There is something special about big sporting events in June – The world Cup, Wimbledon, the Isle of Man TT and Le Mans 24 hours .. Its fitting that June also plays host to what is arguably Irelands biggest motorsport event, The Donegal International Rally, which makes up round 4 of the 6 round Clonakilty Black Pudding Irish Tarmac Championship and attracts the best rally drivers from near and far, who come to the unspoilt and scenic hills, to pitch their talents some of the most famous, picturesque and challenging stages in Irish rallying.
Last weekend, rally fans from all over Ireland and further afield, prepared themselves for the infamous changeable weather conditions in the northwest and readied themselves for the unexpected – umbrellas, waterproofs, sun-cream and shorts could all be required on the same day – before descending on the rally mecca of Donegal for the only 3 day rally left in Ireland.
As the crowds gathered outside An Grianan Theatre on Friday morning for the ceremonial start, the weather was glorious and the air was buzzing with anticipation and excitement. For the crews, the planning, recceing and waiting was over and what now lay ahead of them, over the next 3 days, was a mighty battle that would be fought out on the notoriously fast and bumpy Donegal roads.
First over the start ramp was last years winners Sam Moffett & James OReilly from Monaghan in the impressive Combilift Fiesta WRC, hoping to repeat last years victory and mount a late charge towards the Irish Tarmac title. They were followed over the ramp by local Donegal favourites Declan & Brian Boylein their beautifully prepared Redsky S12 Subaru Impreza, who were hoping to further extend their championship lead. In an entry list littered with talent, the third crew over the ramp were the 2012 winners and reigning Tarmac champions, Gary Jennings and Rory Kennedy, with Donagh Kelly and Kevin Flanagan fourth over the ramp in their Airtricity backed Ford Focus WRC.
The excitement among the crowd noticeably intensified as everyone strained for a view of fifth car over the start ramp, a man known for his speed between the ditches .. Albeit on 2 wheels rather than 4 Michael Dunlop fresh from 4 victories in the Isle of Man TT races, who would be tackling the Donegal Rally in a modified Mark 2 Escort.
Dunlop would be competing in the ultra-competitive National rally section, in a field including the Pirelli Star Driver award winner Daniel McKenna, who was returning to modified action in the Scanbitz escort, Gary McPhillips and Manus Kelly also in escorts and another local favourite and National Rally Championship leader, Declan the milkman Gallagher in his rapid RWD Starlet.
The stages on day 1 were centred around the rallys base, Letterkenny, and consisted of two loops through the technical and bumpy Brenagh, Cark Mountain and Letterleague tests. Despite the dry weather almost everywhere, the first drivers through Breenagh reported heavy rain at the start of the stage. Despite the rain, Declan Boyle started the rally in determined fashion and was fastest through the stage but only by 0.1 of a second from last years winner Sam Moffett, while Daniel Mckenna laid down a marker to set the fastest time in the National Rally, just beating Declan Gallagher in the entertaining Starlet.
At the first service of the day however, Sam Moffett snatched the rally lead having overtaken Boyle on the tight, twisty and very bumpy Cark Mountain stage which favoured the more modern but less powerful Fiesta. In the National section, despite a spin on Letterleague, Daniel McKenna retained the lead over Gary McPhillips who had moved ahead of Declan Gallagher.
After Lunch, the same loop of stages were repeated and again Boyle was fastest through Brenagh and Letterleague to finish the opening day as the rally leader. Moffett reported a puncture within a kilometre of the finish of Brenagh, causing him to loose time but he struck back with fastest time on Cark Mountain to limit the overnight time advantage to 9 seconds. In lunchtime service, Darren Gass managed to cure a gear change problem and set some scintillating times in the afternoon loop to move ahead of Gary Jennings and into third, relegating the Fermanagh man to fourth after day 1.
In the National rally, local favourite Gallaghers hopes on his home rally expired with the engine of the Starlet on the second run through Brenagh. Buoyed by Gallaghers demise, Gary McPhillips set 2 fastest times in the afternoon to close the gap to Mckenna to just 13 seconds by the end of the first day.
While the Friday stages on the Donegal rally move around the county on an annual basis, most will agree that the rally proper starts on Saturday morning. The crews left Letterkenny early, stopping in Milford service before continuing in the direction of the Garrygort stage, which historically acts as a morning wake-up before the competitors line up along the beach to tackle the fearsome Knockalla stage, where bravery along the coast and technical ability on the inland section are a stern test of both man and machine.
The clear Donegal sky and warm temperatures meant tyre choice was as uncomplicated as it gets in Donegal and as is typical on Saturday in Donegal, tactics also were simplified . Today is the day to go for it. This year proved no exception to history and with only nine seconds between the top two in the international field and thirteen seconds between the top two in the National rally, all was to play for.
Boyle was running first on the road today but Sam Moffett was quickest out of the blocks, setting a blistering time in the Fiesta over the opening Garrygort stage to retake the lead of the rally. All things pointed towards a classic Saturday in Donegal as the rally lead changed hands again after the first pass over Knockalla as Boyle struck back, using the power of the Impreza to set a blistering time over the mountain road on the shores of Lough Swilly. Darren Gass stalled twice in the first stage in the morning but was right on pace with Boyle over Knockalla to retain third from Jennings by the time crews reached morning service. The morning loop was repeated once more before lunchtime and the top two traded fastest times but the lead remained with Boyle at lunchtime ahead of Moffett, Gass and Jennings.
