THIS Sunday’s Westlodge Hotel Fastnet Rally in Bantry marks both the conclusion of this year’s Triton Showers National Rally Championship and Triton’s five-year reign as title sponsors for the series.
The entry, one of the best in recent times, is a mix of R5 and modified cars with just one World Rally Car in the top ten – an illustration of the changing dynamic of the sport.
Last year, Donegal’s Damian Tourish took his Ford Escort to victory and bridged a 30-year gap since local hero Skibbereen’s Bernard O’Brien and his co-driver Patrick Coakley took their Ford Escort to victory in the 1988 Marine Hotel Fastnet Rally in Glandore.
Although the Ballybofey driver returns to defend his title and will have the number one decals on the door of his car, he faces an almost impossible task given the quality of the entry this time around. His fellow county-man Donagh Kelly occupies the number two berth in his state-of-the-art Volkswagen Polo GTi R5. Just two weeks ago Kelly, a record five-time winner of the West Cork Rally, debuted the car to second place in the Donegal Harvest Rally. No doubt he will have acquired valuable experience that he can put to the test over the eight-stage encounter.
The local challenge is spearheaded by Ballylickey’s Daniel Cronin, who has JJ Cremin reading the pacenotes in the Tria liveried Ford Fiesta R5. Last year, Cronin enjoyed a 17-second lead over Tourish before he retired on the third stage. Just a few weeks ago he crashed out of the lead of the CBtoolhire.com Cork ‘20’ International Rally. Cronin, who won the Fastnet in 2016, would dearly like to add another title to his belt.
Welsh ace Melvyn Evans, a Fastnet winner in 2010 (the same season he became the first and still the only non-Irish driver to win the national series), will campaign a Skoda Fabia R5 and will be reunited with Patrick Walsh, with whom he won the Dunlop National Rally Championship nine years ago. Last year, Mel finished second overall on the Fastnet where he was co-driven by Enniskeane’s Sean Hayde in a Ford Fiesta WRC.
For Donegal’s Kevin Eves (Toyota Corolla) the long journey from Pettigoe is a double mission. He is one of four drivers that can finish third overall in the Triton series. The spot rests between current incumbent Monaghan’s Shane Maguire (52pts), Eves (47pts), Monaghan’s David Moffett (34pts) and Donegal’s Aaron McLaughlin (33pts). All of the four can add all the points they gleam from the Fastnet where there is a maximum of 22 points for the top registered Triton competitor along with the single bonus point from the Power Stage, realistically, it seems a straight contest between Maguire and Eves.
Meanwhile, Eves and Moffett are in contention for the rally.ie award (the highest placed two-wheel drive competitor in overall classification within the Triton series), with a 13-point lead at present, Eves has the advantage but cannot afford to slip up.
A trio of Escorts in the hands of Cavan pair Gary Kiernan and Chris Armstrong (who has Barryroe’s Dylan Doonan as his co-driver) and Meath’s Jack Newman should make for a frenetic battle in the two-wheel drive category. All three are very capable of taking a top five finish and should provide great entertainment over the stages.
Meanwhile, Bandon’s Vincent McSweeney (Mitsubishi) is seeded at number nine. Last year he finished fourth, a similar result on Sunday would be a major achievement.
The top ten is rounded off by Maynooth’s Kevin Barrett in his Triton Showers liveried Subaru WRC while Donegal’s Aaron McLaughlin (Ford Fiesta R5) and Monaghan’s Shane Maguire (Mitsubishi), the newly-crowned Motorsport Safety Team Group N winner are just outside the top ten.
All of 35 years ago Banbridge driver Kenny McKinstry won the Fastnet Rally when it was based in Skibbereen. There are some that will recall his red Monaghan Poultry backed Group 4 Ford Escort. Now one of the legends of Irish rallying, he will he campaign the McKinstry Motorsport backed Ford Fiesta R5.