidents. Pat Donegan put his Escort off on the opening stage and Ed O’Callaghan went off on stage 2, fortunately without any reported serious injuries. The weather was very sunny and bright, which was great but made the tarred road surfaces ‘slightly soft’, which had to be taken into account as regards traction and braking distances. These early dramas meant it was stage three before there was a meaningful leaderboard. It was all very tight between the top runners, with George Condell nosing his Starlet in front and staying there to the end. Trevor Culbert pushed hard the whole way but the gap was 7s at the end, with the elder Condell a further 7s back.
Young Chris Armstrong from Cavan overcame a slight time loss through spinning his Escort and just squeezed ahead of Brian Brogan in the classification to take 4th, with Brogan 5th, although the two were equal on total time. Donegal man Brogan was mainly intent on making sure his Escort was completely up to scratch in readiness for his upcoming home International.
Besides Donegan and O’Callaghan crashing out, the only other top retirement was Andrew Purcell in his Mitsubishi. In stage 4 Waterford man Purcell left his braking too late and damaged the front of his Lancer, including the radiator, when lying 7th.
This weekend the Valvoline MI Forestry Championship swings back into action with the Mitchelstown based Sean Conlon Memorial Rally. Top Championship contenders Mick O’Brien (Focus WRC) and Phillip Morrow (Lancer N) will be in action over the three repeated stages – Cambaun, Kilworth & Kilcoran. However there are plenty of drivers who could upset the status quo at the top. Just a few of them include Owen Murphy as well as brothers Sam and Josh Moffett, all in Lancers. Liam Regan will almost certainly be giving it a good go in his four-wheel drive Peugeot 206. Martin Cairns is undecided if he will make the trip, his Impreza WRC is in for a rebuild and he doesn’t want to rush the job. Latest indications are however that he may well go! Top Escort men include Mickey Conlon and Sean Benskin, while Shane McGirr in his Starlet could once again be a hard man to beat in 2wd. Young Dean Raftery will be out to have a go at another Junior category win.
Also taking place this weekend is the Severn Rally. A few drivers from here are making the trip to Wales, including Connor McCloskey. Connor, current leader of the BTRDA series, missed the Dukeries round, so the Severn is an effort to keep sharp and also get a feel for the territory. The rally has the most fabulous stages, mostly through Crychan, is also a counter in the British Championship Historics, and Dessie Nutt is making the trip. The Castlerock GP is hoping for a continuation of the form that took him to a class win on the recent Jim Clark.
Meanwhile the Donegal Rally recce starts this weekend and it has still not been absolutely confirmed which car Derek McGarrity will drive. The Glengormley man was hoping to carry out a few changes to his Focus WRC earlier this week and then do a test, but the test will now be later this week. However he will almost certainly be driving the Focus in any case as it looks as if his Impreza S14 could well be sold. Brendan Kelly was scheduled to drive Kevin Barrett’s Impreza WRC on the rally, with Derek Brannigan co-driving, but that is now not happening. Kevin, who will be on holidays at Donegal time, has reportedly sold his Impreza to Welshman Steve Woods, who will probably be driving it in Donegal, subject to a proper test later this week. Kevin is in negotiations to buy another Subaru.
On the subject of Donegal, diddlydee country music would not necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, but a new ballad called “ The Donegal Rally is Here” has that something special. The accompanying visuals show last year’s winner Garry Jennings atop a bar counter playing the fiddle and previous winner, as well as Clerk of the Course, James Cullen, is in the corner strumming a guitar. There are rally cars pictured sliding off into bogs with marshals singing along and dancing to the tune. It is just brilliantly wacky, funny and entertaining. It is also another small step in the huge build up to the rally.
On a more serious note, Plum Tyndall’s TV Company RPM has produced a promotional DVD, showing flashback’s over the Donegal years, completely encapsulating the magic of the Donegal Rally. The action, the personalities, the scenery, the cars, the huge crowds, spills and thrills, it is all there.
The poignancy of absent friends struck a chord as well. Shots of the late Ellen Morgan, a great co-driver, brilliant on the notes and very special lady would bring tears to the hardest of eyes. There was Bertie Fisher in his Mantas and Subarus, Tony Pond and Rob Arthur debuting the 6R4 plus flashes of Colin McRae. That aside, the crowds, the action, the atmosphere, no other rally in the British Isles comes close to emulating the Donegal fever and it is so well captured on this ‘promo’.
Once again there are drivers coming from Australia and America to take part in the rally this time. One of them, Stewart Liddle, is actually shipping his Lancer from Australia. For most of these far travelled competitors it is a case of ‘coming home’. Something they have dreamed about. Coincidentally the Irish Tourist Board is running a campaign called ‘The Gathering’. This is being promoted around the world, and is designed to encourage Irish emigrants to come home for a holiday or a visit.
At a press conference last week, Paddy Harte, a representative of Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board, spoke of their support for the rally and of the €25 million being spent every year for the last forty years by visitors to the event. This is not a press release for the rally; it is an observation of a phenomenon.
Whoever wins the Rally becomes ‘The King of Donegal’. In these days when the love affair for cars and motoring has mostly evaporated like an open can of petrol, the Donegal rally is still special to a lot of people, not just the enthusiasts.
Last year it was Garry Jennings who took the honours, quaffing the champagne at the Mt. Errigal Hotel finish ramp in Letterkenny. This brought a boyhood dream to reality for the Fermanagh man. Who will win this year? Garry again perhaps. Donegal man Declan Boyle could be a first time winner, or his near neighbour Donagh Kelly, or maybe Derek McGarrity. Cork man Darragh O’Riordan in his Fiesta WRC has every chance. Sam Moffett in McKinstry’s S14? Who knows? The Donegal Rally bucks all the trends in these straitened times. It is the only rally in the British Isles that we know of that still has five mile traffic jams on the way in and out of iconic stages such as Knockalla, the bulk of which winds and undulates along one of the most beautiful coastlines in Europe. Roll on the 21st June.
Yet another facet to the Donegal Rally is the annual football match between the drivers and co-drivers on the Wednesday evening before the rally. This year it is at Letterkenny’s Aura Centre at 7.30 and proceeds will go to the Good as New Cancer Bus Charity. All support would be welcome, and one of the ‘main men’ behind it is Johnny Baird.
Footnote/Link: www.donegalrally.ie to view the promotional video or www.rallynews.net to listen and watch “The Donegal Rally is Here”