By Martin Walsh
THE spirit of adventure rests easily with Yvonne Johnston, yet the disposition of the Durrus lady rally co-driver masks her exploits extremely well.
On the recent Westlodge Hotel Fastnet Rally, Yvonne was co-driver with Baltimore’s Stephen Carey in a Ford Fiesta R2.
Taking time out from a family occasion at Fernhill House Hotel in Clonakilty on Saturday, Yvonne apologetically shunned the offer by the proprietors of a quieter location for the interview.
Staying in the hotel foyer, there were a few strange looks from some residents, but you could sense their inquisitiveness: who is she or why is she being interviewed.
Rally co-driving would certainly not have been on their list of possibilities.
But Yvonne is no stranger to impulse. She is a former rower, Gaelic footballer and a cyclist, the latter the conduit for her rallying exploits.
With no prior experience, being a co-driver for Baltimore’s Stephen Carey, one of the most talented drivers in West Cork and, indeed, beyond, was a tall order.
The maiden voyage meant calling pacenotes along part of the Wild Atlantic Way and other terrain that threw up challenges at almost every opportunity. Certainly not an easy task. However, it was executed with perfection that belied her inexperience in a sport that she grew up watching from the top of fences or other such vantage points.
Yvonne explains her interest and how her co-driving skills were honed in a relatively short pace of time along with a test that had that empty reaching feeling.
‘Well, I have always been into rallying. I went to events with my father (John) and I have been on the ditches all around the country,’ she explains.
No doubt about her favourite event.
‘That was the Cork ‘20’ in 2007 with Sebastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo – all the WRC lads.’
Now at full tilt and taking no notice of the surrounds or residents, her thoughts flowed.
‘At the end of July I was down at the Mizen Head and I was participating in a charity cycle for Down Syndrome Cork and Stephen was also doing the cycle. We began talking and then he (Stephen) started messing, asking would I sit in with him and I suppose it took off from there.’
However, the first taste of action didn’t work out as planned.
‘Well. I nearly got sick.’
A sudden pause is followed by a chuckle and a frank admission: ‘I did get sick, yes I did!’
The first test was supposed to be a gentle experience, but rallying suspensions are far from your day-to-day car experiences.
‘We got to the end of the piece of road and I was stuck to the seat, motionless for a while until rallying’s version of sea sickness arrived,’ Yvonne says.
The return trip was much better and a whiter than white complexion was replaced with a warmer skin tone. Yvonne had already discovered what pacenotes are all about courtesy of a mock reconnaissance of a familiar West Cork stage – at normal road speed – along with watching in-car footage; that’s what laid the foundations.
Meanwhile, more test runs on the same day were far more reassuring and also showed the difference between calling notes in a road car and in a rally car.
While her father John is an enthusiastic motorsport supporter, Yvonne recalls her mother’s reaction to her daugher’s decision to go rallying.
‘I don’t think my mother (Audrey) mentioned it until the morning of the rally when we were leaving the house. She just said to Stephen, “take care of her”, and that was all she commented on apart from saying I was nuts.’
Yvonne admits to being a Eugene Donnelly fan and also lists the late Bertie Fisher and Frank Meagher as her other rally idols.
On her debut Yvonne admitted she felt some pressure.
‘Stephen never really crashes or never makes a mistake so the pressure was on because if he did it would have been my fault,’ she says.
On the Fastnet, Yvonne remarked: ‘We only had one moment at a jump – well, the second jump – not long after the stage start. I think Stephen realised that too as the second time around he quipped, “we took that cleaner this time”.’
From a local perspective, there was added interest.
‘One of the road sections went through the village (Durrus) and many of the locals were out. It was great to see them, very special. The amount of good wishes I had was brilliant.’
On course to finish seventh overall, Stephen and Yvonne were a final stage retirement as a result of a gearbox malady.
‘It was unfortunate, but I couldn’t be disappointed with the day as a whole, it was brilliant, the times he was setting and the fact that I was able to sit in was a serious buzz, unbelievable.’
Prior to the rally, Yvonne had to acquire the proper racewear.
‘I went for the Blue Oval colours, as I am a fan of Ford and I like the colours anyway,’ she explains,
On the day of the rally it was somewhat surreal at the service park in Bantry.
‘A lot of people came up and asked how things were going. That was very different for me as I would normally be walking around looking, if not asking.’
Yvonne’s colleagues at Johnson and Johnson in Ringaskiddy were somewhat taken aback at her sporting choice.
‘I am a quiet kind of person really and they remarked that it is always the quiet people that are into the mad things. I would try my hand at everything and support charities,’ she says.
Meanwhile, to get the full perspective, Stephen Carey steps in. ‘There was no pressure ever. The conversation came up and at the outset we didn’t take it too seriously. A few weeks later and after Rally Germany we decided to compete in the Fastnet,’ he says.
Once agreed, and Yvonne was on board, the process was set in motion with a mock recce, bearing in mind that was around the middle of September, it was less than eight weeks to the Fastnet. For both it was a case of in at the deep end.
There was an added dimension as Stephen makes his own pacenotes so Yvonne also had to learn that art form. Asked was it a difficult task, she responded, ‘I didn’t know any different, there was confusion between tightens and opens and lefts and rights.’
Yvonne brought some semblance to the situation via a mathematical perspective – tightens was equated with less and opens was paired with more.
Stephen opined: ‘We came up with a system and put T over the symbol for tightens and O over the one for opens.’
Despite the lack of experience Stephen had no real concerns.
‘I had a good idea from the test we did as it was on a tricky piece of tarmac and it was the best place to learn. The first stage of the Fastnet went well. In fact, better than I thought. I didn’t know what to expect. I was open for every option,’ he explains.
Stephen’s overview and about the non-finish.
‘Not disappointing in the real sense, we got eight good stages, took no chances and we had no moments really.’
After the rally Stephen confessed that he harboured thoughts that Yvonne could have baulked at the whole experience, however, there was little chance of that happening.
For Yvonne, a laboratory analyst (testing pharmaceutical drugs), was well and truly hooked on rallying. The West Cork Rally awaits.