It’s almost 400 kilometres from Karl Atkinson’s new home in Swans Cross to Bandon – but the talented motorsport co-driver has never forgotten his West Cork roots, as MARTIN WALSH explains
LIKE many others, Bandon’s Karl Atkinson’s liking for rallying began by standing on a fence watching his heroes.
Some 11 years on from his first ever rally, he has become one of Irish rallying’s best-known and successful co-drivers - winning an Irish Tarmac title and the FIA Celtic Trophy with Monaghan’s Sam Moffett. Indeed, the county of the stony grey soil is now home to the 36-year-old Bandonian, who has taken flight to Swans Cross, a relatively short journey from Cootehill just over the Cavan border, where he is a member of An Garda Síochána.
As a child and accompanying his father Harold and cousin Seán O’Donovan, Karl set off to watch all the rallies and ironically it was with Seán that he made his first competitive outing. ‘It all began in a Honda Civic in the Cork Forest Rally,’ he says. ‘
‘The two of us didn’t have a clue, we only got half way into the first stage before the car broke down and we just turned and laughed at each other. Later, we found out that cut-off switch had tripped.’
That combination continued for a couple of years until 2009, when Karl sat with Kildare’s Fergal Allen in a BMW M3. That was a key part of his development as a rally co-driver. ‘I didn’t realise it at the time but that was when I started writing pacenotes and how few people were actually doing that at the time and how much of a skill it was,’ he says.
Tyrone driver Stephen Baxter provided another step along the way, but finishes were a rarity due to his propensity for crashing. That element of the sport didn’t put him off or make him reassess his path. However, the end of that combination came about due to differences of opinion.
In between, Karl ventured to Monte Carlo to ‘do gravel notes’ for Wicklow’s Daniel Barry, where he was joined by none other than Craig Breen. Essentially, gravel notes are made by a team (driver and co-driver) just prior to the road closure so as the most up-to-date information can be relayed to the competing crew. The Breen friendship developed and, after the Baxter association, concluded Karl found himself preparing notes for Breen, who was in a Fiesta S2000 as part of the journey that would lead the Waterford man to the top echelons of world motorsport.
In 2011, there were a few more outings with O’Donovan but while, spectating at the Tour de France, he got a call to compete in a rally in America with a driver by the somewhat grandiose name of Chris Duplessis. The contact came via another co-driver and fellow garda, Martin Brady, who at the time was also based in Crumlin with Karl.
From watching the most famous cycle race in the world, it was straight on a plane to team up with Duplessis, who had backing from Ford in North America, and they finished second in class. They went on to compete in Rally GB on the last round of the Ford Academy series. ‘We did that and actually rolled seven times,’ Karl recalls.
By then, Karl also had a taste of what World Rally cars were like as he called the notes for Denis Biggerstaff in the Donegal International Rally on board a Subaru WRC.
In 2012 there were further ventures with Duplessis, with events in Portugal and Greece in the Academy series, but that petered out due to a lack of funding. Meanwhile, Karl was still doing the gravel notes for Breen - Monte Carlo, the Circuit, Corsica, and the Targa Florio in Corsica that sadly resulted in the death of Craig’s co-driver Gareth Roberts in a rallying accident. That remains a low point for all. A few weeks later, as Craig returned to the Peugeot team, Karl joined him in a test in Portugal.
In 2013 in Corsica, as he continued to do the gravel notes for Craig, Karl’s ability to provide a reliable, professional and key service, led him to doing the same work for Kris Meeke and Australian female driver Molly Taylor.
Karl’s first win came in Canada on Rallye Défi with Canadian Antoine L’Estage in a Mitsubishi Evo X. Indeed, that was a significant year as he competed in the Donegal International Rally, calling the notes for Craig Breen in a Mk 2 Ford Escort. It was also when and where he met Suzanne Wright, now his wife. In his own words, ‘It all took off from there.’
Having competed in the Ulster Rally with Jon Armstrong, Karl also contested Rally Yorkshire and other events with the Northern Ireland driver, whom he rates as a gifted driver and one that should be competing at world level. Other events with other drivers followed and, with Armstrong unable to fund a strong campaign in 2014, Atkinson was at a loose end.
At the end of 2013, Stephen Wright won the Billy Coleman Award and in 2014 Karl lent support to the team as Suzanne completed her accountancy examinations, deputising on a few events.
Continuing his association with Craig Breen, Karl then co-ordinated the gravel notes for the Waterford driver and Monaghan’s Sam Moffett on Rally Germany. Then, when Moffett’s co-driver James O’Reilly couldn’t compete with Sam on the 2014 Carrick-on-Suir Forest Rally, Karl deputised. He also co-drove for Dean Raftery in the WRC2 category. Very much in demand in 2015, Karl plumped for Sam and competed in the European Rally Championship (ERC) in the Azores in the Regional Rally Car, returning home to participate in the Tipperary Stonethrowers Rally in the World Car and then back to Rally GB.
For a co-driver, the relationship with the driver is all-important. While it clicked with the likes of Armstrong right from the start, it was a bit of a slow burner with Sam Moffett. ‘He was the most difficult driver insofar as his notes are different for a co-driver to call, there is less detail and that is hard to call at speed,’ he says.
‘It certainly took time to adjust but in 2016 it really clicked. It was perfecting the rhythm of the notes and getting the flow spot on. I think it all clicked in Donegal.’
Reflecting on a great season in 2017, Karl points to the one that got away on the Fastnet Rally, where he only needed to finish to win the Triton Showers National Co-Driver Award.
‘I missed two rounds [both of which Sam won], one because of a wedding and the other with work commitments. Sam couldn’t go to Bantry so Stephen [Wright] stepped in. But he couldn’t use his own car and we hired one but unfortunately we didn’t finish. That was disappointing but I still had a great year.’
One of the toughest parts of competing relates to time off. ‘Sometimes, I have to take annual leave for events and that eats into my holiday time.’
Atkinson spends a lot of time preparing for events and knows it’s appreciated by Sam Moffett. They put great trust in each other and while Karl’s biggest moment was when Duplessis rolled down the mountain – ‘I thought it was never going to stop’ – he knows he is in safe hands with Moffett.
Conscious of his role, Karl is an advocate for proper training for young co-drivers and would like to see Motorsport Ireland develop something akin to the MSA Academy for co-drivers in the UK. He too places importance on the good camaraderie with his fellow co-drivers.
‘We look out for each other,’ he says.
Life outside of rallying is also busy, yet, circumstances are always put in a rallying context, as he points out: ‘Suzanne is due a few days before next year’s West Cork Rally.’
While the West Cork is his real ‘home rally’, it’s likely that Karl will have to skip the 2019 event although Sam Moffett hasn’t given up on the idea just yet.
Depending on what way the proverbial crow flies, it’s somewhere between 365 and 400km from Bandon to Karl’s new home in Swans Cross but he has never forgotten his West Cork roots, home is where the heart is, whatever the colour of the soil.