BY MARTIN WALSH
DRINAGH navigator Denis O’Donovan and his Mallow driver Derek Butler were recently confirmed as the 2019/2020 Motorsport Ireland National Navigation Trial champions.
It’s the first time in the history of motorsport that a West Cork navigator has won the national title and for O’Donovan, it was the culmination of a journey that could be described as his ‘Mount Everest.’
He finally reached the peak of success after very humble beginnings that saw his very first venture fall short at the very first step – but that only cemented his resolve to succeed in a branch of motorsport where the navigator is the principal, a direct opposite to stage rallying.
Only one other all-Cork crew has won the national series, and that was when Glounthaune’s Luke McCarthy and Dromtarriffe’s James O’Brien won the title back in the 1989/1990 season.
The art of navigation rallying is self-taught in many respects, as most participants are reluctant to share their ‘trade secrets.’ That’s perfectly understandable as it could amount to helping your rivals. Basically, the navigator plots the route that is made from linking a series of co-ordinates to coincide with arriving at specific points with allotted times. Arriving late or indeed early is penalised, the latter with more serious consequences while continuous lateness could lead to exclusion. Complicated stuff but to those involved, a challenge tackled with optimism and often concluded with relative satisfaction.
Following a series of induction classes organised by the Skibbereen and District Car Club, O’Donovan remembers his ‘first night.’
‘It was the Cork Startrek in January 1994 and it was based in Newtwopothouse outside Mallow,’ he recalled.
A mutual rallying friend, Caroline Healy from Cloughduv, was at the wheel. The stars weren’t really aligned and their event ended after about 15 miles.
‘It was a frosty night so I don’t need to say more,’ laughed O’Donovan.
At that time O’Donovan’s ‘Mount Everest’ seemed a long way off, but undeterred, he persisted with the will and determination akin to an avid climber.
He had trusted pilots such as Limerick’s Matt Shinnors and locals like Tim O’Donovan and Colin Kingston.
He admits that he didn’t link experience and knowledge as much as he should have done.
‘If I remembered a small bit from every event I would have been fine but, to be honest, I have only begun to do that over the last four and five years,’ he said.
For some 13 years, Dunmanway’s Gerard O’Connell was entrusted with the role of taxi for O’Donovan around the lanes of rural Ireland.
O’Donovan rates former champion Liam Higgins as one to admire.
‘He’s great in any territory.’
However, he was slow to give advice.
‘You would try (to extract information) but he’d give little away, but he did tell me he would write down stuff on maps after he would go home. He had master maps on every area along with important pointers,’ he said.
The introduction of Discovery maps to replace the older six inch to a mile maps brought a different perspective to the sport with O’Donovan remarking, ‘You could make a mistake easier but you could also get back on course and not be penalised as hard as you would now (with the Discovery maps) if you made a mistake.’
Another change to the rules is the awarding of maximum points to competitors in lieu of organising an event. O’Donovan is a fan of the system.
‘It’s a great incentive, it’s relatively easy to run an event and you are guaranteed points.’
Of course it’s also a situation where the poacher turns gamekeeper.
‘You know the tricks that work and how to make it difficult. You can make a fool of anyone down here (West Cork) really, especially if you live here. There are always some twists to be made. The amount of farmyard complexes we have is great,’ he said.
This year’s series was hard fought with another Cork crew, Mogeely’s James Fitzgerald and Ballincollig’s Ken Carmody, their principal rivals. Just like in 1994, it began with the Cork Startrek but this time O’Donovan was very much in-form, only to lose to their rivals albeit on a tie-break.
Out of luck and well out of the top results in Monaghan O’Donovan and Butler bounced back in stunning style to claim maximum points in the rounds at Midland, Carbery, 1000 Shakes and 100 Isles, the latter as organisers.
With the series based on the best five scores they had the edge and while their outing in Cavan was disappointing, and the fact that the latter was cancelled, their points tally was more than enough to pave the way to that championship victory.
‘It means everything to win the championship. Since 1994 I have a lot of them done and it’s great to finally win it,’ O’Donovan said.
‘To go up to Leitrim (Midland) and to come away with a win was immense as we were never in the Arigna area before. Of course, Cavan (that turned out to be the final round) was a big disappointment. The pressure was on my shoulders but I didn’t help myself.’
O’Donovan has high praise for his driver Derek Butler.
‘He has matured so much in the last 18 months,’ he said.
Aside from navigation rallying, O’Donovan has also co-driven in stage rallying where he made his debut in 1997 on the Circuit of Kerry alongside Crookstown’s Martin Sheehan (Ford Escort). His best result was with his first cousin, Cononagh’s Kieran O’Callaghan (Mitsubishi), when they finished fifth overall in West Cork Rally in 2004. Denis also called the notes with Macroom’s Anthony Sheehan, Dunmanway’s Gerard O’Connell and a host of others, albeit on one-off occasions.
Nowadays he concentrates on navigation events and picks the Skibbereen 100 Isles Navigation Trial as his favourite.
‘It’s home, really.’
So too is the Motorsport Ireland National Navigation Trial title, his Mount Everest has finally been conquered after almost a quarter of a century – and it’s been worth the wait. Like any good climber, O’Donovan will defend his national title when the sport recommences.