Easter Stages and the Killarney Rally of the Lakes – Rounds 3 and 4 of the Irish Tarmac Championship

Reporting by David Harrigan

Summer has well and truly arrived in Ireland; lambs are skipping around the fields, birds are singing in the trees, hard slicks are the tyre of choice and the Irish Tarmac Championship is blasting its way through valleys and over mountain passes, shattering the tranquility.

The Easter Stages and the Killarney Rally of the lakes made up rounds 3 and 4 of the Championship and with the two rounds taking place only two weeks apart, there has been little time to catch breath.  Both rallies were contrasting in terrain, the Easter Stages took place in the fertile plains and rolling hills surrounding Lough Neagh in the Northeast of the island and the Rally of the Lakes which took place in the rugged mountains of Kerry in the Southwest.  There has been one constant element in the Irish Tarmac championship this season however and that is the Fiesta of Craig Breen and Paul Nagle.  So far this season the pair have been dominant.  The results so far are testament to the pair’s dominance, but from the roadside, there are times when Craig is having to drive the R5 close to the limit to stay ahead of the chasing pack.

Craig Breen and Paul Nagle.

On the Easter stages, Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan were at forefront of the chasing pack, pushing their Skoda Fabia hard for two days through the Ulster lanes to finish second, only 18 seconds behind Breen.  It was a rally where Henry finally had some well-deserved luck, having been on the pace all season only to run into bad luck on numerous occasions.  Merely stating Henry took second place on the rally doesn’t tell the entire story though, the battle for the podium behind Breen is one that will live long in the memory.

At the end of day one, after six stages, only 12.9 seconds separated Jonny Greer, Desi Henry, Sam Moffett and Callum Devine in the battle for second.  Over nine more stages on day two, the podium battle would rage with fractions of seconds being traded.  On stage eight, Callum Devine and Brian Hoy put in an astonishing time on the longest stage of the rally to take third place overall, but only 3.3 seconds separated second position and fourth position.  On stage nine, Henry responded to move back into third place, on stage eleven Devine responded to retake third …… and this tit for tat battle continued until stage thirteen when Devine dropped 10 seconds with a power steering issue.   There was no stopping Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan now though, with only one second gap to Jonny Greer and Kirsty Riddick in second place, the battle continued unabated.

Over the final two stages, both Jonny Greer and Desi Henry were visibly trying.  Not one inch was given and every available bit of tarmac, and sometimes beyond, was used in the search for fractions of seconds.  When the dust had settled, Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan emerged in second place, 3.5 seconds ahead of Jonny Greer and Kirsty Riddick.

Callum Devine will probably consider himself unlucky not to stand on the podium at the Easter Stages but deserves a special mention.  The podium battle was frantic, the commitment and speed carried by the drivers at the top of the timesheets was visible from the roadside.  A fourth-place finish on a rally of this standard in only his fifth rally in an R5 car is a serious achievement.

Of the other Championship contenders, after finishing second on both the opening rounds, Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble had been Craig Breen’s closest competitors for the title.  Alistair had a slow start on the Easter Stages but recovered well on Saturday to overtake Sam Moffett to finish fourth.  In fifth, sixth and seventh places were Sam Moffett, Meirion Evans and Josh Moffett.

After a two-week break, the whole cavalcade travelled almost the entire length of Ireland to Killarney and the legendary stages in the Kingdom of Kerry.  Mention ‘The Gap’, ‘Healy Pass’, ‘Cod’s Head’ or ‘Ardgroom’ to an Irish Rally fan and they will have a story to tell.  The Rally of the Lakes is a place that has to be experienced to be believed.  Only 2 miles from Killarney town center is the start line for the one of the most famous stages in Irish rallying, Molls Gap, which winds its way around the lakes before rising up through the rock-strewn landscape to the famous Gap at the top.

As is tradition, this famous stage opened the rally and the fastest men up ‘The Gap’ for the first time were Craig Breen and Killarney native Paul Nagle.  Second over the stage was Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble, retaking their position as the foremost crew pushing Breen this season.  Winner of the Easter Stages, Desi Henry, was in third and Callum Devine was in fourth, building on his stellar performance on the Easter Stages.  Day one of the Rally of the Lakes was a day of classic stages tackled in blazing springtime sunshine.  After everything had been settled (and the after sun applied), the rally leaders after the opening day was Craig Breen and Paul Nagle, with Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble 24.9 seconds behind and Callum Devine and Brian Hoy only 6.6 seconds behind Fisher in third.