The National rally competitors set off at a similar pace to how they finished Friday and the modified escorts were a joy to watch being manhandeled up the famous hairpins and over the famous coast road of Knockalla, with the veracious bark of the large capacity Milligton engines reverberating off the mountains creating a musical accompaniment to the sights on offer. Gary McPhillips was feeling unwell in the morning and lost time, but had recovered enough to take bragging rights from McKenna on the second run over Knockalla, however the top 4 positions in the National section remained static at lunchtime.
After lunch the crews faced 2 passes over the challenging and fast Carnhill and Gartan Lake tests, where Boyle, despite clipping a chicane and causing cosmetic damage to the front of the Subaru, set 2 fastest times through Carnhill to extend his lead to 37 seconds from Moffett at the overnight halt . But the drama did not end there. Boyle stopped on the way back to Parc Ferme in Letterkenny, worried that the Subaru was developing a misfire.
It was an afternoon of drama further down the field also, only 2 cars got through the second run over Carnhill as the third driver on the road, Darren Gass, spun his Subaru in the air over a jump blocking the stage and a very high speed accident involving Manus Kelly in the low flying escort caused the first run over Gartan Lake to be halted as medical attendance for the driver, co-driver and a spectator was required. The second run through the stage was also cancelled as an elderly spectator required medical treatment in an unrelated incident. Thankfully medical personnel were in attendance quickly and all involved in both incidents are ok. The upheaval in the National field and lack of competitive miles meant that the top 2 remained as was, Mckenna still leading from McPhillips, with Connor Harvey moving up to third and Frank Kelly inheriting fourth following Manus Kellys demise.
On Sunday, a later start to proceedings allowed spectators time to clear their bleary eyes before making the trip north from Letterkenny, towards the wild and unspoilt Atlantic coastline to watch the crews battle it out on some of the most scenic rally stages in the country, which were basking in glorious Donegal sunshine. From the crews perspective, a different challenge awaited, they would have no time to marvel at the beauty of the rugged coastline with 2 loops over the High Glen, Atlantic Drive and Fanad Head stages proving stern tests. Overnight leader Boyle had some surgery done to the car during service to cure the misfire that was developing on Saturday evening but was in for a greater scare when the car refused to start at the start of High Glen. Showing typical Irish rallying camaraderie, Gary Jennings helped to get the car started but the upheaval may have upset Boyle as Moffett set the fastest times over the first 2 tests, to close the gap to the rally leader slightly. Boyle however regained his composure and responded on the very fast Fanad test, where the limiter was put to good use.
At the sharp end of the National rally, Sunday started in even more dramatic fashion with National Rally leader McKenna retiring on the first test, High Glen, with gearbox issues. McPhillips inherited the lead but his morning wasnt without drama either, as the clutch on the escort was slipping and all hands were called to the pump to change it in a short lunchtime service. The clutch was changed and McPhillips had built up a sufficient time advantage over Conner Harvey in second place to be able to nurse the car home to cross the finish ramp in Letterkenny as the winner of the National Category.
As the international crews prepared to tackle the final loop of stages, after a long hard rally the signs of pressure was palpable in the Boyle camp at lunchtime service. However, the Boyle cousins maintained their nerve and held onto the lead of the rally, to become the first all Donegal crew to win the Donegal International Rally since Vincent Bonner and Seamus McGettigan in 1983. Last years winners Sam Moffett and James OReilly pushed them hard all the way and came home in a very respectable second place in the Combilift Fiesta, a car that is newer but down on power compared to the older WRC machinery.
There was late drama behind the front two as Gary Jennings had to deal with a small fire in the car late in the afternoon but he and his co-driver Rory Kennedy kept their place to finish third ahead of Derek McGarrity and James McKee. Josh Moffett and John Rowan rounded out the top five in the International Rally with victory in Group N.
A special mention goes out to RMS member Richard Tanahill who scored an impressive top 10 finish in the International section.
Results 2014 Donegal International Rally
1 Declan Boyle/Brian Boyle Subaru WRC
2 Sam Moffett/James O’Reilly Ford Fiesta WRC
3 Garry Jennings/Rory Kennedy Subaru WRC
4 Derek McGarrity/James McKee Subaru WRC
5 Josh Moffett/John Rowan Mitsubishi Evo 9
6 Stephen McCann/Lisa O’Dowd Mitsubishi Evo 9
7 Aaron McHale/Paul McGee Mitsubishi Evo 9
8 Callum Devine/Liam McLaughlin Ford Fiesta R2
9 Richard Tanahill/Aileen Kelly Peugeot 208
10 Brian O’Keefe/Sean Hayde Subaru Impreza
Gary McPhillips/Paul Sheridan
Ford Escort Mk2
Conor Harvey/Gerard Callaghan
Ford Escort Mk2
Frank Kelly/Liam Brennan
Ford Escort Mk2
Words: Dave Harrigan
Photos: Dave Harrigan & Gerry Harrigan