For fans and competitors alike, the Jule Donegal International Rally in the very Northwest corner of Ireland, has an irresistible allure. There is something about the event, the stages, the scenery and the atmosphere that seems to draw people to the hills. From the fans on the ditches to drivers like Sebastian Loeb, Colin McRae and Ari Vattanen, Donegal in June is the place to be for 3 days of fast, bumpy tarmac rallying through the backroads and byroads of the rugged landscape.
Reinforcing its claim as one of the toughest rallies in Ireland, the 2016 Donegal International Rally covered 20 stages, over three days, taking in some iconic stages that define this rally. From the fast exposed coast road that rises from the Portsalon beach to traverse Knockalla mountain, to the tight, twisty circuit around the Rossguill Penninsula called Atlantic Drive, to the rural backroads leading to, and through, Glen Village, Donegal has a challenge for everyone.
The stages were not the only challenge facing the drivers, everyone is here to win and Donegal has a habit of attracting the top drivers in Ireland and further afield. Among the 190 plus competitors entered for the 2016 Jule Donegal International Rally was returning champion Garry Jennings, 2015 Irish Tarmac and Irish National Rally Champion Donagh Kelly, 5 times Scottish Champion and former British rally champion David Bogie, last years modified winner Manus Kelly, rallying royalty Jimmy McRae and on the 25th anniversary of his inaugural win, crowd favourite James Cullen.
Sometimes facts can say a lot and if the numbers at the start of the rally were anything to go by, there was no shortage of drivers who could win. Taking part were no fewer than 10 World Rally Cars, 14 R5 and S2000 spec cars, 5 former event winners and 4 former Irish Tarmac Champions.
The crowd favourite was local man Manus Kelly, who won the Modified section of the rally last year in his Ford Escort and was attempting to claim overall honours in an S12 Subaru in 2016. Manus had limited opportunity to test and had done only one rally in the car, the Carlow stages, which he won. Alastair Fisher entered the event as leader of the hotly contested Irish Tarmac Championship with a plethora of talented drivers aboard R5 and S2000 cars snapping at his heels, including the Moffett brothers, Sam and Josh, Keith Cronin, Jonny Greer, Stephen Wright and Joseph McGonigle.
Friday afternoon consisted of 6 stages and the tarmac was dry as the crews tackled the stages. 2016 winner Garry Jennings was the first car on the road with the added pressure of carrying the Number 1 on the door. Garry has had a limited season so far in the S14a Subaru, but came into the event on the back of a win and was a favourite. It wasn’t destined to be for Garry in 2016 however, as his event was over before the rally had even really begun, retiring after Stage 1 with a blown engine. Another former winner Declan Boyle, took full advantage of Jennings misfortune and the dry tarmac to lead the crews into service after the first loop of 3 stages, closely followed by Donagh Kelly with the impressive Manus Kelly in third. Over the course of the Friday afternoon loop, the top 3 traded times but finished the first day in the same order, with Boyle leading Kelly by 7 seconds
In the Irish Tarmac Championship battle, Keith Cronin lead the way until a puncture on stage 4 dropped him to fourth. Championship leader Fisher inherited the lead and finished the day as the top ITC contender, followed into Parc Ferme by the 2 Moffett brothers who were right on his heels in the Combilift Fiestas.
In the modified section, Adrian Hetherington started the day brightly, leading the way until he crashed out on stage 3. Brian Brogan took command of the lead and held it until the end of day 1, despite being pushed hard by Damien Tourish in the Escort and local man Declan Gallagher in his newly rebuilt Starlet.
Day 2 started off sunny and warm as the crews took on the infamous Knockalla stage. Boyle was out of bed quickest in the morning and he charged over the 19.07km stage in 10 minutes dead to extend his lead. Donagh Kelly fought back on Stage 8 taking the fastest time, but there was drama behind as Manus Kelly found a hole in a hedge on a bumpy fast corner and landed his Subaru in a field. Manus got going again after spectators helped him to get out a gate, but he lost 1 minute 40 seconds in the field dropping him to eighth overall. Seamus Leonard moved up to third in his Subaru.
After lunch, as Boyle attacked Stage 8 and set a blistering time, Donagh Kelly encountered more of the bad luck that has blighted him on his home event, grinding to a halt on Stage 11 leaving Boyle with a commanding lead of over 2 minutes. Then, on the second last stage of the day Stage 14, the Donegal hills provided even more drama as Boyle parked his Fiesta at the side of the stage with gear selection issues.
