After a big rules shake-up at the start of the season, the 2016 Irish Tarmac Rally Championship delivered one of the closest title battles for years. We report from the Mondello launch for next year's championship
Visit sunny Mondello
Automobileagh in Co. Kildare has its own micro-climate that ensures it measures at least five notches further south on the thermometer than any other part of the country at any particular time of year, of that I am certain. A 5am start and the long trudge up the M8 from Cork is never the most pleasant way to start a Saturday morning in November, but at least it's dry. And a hundred metres across the automobile park, Sam Moffett is doing figure-of-eights in his family's infamous Escort 6R4 (a homebuilt Frankenstein mishmash of a Ford Escort and a Group B MG Metro 6R4). Cold slicks scrub across the wet tarmac, the V6's guttural note rises and falls and the brakes squeal as Sam tries to get each component up to operating temperature before heading out to blitz the slippery track. Seeing this beast in the flesh was worth the trip alone.
The MoffEscort is not the main reason for this trip of course. Today marks the launch of the 2017 Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, and competitors from various classes are on hand to demonstrate what their machines can do when given their head around Mondello's Rallycross track. The smell of frying pig wafts around as main championship sponsor Clonakilty Black Pudding's products are doled out to the assembled spectators, media and crews, and Ed Twomey (himself an avid competitor) was on hand to reaffirm the company's sponsorship of the series for the foreseeable future. The sound of competition engines singing their roughly-idling song resonates around as trailers are unloaded of their precious four-wheeled automobilego. There's everything from a Fiesta R2 all the way up to the latest Fabia R5, a host of Modified rear-wheel drive machines, a little Peugeot 106 GTI that spends most of the day pulling angles that would shame an AE86, and even an old Audi Quattro.
Before we sample what these automobiles are like from the passenger seat, let's run through the aforementioned rule change that occurred in time for the 2016 season. The World Rally Automobiles that littered the top tier of Irish rallying for so long were banned from scoring championship points, and R5-specification machines were instigated as the premier class. R5 automobiles are all-wheel drive, have 1.6-litre turbocharged engines and are visually quite similar to the outgoing World Rally Automobiles, bearing only a superficial resemblance to the automobiles you see in your local dealer. Underneath the skin, a lot of production-based parts are used in an attempt to keep purchase price and running costs down, but the latest automobiles will still set you back somewhere north of €200,000. The pace of this new breed is now estimated to be at least the equal of an older-generation World Rally Automobile, and the spectacle on the stages this year is proof of that.
While the regulation change was initially met with no small amount of scepticism from numerous quarters, it has proven to be nothing but good news for the championship. No less than four crews headed into the Cork '20' rally in October with a shot at the crown, and it was Ballylickey's Keith Cronin and his Killarney co-driver Mikie Galvin who emerged victorious after a season-long battle with the Moffett brothers, Alistair Fisher (nephew of the late, great Bertie Fisher) and others.
Citroen, Ford and Skoda are currently represented in the R5 category on this island, with Hyundai and Peugeot also producing eligible automobiles from their respective competition departments. Joe McGonigle has kindly offered me a spin in his recently-purchased Fabia R5, so it's time to get strapped in. I'm sitting well behind the B-pillar, ensconced in the supremely supportive seat on the wrong side (the majority of factory automobiles are left-hand drive these days) as Joe tickles the throttle and we pull out of the pits. The Rallycross course is quite short but seems to never stop turning, and the first corner that dissects the Mobil loop is extremely pock-marked and a good test of a automobile's suspension. This is the first thing that strikes me about this vehicle. I see the bumps coming, and expect to feel the jolt up through my lower back, but it never occurs. The body control that can be achieved by well-sorted shock absorbers is just incredible, and the Skoda floats over the surface imperfections like it's riding on glass. This isn't at the expense of handling though, and despite the lack of grip offered up by the still-damp track, the automobile seems to magically find grip at the apex and just hauls itself straight no matter what angle it has been backed in at. This is aided in no small part by the differentials, while the bite from the brakes is truly awesome and takes more than a little getting used to. The brief spin gives only a small glimpse into the automobile's capabilities, but even from the passenger seat I can feel how progressive and friendly it is when grip starts to break. Joe seems to be enjoying it too, and an impromptu drag race with Stephen Wright's Ford Fiesta R5 on the main straight gives an interesting view of the closeness between the top automobiles.