Again, day two opened with a high-speed roller-coaster ride up Molls Gap. Callum Devine gave credit to the ‘Coco-pops’ he had for breakfast but, whatever it was, he and co-driver Brian Hoy were the fastest out of the blocks. On both the first loop and the second loop, the former Billy Coleman Award winner was fastest up ‘The Gap’ and after stage eleven, the battle between the second and third placed drivers was only 0.7 of a second.   This battle between Fisher and Devine continued for the remainder of the day, with seconds traded here and there, different stages seemingly suiting each driver.

While the battle for second raged behind, Craig Breen portrayed a façade of calmness as he attempted to control a 20 second lead with the two youngsters snapping at his heels. The view from the hedges slightly belied the calm exterior, a moment on stage twelve on a 3 left over crest, followed by an encounter with a deer on the same stage, showed that the leaders were pushing hard to maintain their lead.  On the finish ramp, Craig admitted to feeling pressure to win the event for his local co-driver Paul Nagle and it was beginning to show ever so slightly.

Over the final two loops of the rally on Sunday afternoon, the battle for second began to sway in the direction of Fishers and Noble but the pair showed no sign of slowing their pace as they won stages 12, 13 14 and 16, pushing Breen to the wire.  Ultimately, Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble crossed the ramp in Killarney in second place, only 14.9 seconds behind Breen to cement their place as the strongest challengers to the Breen And Nagle partnership this season.  It feels like it is only a matter of time before Alastair wins a round of the Irish Tarmac Championship, and on his performance to date this season, it would be thoroughly deserved.

Callum Devine had to settle for third place, an astonishing result for only his sixth rally in a R5 car.  There was a consolation prize awarded to Callum Devine and Brian Hoy for being fastest up Molls Gap (which they done twice) but to take third place in the Irish Tarmac Championship was probably the drive of the weekend.

 

The winners once again were Craig Breen and Paul Nagle, continuing their dominance of the Irish Tarmac Championship this season.  However, this was the closest margin of victory the pair have taken this season and it is clear that there is a very hungry pack behind, pushing and clambering to be the first to break the dominance of the man who was rallying with the elite in the WRC last season.

With four wins from four events, Craig Breen and Paul Nagle lead the Championship with 68 points, Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble are in second place on 50 points and Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan are in third place on 32 points. Despite the dominance of Craig Breen, it is still all to play for in the final three rounds of the championship as just one non-finish could totally change the final outcome.

Next on the calendar for the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship is the jewel in the crown of Irish rallying, the Donegal International Rally. A three-day rallying extravaganza of fast, bumpy, shiny tarmac stages in the hills of the northwest.

West Cork Rally- Round Two of the Irish Tarmac Championship

By David Harrigan @dharriganimages https://www.facebook.com/dharriganimages/

West Cork on the southern tip of Ireland is steeped in rallying folklore and history, the scenic landscapes is traversed by some very fast flowing roads, the locals are some of the most welcoming in Ireland and to top it all off, they go rallying on Paddy’s weekend.  The perfect place for a rally.

Round 2 of the Irish Tarmac Championship is based in West Cork and it is a rally has a special appeal.  Added to the mix this weekend was the inclusion of competitors from the British Rally Championship and a few famous faces amongst the 160 entrants.  It was the West Cork Rally’s first time as part of the BRC and it also counted as round 2 of that championship.

The start ramp for the West Cork Rally, Photo credit David Harrigan

Big crowds turned out for the opening ceremony on the main street in Clonakilty on Friday night, dipping in and out of pubs to brave the wet and windy weather, welcoming the crews to the town.  Craig Breen and Paul Nagle were the rally favorites after their win in the opening round in Galway but with more R5 cars than has ever entered a rally in Europe rolling over the start ramp behind them, the competition would be fierce.  In the national rally section, a plethora of Mark 2 Escorts were ready for battle on the sodden stages but all eyes were on 5 time World Rally Championship runner up Mikko Hirvonen.  The Finn is no stranger to the Cork tarmac as he has finished 2nd in the Cork 20 in a WRC Focus previously but was taking a modified class 14 Mk 2 Escort for a rip around Cork this time.

Despite the history and scenery of West Cork, none of that mattered on Saturday morning as the crews launched into the first stage towards Ring Village in horrendous, monsoon-like conditions.  The first heavy braking zone of the rally, at the famous Kitty Macs pub in Ring Village, was an absolute lottery as the drivers attempted to judge the shiny tarmac hidden below pools of water on the beautiful coastal road.

Craig Breen and Paul Nagle. Photo credit David Harrigan

Josh Moffett and Andy Hayes were the quickest out of the blocks, splashing their way around the Ring stage faster than anyone else but by the end of the second stage Breen and Nagle had fought back to lead the rally. Over the course of stages 3 and 4, Breen put the hammer down and extended his lead to 11.9 seconds by the lunchtime service halt.  Josh Moffett was in second position, with Alistair Fisher and Gordon Noble in third position only 3 seconds behind Moffett.

