When our ancestors built the drystone walls that demarcate the fields around Galway on the west coast of Ireland, rallying probably wasn’t foremost in their thoughts, but the bumpy, twisty and narrow lanes that wind between the drystone walls could have been purposely designed rally stages. To build a drystone wall is an arduous task and as the Irish Tarmac Championship roared back into life, even getting to the finish of the Corrib Oil Galway International rally was no different.
The start ramp in the centre of Galway is the traditional opening ceremony for the Irish Tarmac Championship and it was great to see it back on the calendar after a forced hiatus. After the razzmatazz of the opening ceremony, on a bitter cold Sunday morning, 126 crews left Galway morning hoping to lay the foundations on which to build a season.
In typical Irish conditions, the crews had experienced four seasons before reaching time control on the first stage. The heavy overnight rains carried by storm Erik had subsided and the frosty air was cut with low winter sun. Blasting off the line on the opening Attymon test, all eyes were on WRC stars Craig Breen and Paul Nagle but it was Garry Jennings and Rory Kennedy who blasted their S12b Subaru Impreza WRC through the stage 2.8 seconds quicker than any else. Two of the biggest surprises first thing in the morning were; the rain had finally stopped and the pace of Alastair Fisher. Alastair hadn’t rallied for over a year but came out of the blocks on maximum attack, the Tyrone man taking massive WRC style cuts through the muddy, sodden verges to finish the first stage in second place. Josh Moffett and Craig Breen tied for third fastest time through the opener, dropping 3.8 seconds to the stage winner Jennings.
Over the next few stages, the top four traded times, with Breen eventually leading after the opening loop but only by 0.3 seconds from Jennings. The Galway rally is notoriously difficult and this year was no exception. Before the rally had even started both Joe McGonagle and Donagh Kelly had succumbed to issues and after only one stage, the rally lost another two possible front runners. 2017 Irish Tarmac Champion Sam Moffett beached his Fiesta in a Galway ditch and Philip Allen clipped a ditch and launched his Skoda Fabia R5 up and over an embankment into a field. It was clear to all, this was going to be a rally of attrition.
The pace on the next group of three stages was equally as frantic, with no quarters given or lost. Again Garry Jennings was the fastest through the opening stage of the loop, the stage seeming to suit the WRC car. As per the previous loop, on the fifth and sixth stages Craig Breen piled on the pressure to end the loop 13.8 seconds clear of the pack.
Jennings was closest to matching the WRC ace until the Impreza spun on stage six and got stuck in a ditch. Alastair Fisher inherited second place and Josh Moffett moved up into third only 0.8 seconds behind Alastair at the end of the loop.
Further behind that, Jon Armstrong was impressing massively. The 2018 WRC Esports world champion had been out of the real seat and sat in a digital one for two years and was fourth at the end of the sixth stage. Behind Jon, Desi Henry and Jonny Greer were putting in consistent times, keeping the pressure on should anything happen head of them.
In the National rally, after six stages Damien Tourish had slithered and slid his mk2 Escort over the muddy lanes. It was extremely tough conditions for the two wheel drive competitors, balancing their machines on the mud pulled out from the four wheel drive cars running ahead of them. At the end of the second loop, Tourish led by one minute from Damien Toner, with Richard Whelan in third.
Over the final loop, Donegal man Tourish didn’t put a wheel out of place to claim the rally win and maximum points in the Irish Tarmac Championship modified section.
With it all to play for in the final loop, dusk began to settle over the sodden fields of Athenry. Josh Moffett and Jon Armstrong traded times over the final loop and ended the day in third and fourth respectively, a good start to the Irish Tarmac Championship for reigning champion Moffett, taking a solid haul of points the the next round in west Cork. Along with Fisher, Jon Armstrong’s performance to finish fourth was one of the most impressive drives of the event. Jon was tidy, fast and controlled and on the back of this performance, maybe a few other drivers will be getting into sim racing.
Alastair Fisher started the final loop of 3 stages in second behind Breen, but was in an awkward position ….. maintain his position and claim maximum Irish Tarmac Championship points or take the battle to Breen and beat a WRC driver in his own backyard. In the end, it didn’t matter what Alastair done over the final 3 stages because Breen was impervious, balancing pace with precision to end stage nine with the same gap to Fisher as he had at the at the start of six.
In the end, the class and talent of the WRC crew shone through but they didn’t have it all their own way. It would be great to see the pair competing on more rounds of the 2019 Irish Tarmac Championship in an R5 car but most Irish Rally fans will be hoping they return to the top table of rallying before too long.
In retrospect, now that the spray and mud has settled, it was a fantastic return to form for the Irish Tarmac Championship. The Galway lanes were as treacherous as ever but vicious battles raged up and down the field. Next up for the Irish Tarmac Championship is the West Cork rally, where the British Rally Championship competitors come to take on the Irish and the Irish tar.
Galway International Rally 2019
2) Fisher +14.4
3) J. Moffett +48.1
4) Armstrong +1.07.6
5) Henry +1.24.6
6) Greer +1.38.3
7) Boyle +1.44.5
8) Cronin +2.13.1
9) Wright +2.45.2
10) McCann +2.46.3
2) Toner +1.05.8
3) Whelan +2.19.4
4) Flaherty +2.35.9
5) Quigley +3.26.0