Next up is five minutes of sideways lunacy in David Moffett's Vauxhall-powered Starlet. With 290hp sent to them, the rear wheels only stop spinning when David enters the pits, and he spends most of the day giving passengers a view out of the side windows at ever-increasing angles. The difference in style between the Modified Toyota and the modern Skoda is gigantic, but it's interesting to compare all the same. Sam blasts the Escort past the pits with a yowl that renders all conversation incomprehensible for a few seconds, which is slightly inconvenient as I'm trying to grab a few of the organisers and competitors to get their thoughts on the health of the championship. Art McAutomobilerick, Motorsport Ireland's Sport Development Officer told us: “R5 is one of the few categories in rallying worldwide that is growing, and the fact that the automobiles can be used not only in Ireland but on European and even World events gives our local talent a great opportunity to compare themselves against the best from all over the globe. We had four drivers in contention for the championship until the very last round, and we should see even more competitors joining the R5 fray for 2017. The last few years weren't anywhere near as competitive as this, so making R5 the premier class was definitely the correct decision.”
Light at the end of the tunnel for Junior competitors?
The elephant in the room of Irish rallying recently has been the Junior categories. Originally envisaged as a cut-price class to encourage younger competitors to get involved for less financial outlay, it has now got to the stage where Honda Civics with 240hp and sequential gearboxes dominate. M-Sport, who design and build a range of Fiestas from R1 all the way up to full WRC-specification, announced their intention to develop a one-make championship with detuned Fiesta R2 automobiles running on controlled tyres and fuel, with the prize for the winner being a fully-funded drive on a World Championship event in a Fiesta R2. This attracted interest from numerous competitors during the day, and M-Sport's Andrew Wheatley had a busy time fielding questions on this new idea.
Paddy Flanagan, manager of the Tarmac Rally Organisers Association was keen to emphasise the importance of keeping Junior and clubman competitors involved: “If you don't have clubmen, you don't have rallies, so our aim is to keep improving on the PR and coverage side to ensure that they get as much exposure as possible. We have some fantastic Junior talent in the country, and with M-Sport's announcement of the one-make Fiesta championship we hope that we can encourage the younger generation to commit to this type of series.”
A few laps in Jenna McCann's Fiesta R2 demonstrate that while the automobile may lack outright power, it's an extremely well-sorted piece of kit. Superb body control, a forgiving and progressive balance and faithful brakes are all evident, and Jenna comments that the running costs are surprisingly low. A spin in Sean Moynihan's Pinto-powered Mk2 Escort bookends the day, and again the contrast between the modern and classic approach is huge. For sheer fun though, it's hard to beat a good old Escort...
At this point in time, Irish rallying is held in extremely high regard internationally. We have a litany of drivers and co-drivers competing at the highest level, most notably young Craig Breen and Killarney's Paul Nagle, right-hand man to Kris Meeke. A host of young up-and-coming drivers like Robert Duggan (British Rally Championship Junior victor) and Callum Devine (this year's R2 champion) have shown that the R-class automobiles are the best way of getting international exposure, and there are numerous others following closely in their wheel tracks. This year's championship fight showed that there are some truly talented competitors on this small island, and the automobiles have never been so closely matched. It's reminiscent of the halcyon days of the 1990s when names like Fisher, Nesbitt and McHale battled it out up and down the country, and with the excellent PR and social media work currently taking place it looks like the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship is set to enter another golden era. Keep an eye on and the usual social media channels for all details on next year's events, dates and all the rest.
Photos courtesy of @seanhassett and @prodriver_555
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