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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.