The first 4 stages of the rally had been a tough attritional affair, and behind the top 3, many others fell afoul of the standing water, running water, falling water and sea spray that swamped the stages. Notable retirees from before lunch included Desi Henry, Merion Evans, Daniel Cronin, Cal McCarthy and Manus Kelly with numerous other crews falling foul of the rough conditions.

Marty Gallagher and Dean O’Sullivan crashed out in stage 6. Photo credit David Harrigan

After lunch, the rain stopped and the roads began to dry so tyre choice became a lottery. Strong winds and sunshine began drying the Rossmore and Sam’s Cross stages with dry sections appearing …. But treacherous wet sections still littered the stages due to the volume of water running from the fields.  For the brave, talk turned to soft slicks or dry slicks.

Photo credit David Harrigan

Breen certainly put the correct shoes on his Fiesta, dominating the afternoon by setting the fastest time on all 5 stages.  Josh Moffett struck trouble on the startline of the Sam’s Cross stage, breaking the propshaft of his Fiesta, making the R5 rear wheel drive for the afternoon, eventually finishing the opening day in 8th.  Moffett’s misfortune was Alistair Fishers gain, promoting him to 2nd with Matt Edwards and Patrick Walsh finishing the day as the top BRC competitor in in 3rd.

In the National Rally category Gary Kiernan Darren O’Brien led after the first day with Frank Kelly in 3rd ….. But the biggest news in this class was that Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman were holding second place.  It was unknown how Mikko would perform before the start of the rally but the Finn adapted very quickly to the 2.5l Escort, bumpy tarmac and the torrential rain to slither the Mk2 around West Cork, displaying the confidence you would expect from a former WRC driver and the flamboyance of a driver out to enjoy the weekend.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman, Photo credit, David Harrigan

Day 2 was dry and sunny, a total contrast to day one, but one thing remained consistent; Breen was dominant.  One slight spin at a hairpin in the afternoon was probably the only blot on his copybook all weekend.  Behind Breen the pace was frantic up and down the field.  Alastair Fisher also kept the pace high and his nose clean, maintaining second position.  Second is a fantastic result for Fisher, who took a sabbatical from rallying in 2018.  A tidy, controlled and fast performance secured back to back second places in the championship for Alistair is testament to his raw pace on his return to the sport.

Craig and Paul tackling one of the yumps at speed! Photo credit David Harrigan

The real battle at the top of the field on Sunday was for the final podium place.  2 of the British Rally Championship contenders, Tom Cave and Matt Edwards spent St. Patrick’s Day swopping stage times in an absolutely enthralling battle.  Edwards held the position overnight but over the morning loop of 3 stages, Cave reeled him in, setting some really impressive stage times in the process.  After lunch it was nip and tuck, with the pair sharing 3rd position with exactly the same time at one stage in the afternoon.  As the crowds lined the stages on a sunny albeit cold St Patrick’s Day the battle raged into the afternoon loop.  In the end, Tom Cave prevailed, taking 3rd place overall and finishing as the top British Rally Championship competitor.

In the National Category, Gary Kiernan had a St Patrick’s Day to forget.  After leading the National Section since the very first stage of the rally mechanical issues ruined his day.  During the morning loop it was reported that the escort was filling with smoke and the times indicated that there was something up with the Escort.  Mikko Hirvonen smelled blood and for a few stages, the demeanor of the Finns Escort changed.  WRC Mikko had taken control of the escort.  For 3 stages, Hirvonen’s head was down and he took lumps of time from the limping Kiernan, who was obviously in difficulties.  Some rapid work in lunchtime service saw Kiernan’s escort reemerge but it was short lived, with the Escort retiring with just 2 stages to go.  A really unfortunate outcome for a driver that had led the National class from the start.

Kiernan’s demise promoted Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman to first place, a brilliant result for the visiting Finn who was full of praise for the rally, saying he “never had so much fun” as he did in West Cork.  Frank Kelly had been in third place coming into the final day but in the morning loop, the Escort slid off the road, and his rally ended with “Baby Blue” on its roof in a West Cork ditch.  Damien Toner and John McGrath took second place in the National Rally, with Conor McCarthy and Conor Sheehan taking 3rd.

West Cork 2019 Podium. Photo credit David Harrigan

The Irish Tarmac Championship now sets it sights to the opposite end of the county, to the very northeast corner for round 3, the Easter Stages.  With 2 dominant wins, Breen and Nagle hold a commanding lead in the Championship on 34 points but Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble are hot on his heels on 28 points and heading back towards home territory. Josh Moffett and Andy Hayes are in 3rd.