BY MARTIN WALSH
SINCE its inception in 1978, the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship has been won by 26 different drivers with Dubliner Austin MacHale and Derry’s Eugene Donnelly topping the leaderboard, each winning five apiece.
Eighteen drivers have won the title on single occasions including Millstreet legend Billy Coleman (1985) and Ballylickey’s Keith Cronin (2015). In terms of events, the late Bertie Fisher won 20 rallies including a five-in-a-row on the Rally of the Lakes (1990-1994). MacHale and Donnelly are next with 18 and 17 respectively.
Dubliner John Coyne, who won the title in 1982, remains the only champion never to have won a counting round of the series while Fermanagh’s Alastair Fisher, who won last year’s Galway International Rally (the last event before the pandemic), is the 65th different winner of a round of the series.
Over 40 years later, change continues within the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC). The original concept, according to Alan Tyndall of RPM, who directed television coverage of the series via RPM Motorsport, came from an individual named Jack Kemsley at the Royal Automobile Club, whose vision was a ‘Championship of the Isles’.
He wanted to fuse the RAC, Circuit of Ireland, Scottish and Manx rallies together in a super series. But the RAC were not that impressed due to the fact that they would not be in control of all of the events and so the idea didn’t bear fruition.
Ironically, the Tarmac Championship went on to feature the Circuit of Ireland, the Manx International and Ulster rallies that also dovetailed at one time or another as rounds of the British Rally Championship (BRC).
Initially, the series consisted of six events. The Rally of the Lakes didn’t join the championship until 1983. The most recent induction was that of the West Cork Rally, who gained full championship status in 2015. In 2019, only the West Cork and Ulster rallies overlapped as rounds of the ITRC and BRC.
In terms of days and stages, the Circuit of Ireland was one of the longest and toughest. Hard to credit that it lasted five days. Now, the Donegal International Rally (three days) is the longest event. The Galway International was also once a three-day event, and the Friday afternoon/evening/night, the stages out around Connemara part of its folklore. Sadly, in recent years the event has gone into decline, but as the Circuit of Ireland Rally has proved, things can be revived.
Sponsorship of the series was always key although for the last few seasons the series is without an overall title sponsor. The maiden series was sponsored by STP (PR Reilly) and since then Tudor Photographic, Henley Hanley, Hewlett Packard, Shellsport, Dunlop, Toshiba Equium, Toshiba, Pirelli, Global Group, Citroen and Clonakilty Blackpudding have underpinned the championship. The support of Clonakilty Blackpudding coincided with the inclusion of the West Cork Rally in the series.
Sponsors are always keen to get the maximum from their involvement and for much of the time Tyndall, who was involved in several aspects of the series, profiled the very best of the championship through its promotion via RPM Motorsport. Long before the advent of social media, RPM Motorsport was the steady television diet of sports fans. RPM Motorsport fused rallying with scenic images that led to the involvement of tourism bodies that viewed rallying as the perfect vehicle to promote its locations.
On the Limit Sports took over the mantle of television coverage in 2015 and brought the ITRC to an even bigger audience through its coverage on satellite television that is virtually worldwide. However, with technology an ever-changing resource, how fans viewed events dictated new ways. The more instant demands also brought a fresh approach and as club and championship budgets dwindled, coverage through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has become the new norm. For the likes of Plum Tyndall and Mick Bracken (On The Limit Sports) the task of having the product finished and ready for airing was immense and they deserve great credit.
Much has changed since John Taylor took the first Tarmac title in 1978. Prize-money is no longer a feature of events within the ITRC and indeed the series itself. The Manx International Rally and the Scottish-based Jim Clark Rally are no longer part of the series. Many felt those two events were outside of their budget. In reality, they were not that well supported because of the financial implications.
Rivalries were and remain part and parcel of the ITRC. Who could forget the Coleman/MacHale/Fisher/McKinstry battles? Then a few decades later, Donnelly/Andrew Nesbitt/Gareth MacHale/Garry Jennings and there were many others too.
With R5s emerging as the popular category, series organisers came under great pressure and in 2015 World Rally Cars were prevented from winning the series but not its individual rounds. The move sparked debate and some thought it would be the death knell for the series. But the storm died down and now R5s well outnumber WRCs at events.
Competition was key, Keith Cronin became the first R5 champion and he had some great battles with Alastair Fisher and the Moffett brothers Sam and Josh, to mention but a few. They agreed that the then three-time British Rally champion had raised the bar.
In 2019 when World Rally star Craig Breen won the series, he acknowledged the pace of his rivals that included the aforementioned Moffett brothers, Callum Devine, Desi Henry, Robery Barrable and Jonny Greer. Millstreet’s Billy Coleman (1985) and Ballylickey’s Keith Cronin (2016) are the only Cork drivers to have won the ITRC while Dromtarriffe’s James O’Brien was the first Cork co-driver to win the title, when he partnered Armagh’s Andrew Nesbitt to championship wins in 2000 and 2002. Bandon’s Karl Atkinson won the series in 2017, calling the pacenotes for Monaghan’s Sam Moffett. The return of the ITRC should provide plenty more thrills and spills.