BY MARTIN WALSH
JUST five years after he made his debut in rallying in 2004 Keith Cronin won the British Rally Championship at his very first attempt. To put that victory into context, he became only the second Irish driver to win the series since the legendary Billy Coleman won the title back in 1974.
Similarities between Cronin and Coleman exist – they appear shy and preferred to allow their driving skills do the talking. But that apparent shyness masked a determination and a will to succeed. Similar too in that they became barometers for their fellow competitors that benefitted from their participation in events.
But from the scene of the 1970s to the early part of this millennium, times and attitudes were changing, if slowly in some circumstances. Cronin’s persona was beginning to reflect the modern era as cameras and microphones were part of the props on stages and service parks.
Time passes quickly with little chance for reflection and Cronin’s prowess behind the wheel has, so far, delivered four British titles with wins in 2010, 2012 and 2017 adding to that never to be forgotten first title in 2009. Those four wins equalled the feat set by the great Roger Clark (1965, ’72, ’73 and ’75) and is just one shy of that achieved by another legend, Scottish ace Jimmy McCrae, the all-time BRC record holder with five wins (1981, ’82, ’84, ’87 and ’88).
Even now, Cronin (33) is amongst the pantheon of such greats and deservedly so. He won his four BRC titles in four different cars and with four different co-drivers. His list of accolades is impressive. He was the first driver to win the Irish Tarmac Championship in an R5 car, taking the Clonakilty Blackpudding backed series in 2016 at the wheel of a Citroen DS3 R5. He won the Billy Coleman award in 2007, the West Cork Sports Star of the Year Award in 2009 and the Motorsport Ireland International Driver of the Year award in 2017 and recently won the title of Best in the West, a Twitter-based competition to find West Cork’s greatest sportsperson.
There were notable event wins too. On his third outing in a round of the WRC3 category of the World Rally Championship, he clinched a spectacular category victory at Rally Finland on what was his maiden outing in this specialised event, one of the toughest events in World rallying. In his inaugural BRC winning season, he took his Group N Mitsubishi Evo IX to the Raven’s Rock Rally as a shakedown and in the process took the laurels, beating the World Rally Cars of some of the most experienced national competitors. In a Subaru WRC in the Galway International in 2013, he also took outright victory.
Keith Cronin never sought the headlines, he just got them through his sheer talent. But talent is not enough in a sport that is dictated by finance. The Ballylickey native is pragmatic, an accountant by profession so analysis is second nature, maybe even first instinct for a driver who never seemed to gamble on his own talent. He knows exactly where the limits are, or more importantly, should be, at any exact point.
Finding budgets especially at this time is not an easy task or prospect, and there are no half measures and certainly Cronin will not return to rallying just for fun and he knows exactly why.
‘The deal we had when we won the BRC in 2017 was the best we ever had. Working with M-Sport was great, just having everything around you. If I was to go back, then that’s the way I would like it to be. Otherwise, it’s quite difficult to be competitive,’ Cronin explains.
Many people still don’t comprehend what is involved in the sport. Certainly, it’s not a case of just sitting in and driving. It is so much more. Yes, there are some competitors that treat the sport as a bit of fun and are going out to compete on a weekend and that is acceptable, but like any sport if you want to be competitive, you have to prepare properly. Cronin has held that ethos since the beginning but it’s allied to the constant of ensuring he is physically fit.
‘You try and stay switched off until probably a week before the rally when you start studying DVDs and all that and when you get to recce (reconnaissance) you are as well prepared as you can be,’ he explains.
Cronin agrees that he is analytical: ‘Yes, I suppose it’s in my nature from business and all of that.’
There is a hint of a laugh as he adds, ‘I suppose the term I would use is that I am clinical. If I was to go back at motorsport then I would have to be more clinical because when you are younger you have the fearlessness, you have your speed from there, not that I have fear, but in terms of the bigger risks, you would be more calculated about them.
‘Obviously you go into every stage and try to be the fastest but you try not to think about it, you try and go as fast as you can and staying within the limits but you also have to take into account what the others (drivers) are doing.’
Cronin stepped on the WRC ladder in 2013 and even though it was fraught with issues, he still managed to stay in the frame, a category win in Finland with its notorious jumps was impressive. A year later, progress to WRC2 was ended before it had begun due to a test accident in Portugal.
‘Looking back, it was done on a shoestring and really that’s impossible. It adds to the pressure of it all. We were trying to do it in one go instead of taking it in a two/three-year cycle. I didn’t have the money to do it that way, and you really need to have plenty of seat time in the WRC.’
Whilst ruling out a WRC return due to his age, the quest to equal Jimmy McRae’s achievements brings stimulation as does an attempt at the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship that would herald his return to rallying.
‘It would be nice I suppose,’ he says.
The response was quick, as was the analysis of that mouth-watering prospect.
‘If we could go back at it in the right way and if somebody gave me a set of keys in the morning to do a fully-funded campaign in both, then it’s easy.’
On reflection and in relation to his WRC bid, of course it was frustrating but Cronin is far from bitter. It’s also worth noting that he once finished ahead of reigning World Rally champion Ott Tanak in a shoot-out.
‘I can’t have regrets, there was nothing more I could have done. I didn’t have the financial backing and the opportunity was never there,’ he says.
On his first-ever rally Keith’s car, a Vauxhall Nova, went on fire. Some 16 years later his passion for the sport is still burning. All that is needed is for those keys to drop through his door.