Saturday in Donegal is typically a day of change and 2016 was proving to be no different. As the leaderboards changed throughout the day so did the weather, with the rain starting to fall on the last 2 stages of the day making conditions treacherous. Through all the drama and with the rain starting, Seamus Leonard splashed and drifted his slick shod Subaru through the final stage to lead the crews back into Letterkenny at the end of day 2.
Keith Cronin recovered well from his opening day puncture and ended day 2 in second place overall and first of the ITC contenders with Sam Moffett just behind in third. Manus Kelly, who had no significant damage to the Impreza after his accident in the morning was setting some blistering times and had charged up the leaderboard from eighth to fourth.
Even after the cars were parked in Parc Ferme, the drama wasn’t over for Day 2. Sam Moffett had been held up at incidents during the day and when the organisers looked at the times, Sam was awarded some time back, moving him into the lead of the ITC battle. Cronan was relegated to second, his Citroen DS3 R5 the meat in the middle of a Moffet sandwich, with Josh finishing the day third in the ITC.
It was a similar day of drama in the National Category and it started after only 3 corners. Overnight leader Brogan stopped on the hillclimb section of Knockalla and lost time with gear selection problems, dropping him out of contention. Declan Gallagher, who was in third place overnight, also had mechanical issues in the morning and dropped well down the leaderboard. The dawn of a new day and the challenge of Knockalla spurred 2 of the regular modified contenders into life, Frank Kelly and David Bogie started to set startling times pushing each other up the leaderboard to end the day in first and second in the modifieds with Damien Gallagher third. The pair were pushing each other so hard, that Frank ended the day fourth overall, putting the modified Escort among the R5 runners.
On Sunday the Donegal weather struck and struck hard. Torrential rain greeted the crews as they tackled the last 6 stages, but the rain didn’t dampen the competition. Seamus Leonard, determined to reinforce his lead, was quick out of the blocks but nearly ended his rally on the fourth corner of the day when he landed in a ditch, damaging the steering on the Subaru. Behind Leonard, most crews took it steady, bedding themselves in for a wet final showdown.
Manus Kelly on the other hand took to the conditions like a duck to, ahm, water…. Setting a time 9 seconds quicker than anyone else over the opening Glen stage as his charge up the leaderboard continued. Then came the Atlantic Drive and Fanad Head stages, which by the end of the first loop, were littered with cars stuck in ditches as the competitors scrambled for traction. Rally Leader Leonard was one of the casualties on Fanad Head, promoting Keith Cronin into the lead of the rally.
In the Modified category, the rear wheel drive Escorts searched for any grip they could find on the wet, shiney tar. Frank Kelly broke the diff in the rear of his Escort on the first stage of the day, handing the lead to David Bogie. Bogie danced the escort through the puddles and managed to maintain his lead through to the finish in Letterkenny. The victory meant a lot to Scotchman Bogie, an ardent supporter of the modified class in the Donegal International rally throughout the years who attached special sentiment to the victory, claiming victory exactly 10 years after fellow Scotchman Colin McRae lifted the same trophy.
At the head of the field, as the day continued and conditions worsened, one man stood out. Manus Kelly splashed his S12 WRC Subaru through the sodden byroads, setting fastest time after fastest time to enter the final stage 9.0 seconds adrift of the Citroen DS3 R5 of Cronin. Fanad Head has historically been a favourite stage of his and, as Manus charged into the stage, the crowds gathered at the end. Manus set a staggering time over the stage and despite a valiant attempt by Keith Cronin, took victory in the Donegal International Rally by the slenderest of margins, 0.5 sec. It was a remarkable drive by the local man, adding the overall rally title to the modified title he won last year, a victory made all the more remarkable considering the time lost stuck in a field on Saturday morning.
Cronin will take consolation in the form of maximum Irish Tarmac Championship points moving him into second in the championship. Sam Moffett finished third overall and second of the ITC contenders, moving him into joint lead of the standings with Alastair Fisher. Josh Moffett took fourth overall and third in the ITC battle.
Pictures courtesy of David Harrigan Photography. For more event coverage, please check out the gallery below.
Joule Donegal International Rally 2015
- Manus Kelly/Donall Barrett – Subaru Impreza WRC
- Keith Cronin/Mikie Galvin– Citroen DS3 R5
- Sam Moffett/Karl Atkinson– Ford Fiesta R5
- David Bogie/Enda Sherry – Ford Escort Mk2
- Frank Kelly/Michael Coady – Ford Escort Mk2
- Damien Gallagher/Mac Walsh – Ford Escort Mk2