BY MARTIN WALSH
THE skills of a rally co-driver are multifaceted, often underestimated and sometimes not fully understood. In many respects, they are the unsung heroes of rallying.
Like all other sports, the creation of academies is now forming a valuable training ground and last year, seven Irish co-drivers (from a panel of 24) became part of Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy courtesy of funding from former Irish Tarmac Rally champion John Coyne through the Team Ireland Foundation.
Four of the successful co-drivers are from Cork – Eamonn Creedon (28) from Inchigeelagh, Dylan Doolan (21) from Barryroe, Derek O’Brien (33) from Model Farm Road, who is secretary of the Skibbereen and District Car Club, and Grace O’Brien (32) from Dromtarriffe, the daughter of James O’Brien, the only co-driver/navigator to have won all four Irish rally titles. The four Cork academy members took time out with Martin Walsh to discuss aspects of co-driving.
Martin Walsh: What interested you in motorsport in the first instance and when did you begin?
Eamonn Creedon: I am from a family with no background in motorsport. Growing up in Inchigeelagh I always spectated at the Rally of the Lakes and the Cork ‘20’ International Rally. I marvelled at the spectacle of what the drivers did, particularly on my favourite stage, Lough Allua. My first competitive event was the Jim Walsh Cork Forestry in June 2010 co-driving for a friend of mine, Tomás Creedon (no relation), in a Ford Ka.
Dylan Doolan: It would have started just down the road from home at the famous Ballinglanna 6L (6L is a co-driving term for type of bend) at the sea wall. I was brought up on the annual pilgrimage down the road each St Patrick’s weekend. As time progressed and thanks to my father, my horizons were broadened to events such as the Rally of the Lakes, the Cork ‘20’ and the Fastnet. My competing career began in 2017 on the Banna Rally with Daniel Chung, both of us competing for the first time.
Derek O’Brien: From a young age I always had an interest in cars and motorsport, building go karts at 12 years of age and crashing into kerbs was a normal daily activity. I started co-driving in 2008 for Ray O’Sullivan from Durrus in his Vauxhall Nova.
Grace O’Brien: Motorsport has been both a hobby and business for my family for years. My dad James and aunt Ann Marie both began competing together and Ann Marie’s husband John Moynihan runs a rally preparation business. My cousin Sean Moynihan also drives a beautiful Ford Escort, so there’s no escaping it. My first event was the 1000 Shakes Night Navigation Trial co-driving for my dad in the family Skoda Superb.
Martin: Who is the co-driver you most admire and aspire to follow?
Eamonn: We have so many admirable co-drivers in this country but Paul Nagle is the one I most admire. He has the skill that it takes to make a career out of rallying. He has sat with some of today’s top drivers in this country. Watching Paul progress from the Irish rally stages to the World Rally Championship really spurred me on. Watching him win his home event in last year’s Rally of the Lakes is an ambition that I would like to replicate on my home rally sometime in the future.
Dylan: In the short term I would like to progress my career in Ireland and experience the highest level of competition in this country – but the main goal is to take on the world championship and follow in the footsteps of Paul Nagle.
Derek: Rory Kennedy, he has been a massive influence and mentor over the last eight months. His knowledge and expertise is unquestionable.
Grace: Ellen Morgan (RIP) and Ronan Morgan. I used to watch videos of Ellen competing with Louise Aitken-Walker in the 1980s and watched her competing at the top with James Cullen. As a professional co-driver Ronan Morgan also stands out, he was a key member in bringing Rally Ireland to the country in 2007, he has partnered with Russell Brookes and Billy Coleman as well as winning the Middle East Rally Championship ten times with driver Mohammed Ben Sulayem.
Martin: What have you learned from being part of the MI Academy that you didn’t know before?
Eamonn: The awareness of the attention to detail that is needed at the upper level of the sport. The academy had an on-site meeting in January in which Derek Brannigan (who was one of Kris Meeke’s gravel crew) gave us a presentation, he gave us an insight into how the gravel notes are made at WRC level.
Dylan: The amount of preparation that can be done prior to an event. Getting yourself right both physically and mentally makes you much sharper when you blast off the start line of the first stage. There’s many little tips and tricks I have picked up from our mentors and also the more experienced people around me.
Derek: The level of detail in pace notes and the importance of a comprehensive recce and having a strong gravel crew. Over the last eight months I have applied a lot of the learnings from the academy with Clonakilty’s Cal McCarthy and we have created a great team around us. A strong gravel crew is a great advantage and it’s working well for us.
Grace: Co-driving, like any sport, requires constant training. To stay sharp, you need to keep up to date with all the rules and regulations, review your preparation for each event and work on your mental and physical training. By having a dedicated group of mentors, they are helping us to work smarter, giving us a more rounded approach to the sport and providing some fantastic opportunities to push us out of our comfort zone.
Martin: Are you interested in other sports and if so, what sport(s)?
Eamonn: I am a fairly active person in general. I play football and hurling with Uibh Laoire (Inchigeelagh). I also enjoy running and cycling. I was busy training for a half marathon before the lockdown came into place. I recently started competing in navigation events as they provide a fantastic school of learning for co-drivers.
Dylan: I’ve a mild interest in GAA and soccer but rallying far outweighs both of them.
Derek: I enjoy all aspects of motorsport and have recently purchased go-karts for myself and my fiancée, so that will keep us busy on the weekends I'm not rallying.
Grace: Spectating mainly at GAA and rugby games and skiing in the winter.