When Mother Nature carved out the lakes, mountains and the wild Atlantic coastline of Donegal, its as if she had rallying in mind. The breathtaking scenery of the Fanad and Rossguill peninsulas offers some of the most picturesque, yet sternest tests in Ireland. The Joule Donegal International Rally has an irresistible allure and seems to captivate drivers like no other. It was no surprise that the entry list was oversubscribed. The bumper 160 plus starters included a returning Garry Jennings, a perennial visitor in David Bogie and a motorsport legend more used to two wheels, Michael Dunlop, still bruised and battered after his recent Isle of Man TT experience.
Centered as always around the bustling town of Letterkenny, the rally covered 20 stages over three days, sweeping through classic locations like Knockalla and Atlantic Drive as well as blasting through the tiny village of Glen.
The man in form was Donagh Kelly. He had been utterly untouchable all year in his Ford Focus WRC and was leading the Clonakilty Blackpudding Irish Tarmac Championship by a handsome margin. It would take something special to give Kelly a challenge in Donegal; however, that something special arrived in the shape of a brand new Fiesta WRC for Declan and Brian Boyle.
Built to the same specification as the cars unveiled at the world championship round in Portugal last month, this particular machine only arrived in Ireland on the Monday prior to the event. Boyle had limited opportunity to test, so he started the rally in a rather unfamiliar side of the car.
Garry Jennings has had a limited and rather luckless season so far. Despite the lack of seat time, he burst out of the blocks quickest and set the pace on the sun-drenched opening stages. Donagh Kelly responded and went fastest on the next test. Over the course of the Friday afternoon loop, the pair traded times as well as the overall lead. Boyle wasn’t far behind in third place, but the super-quick stages seemed to suit the older WRC machines. By the close of the first day, there was just over three seconds separating Kelly and Jennings, with the Fermanagh man holding the upper hand.
In the modified section, championship leader and event favourite, Declan Gallagher, slipped out of the lead and out of the rally, when his Starlet had an off-road excursion. This was a rare mistake by the incredibly consistent Gallagher, which allowed the hard charging Escort of Gary McPhillips to assume the lead. Manus Kelly and Brian Brogan made up the remainder of the top three.
There was no chance of Garry Jennings being caught snoozing on Saturday morning. He started day 2 with a scintillating time that was almost 10 seconds quicker than his nearest rival. His tactics were clear; blow the opposition away with an all out assault on the bumpy byroads. Jennings moved into a class of his own as his rivals faltered. Kelly struck a ditch with a glancing blow, losing precious time, whilst Boyle struggled to launch his car off the start line. In the space of three stages, Jennings added half a minute to his lead.
The major drama proved to be elsewhere, though. A high speed accident at the beginning of the Garrygort stage mangled the car of McPhilips, bringing the curtain down on his hopes of victory. Manus Kelly was the new leader, but Brian Brogan was shadowing his every move and they matched each other, time for time. Further down the order, Michael Dunlop was getting accustomed to his new ride and posting some seriously competitive results, until he also succumbed to a Donegal ditch, halting his promising drive.
The warm dry weather seemed like a distant memory on Sunday morning as rain showers moved in. Immediately, tyre choice could make or break the event for drivers. The roads dried fast when the rain stopped falling, but when the heavens opened, the infamous shiny tar glistened like an ice rink. Jennings reveled in the tricky conditions and cemented his hold on the lead. After the morning loop of stages, he was well over a minute ahead. Boyle and Kelly didn’t back off though and collected a couple of stage wins in the process.
More masterful driving over the final three stages saw Jennings win the rally in style. His pace had been unrelenting. It was also a dream come true for his co-driver, Rory Kennedy. The Letterkenny man’s last win was exactly 20 years ago, alongside the late, great Bertie Fisher. Second placed Boyle had shown tremendous progress throughout the rally, with a highly commendable run, whilst adapting to a entirely new style of driving. Donagh Kelly’s third place gives him a stranglehold over the Irish Tarmac Championship and it seems highly likely that he will wrap the title up at the next round.
In the modified section, Manus Kelly’s challengers fell foul of all kinds of mechanical maladies. Second placed Brian Brogan’s car refused to start forcing his retirement. Adrian Hetherington inherited that spot, but he suffered some cruel luck when his car also expired on the very last stage. In the end, Manus Kelly finished first, nearly 44 seconds ahead of the ever popular Frank Kelly. Donegal duo Paul and Karl Reid grabbed the final podium position by holding off Scottish and British Champion, Bogie.
Joe McGonigle had a strong run on home turf to bag top spot in the R5 category, a result which also takes him to third in the Championship standings. Similarly, Richard Tannahill capitalised from Callum Devine’s demise to take the honours in R2 and one step closer to the title. In the Junior Category, another compelling drive by Killarney’s Rob Duggan saw him take yet another rally win, racking up a lead of over a minute on only six stages.
Pictures courtesy of David Harrigan Photography. For more event coverage, please check out the gallery below.
Joule Donegal International Rally 2015
1. Garry Jennings / Rory Kennedy – Subaru Impreza WRC
2. Declan Boyle / Brian Boyle – Ford Fiesta WRC
3. Donagh Kelly / Tony McDaid – Ford Focus WRC
1. Manus Kelly / Donall Barrett – Ford Escort Mk2
2. Frank Kelly / Liam Brennan – Ford Escort Mk2
3. Paul Reid / Karl Reid – Ford Escort Mk2