MARTIN WALSH previews the weekend’s action with excitement and thrills guaranteed
DONEGAL’S Donagh Kelly already has a special place in the hearts of West Cork Rally fans. He is unbeaten in the event since 2014. It’s a remarkable and unprecedented record and achievement.
A former Irish Tarmac and National rally champion, Donagh is the top seeded driver in the Clonakilty Park Hotel West Cork Rally that blasts in action down the Ring road a few minutes before 11am on Saturday morning.
There are so many talking points about this year’s rally. Sure, it’s the first to bear the title of the rebranded Clonakilty Park Hotel title. It’s the first time the rally will be a counting round of the British Rally Championship. It’s the first rally under the umbrella of Motorsport Ireland to have such status. It’s the first Irish rally not to feature a World Rally Car. And it’s also Kelly’s first rally in his new Skoda Fabia R5.
That’s certainly a lot of firsts. For it also to be a sixth for Kelly is a huge ask and task, especially as it’s his debut event in the Czech car.
There fact that the top 23 entries is a lock out of R5 cars, it is probably the most level playing field in many years, especially given the TROA’s desire to ensure competitors comply with fuel regulations.
Former Citroen WRC driver Waterford’s Craig Breen, who won the Galway International Rally at the beginning of February, is again the barometer of the rally. Just like Galway, he is expected to win in Clonakilty. He will have one of the latest specification R5’s for Clonakilty as the car he drove to victory has been purchased by American-based Cork-born John Campion on the basis that his wife hails from Galway.
The margin of his Breen’s Galway win was far less than many predicted and that suggests that the West Cork could be a cracking event. It’s reasonable to assume that any of the top ten could win the rally and that is something not often said about this or indeed any other event. Forget the fact that Breen has no experience of the West Cork terrain. He’s a professional rally driver and his reconnaissance will, at least, put him on par with his rivals. It’s his to lose.
For the last two seasons Monaghan’s Josh Moffett, who arrives in Clonakilty as the reigning Irish Tarmac Rally champion, has finished second in Clonakilty and the top R5 car, each time finishing a minute and some 45 seconds behind the Ford Focus WRC of Donagh Kelly. Moffett knows there will be no room for error as will Fermanagh’s Alistair Fisher (Ford Fiesta R5) who impressed in Clonakilty in 2016 when he battled with Citroen DS3 R5 of Keith Cronin before crashing heavily on the stage at Dunworley.
Fisher, despite not having competed in some time was impressive in Galway. Maybe, just maybe, he could prevail in Clonakilty.
Reigning British Rally champion Matt Edwards knows something about West Cork but it’s only as a result of his discussions with Keith Cronin during the 2017 BRC won by Cronin in a drama-filled final round. Of course, the Welshman may opt to concentrate on gaining as many BRC points as possible rather than getting into the heat of the battle but often such a course is almost impossible to resist.
Monaghan’s Sam Moffett, who is without his regular co-driver Bandon’s Karl Atkinson for family reasons, knows the terrain pretty well and keen to make up for his non-finish in Galway. He will be right in the mix from the start.
The rally marks a return for Robert Barrable, who won the rally in 2011 in a Skoda Fabia S2000. Incidentally, that 1.3 second victory over Daragh O’Riordan remains the smallest winning margin of the event. The Dubliner will campaign a hired Skoda Fabia R5 and even though he lacks seat time, he will be expected to mix it with the rest.
The similar cars of Derry’s Desi Henry and Scotland’s David Bogie are next off the start line. Henry needs to stay clear of trouble to keep pace while Bogie warmed up for West Cork with an outing in Abbeyleix where he finished ahead of Sam Moffett.
The top ten is completed by Donegal’s Declan Boyle, who made his Ford Fiesta R5 debut in Galway, his car is prepared by former Timoleague resident Adam Platt.
The quality continues well outside the top ten with Derry’s Marty McCormack (Skoda Fabia R5), Welsh ace Tom Cave (Hyundai i20 R5) and Derry’s Callum Devine (Ford Fiesta R5) giving a perfect example of the new fleet in Irish rallying. Quite often the performance of Belfast’s Jonny Greer (Ford Fiesta R5) is somewhat unpredictable and he is somewhat of an unknown quantity this time around.
The top local and, indeed, Cork entry is that of Ballylickey’s Daniel Cronin (Ford Fiesta R5). He showed a good pace in the Galway International until he was slowed by a puncture.
‘I did my recce at the weekend and they are nice, fast stages and I like those type of stages. The top guys will be on a big pace and they will be on it from the word go. The quality is really good,’ Daniel says.
Cronin (28) continues with support from his usual sponsors - Tria, Cronin’s Hardware, Cremin Coaches and Kumho. He is hoping to replicate his early form in Galway.
‘That was good but then I kind of fell off a bit, probably because I was a bit untidy. I suppose it would be nice to finish in the top five, you couldn’t look beyond that really,’ Daniel adds.
Cill na Martra’s JJ Cremin will co-drive. Daniel’s regular co-driver Killarney’s Shane Buckley couldn’t commit for the season due to work pressures but will co-drive this weekend in Clonakilty for Welshman Phil Collins (Ford Escort).
The top 20 also features Cathan McCourt (Ford Fiesta R5), Stephen Wright (Ford Fiesta R5), Manus Kelly (Hyundai i20 R5) and Alex Laffey (Ford Fiesta R5). Welsh driver Meirion Evans, the son of former winner Melvyn, competes in a Hyundai i20 R5.
It’s a tribute to the impressive entry list that it’s taken this far to mention the presence of former World Rally star, Mikko Hirvonen in a Ford Escort. The Finnish ace is a huge attraction and no doubt will also entertain the spectators.
It will be a great occasion for the top competitors in the modified section where Gary Kiernan, Fastnet Rally winner Damien Tourish, Frank Kelly, Vivian Hamill, Brian Brogan and Damian Toner, all in Escorts. John Dalton (Darrian T90 GTR) and Bandon’s Vincent McSweeney (Mitsubishi Evo VII) will have a unique barometer judge their performances.
Other locals include Dunmanway’s David Guest (Skoda Fabia S2000), Cal McCarthy (Citroen DS3 R5), the aforementioned Vincent McSweeney (Mitsubishi EvoVII), Kilcrohane’s Jer O’Donovan (Skoda Fabia S2000) and Dunmanway’s Conor McCarthy (Mitsubishi EvoIX).
Cal McCarthy in the Clonakilty Park Hotel liveried car had a brief debut with the ex-Aaron MacHale car in Abbeyleix and has since ironed out more glitches. In reality, it’s unfair to expect too much on this occasion. It just may be one to savour.
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