By Martin Walsh
Steve Roberts has now reached the stage in his life that he has spent as much time in West Cork as he did in the United Kingdom.
Life’s journey has brought him from Wombourne near Birmingham to West Cork.
Although he lived near Clonakilty initially, he and his family now reside in Ardgehane - within a stone’s throw of a stage of the West Cork Rally, his favourite event.
All his life he has rallied nothing other than Ford Escorts. It’s not surprising then that his favourite driver is former World rally champion Ari Vatanen who also favoured Escorts.
Steve recalls his early rally days: ‘I began rallying in 1984 and at that time it was mainly all road rallies in the UK. I was living in the Midlands near Birmingham, Gwyndaf Evans was doing it (road rallying) at the time and it was where I met Nicky Grist (World rally co-driver) for the first time.
‘My first car was a Mk. 1 Escort and then around 1986 I bought a higher specification Mk. 2 Escort and my first stage rally was the Epynt Rally (Wales) in 1988. I did quite a lot of single venue events really, rallying in the UK at that time wasn’t a patch on what we have here, it was Epynt and the Mewla Rally that, at the time, was part of the Motoring News Rally Championship.’
A business opportunity brought Steve to West Cork in 1992.
‘A school friend of mine asked if I would be interested in getting involved. I came and looked, I was only a young fellow at the time so it was easy to move around. I came over, got things set up and then my partner Jane (Tudor) followed about two months later.’
Part of his essential luggage included his rally car and his first rally here was the 1993 Keohane Readymix West Cork Rally where he was seeded at 89 and was co-driven by Clonakilty’s David Ryan, they were not amongst the 54 finishers.
To date he has competed in twenty-two of the Clonakilty based events.
‘For the first few years here I only did the West Cork as I was concentrating on the business. An entry in the Fastnet Rally brought the demise of the Ford Escort that was replaced by an orange coloured Escort G4.’
There are no extra plaudits for guessing that the West Cork is his favourite rally.
‘It is, it passes the door really so why not and the Ring stage is also my way home from work’.
However, there is a close second.
‘I have grown to like the Rally of the Lakes, I have done it a good few times now. The stages down in the Beara Peninsula are superb really. Cod’s Head, Ardgroom and the Healy Pass, while they are not particularly fast in terms of speed, they are very technical and very demanding, I really like that type of terrain and while this may sound strange, I really don’t like going fast, I prefer the twisty stuff.’
Throughout his Irish rallying, he has used just three cars, his list of co-drivers is a multiple of that, eighteen in fact.
‘I was about 22 when I started and I was lucky enough to get an experienced chappie first time out the gap when it really mattered. I always have the attitude that co-drivers have to start somewhere and I took a lot of pleasure at taking someone with little or no experience and getting them started.
‘Sean Hayde (Enniskeane) sat with me, he had done very little at the time, Kevin O’Driscoll, a near neighbour, made his rally debut with me.’
His daughter Aoife partnered Steve in the 2015 West Cork Rally.
‘To be honest, that gave me a lot of stress because if anything happened to her I would have had to come home and tell Jane.’
Steve’s last outing - in the 2018 Cork ‘20’ International Rally had an abrupt end.
‘It wasn’t at high speed but it was a very big accident. The steering arm broke and we went off the road, the car rolled three or four times. It (the car) was a basket case but we have managed to repair it since.’
Steve is a multiple Class 12 winner in the Southern 4 Rally Championship but it’s the 2009 West Cork Rally that stands out as one of his finest achievements.
‘I had a great battle with Dunmanway’s Ger O’Connell. Ger was really on top of his game at that time and was doing a lot of rallying then. We went at it like a pair of lunatics right from the very first stage.
‘I managed to pip him by 8.7 seconds after two days of rallying. It was tough and intense, Ger was running at a very high level and I matched him at the start, then he went ahead and I had to respond. On the Sunday afternoon, the two of us were flat out trying to beat each other.’
‘I have great respect for him as a rally driver, he was super consistent and I found it difficult to beat him. He had the run of me for a long time, but in 2009 I thought, this is what you got to do.’
Steve gets great satisfaction from the elevation of the West Cork Rally to its inclusion in the Irish Tarmac and British Rally Championships.
‘When I did my first West Cork (1993) I noticed it was on a different level. It was criminal that the rally wasn’t a round of something serious until recent years. I know it was part of the Motoring News Championship back in the day but I can never understand why it wasn’t part of the ITC sooner. It's always been a rally of a high standards.’
Steve sums up his passion for rallying in a roundabout way.
‘In 1996, Jane gave birth to our eldest daughter (Megan) in the week leading up to the West Cork. I dropped Jane and Megan home on the Friday and then went off to put the car though scrutiny. Looking back on it, it was kind of ridiculous, but now we see the funny side.’
Like so many more, Steve is looking forward to when rallying resumes. Just like in recent years, Jack Carroll (Megan’s boyfriend) will call the notes.
‘My car is after a major rebuild and ready to go.’