The Galway International Rally returned to the Irish Tarmac Championship last weekend after its forced sabbatical in 2018. The Fields of Athenry were a buzz of excitement as 25 R5s headed one of the most competitive entry lists seen in Ireland for many years.
Craig Breen’s stylish win captured the headlines but the strength in depth of the international section paints a healthy outlook on Ireland’s famed asphalt championship.
The contenders came to Galway accurately anticipating a close battle for rally honours. Even after Donagh Kelly withdrew his entry, following his small accident in a pre-event test, there were still four Tarmac champions hitting the rally’s first stage, Attymon. Combine that with the seven winners of the Billy Coleman Award who edged over Saturday night’s start ramp, the Galway Rally brought a much-welcomed quality of competitors for the 2019 championship.
Breen’s return may have initially been a one-off but the ex-Citroen World Rally driver expressed a desire to continue at the championship’s next round, the West Cork Rally. Breen acknowledged the quality of competition at Galway, describing his rivals as being on top of their game and not to be messed with. This meant that along with the uniqueness of Irish rallying, last year’s runner-up in Rally Sweden could only set three fastest times on Sunday’s nine stages. Garry Jennings, Alastair Fisher and Josh Moffett all made their mark with six stage wins between them.
It’s this competition with the local experts that may encourage Breen to continue with the ITRC in 2019. He needs the healthy challenge to keep up to speed as he searches for a return to the World Rally Championship next year. Knocking some of his favourite events off the rally-win bucket list is an added bonus!
As good as it is to have the Waterford native back on the Irish stages, it speaks volumes that even if Breen decides against continuing in the championship, it will in no way break ITRC’s 2019 season.
Jennings and Fisher were keeping Breen honest in the first half of the day, Moffett joined in when he got on top of a misfire that hampered his Ford Fiesta R5 on the morning’s stages.
Desi Henry, Jonathan Greer and Daniel Cronin will never be far away and they’ll have their own favoured events within the championship to aim for. The array of potential winners lengthens…
2017 triple-crown champion, Sam Moffett, found himself on the wrong side of the tricky Galway conditions on the rally’s opening stage. Moffett plundered backwards into a hedge when the rear of his Fiesta R5 stepped out under braking. The opening cars struggled to get any grip on the opener after a 30-minute delay at the start-line left them with stone-cold tyres to tackle the wet country roads. Moffett’s early retirement is no representation of his championship-winning potential and only adds an extra twist in the race for the championship.
With a compelling list of R5 regulars all ready to pounce on a rally victory, Galway brought another wildcard to the list. Jon Armstrong took a few days off his day-job at Codemasters to come back to Ireland and play on the stages that originally defined him as a driver oozing talent and untapped potential. Despite the 24-year-old’s early success in R2 cars and promising WRC2 prize drives, pre-event expectations were modest considering his 16-month lay-off from rallying.
In the mark of a star, Armstrong kept his head down and got on with it, moving from 10th after SS1 to a remarkable fourth by the end of the day. Just over a minute separated him from rally-winner Breen and he finished less than 20-seconds behind last year’s Tarmac champion, Josh Moffett. A smart drive from Armstrong got him to the finish but his natural ability once again turned many heads in the speedy DiRT liveried Fiesta R5.
Similarly to Breen, Armstrong made no promises regarding his future plans but hinted a positive result in Galway would make an ITRC return at West Cork an easier objective to achieve. He certainly got the positive result.
Since making R5s the championship’s point-scoring car in 2016, the ITRC has struggled to persuade the stronghold of drivers still in love with World Rally machinery to make the switch to the new class. This year the tides turned when Donagh Kelly, Declan Boyle and Manus Kelly all invested in R5s for the 2019 Tarmac championship.
Ireland has a fondness with WRCs that has been recognised across the world. They’ve helped make heroes and memories and will always be a key part of Ireland’s rallying heritage. In 2019, though, their time in the Tarmac championship is up.
Having the three Donegal men, who’ve added to Ireland’s WRC heritage over the past half-decade, switch to R5s and openly admit they are the way forward must be a dream for the ITRC. A dream we thought would never happen.
In true Irish irony, however, all three may force each other back into WRCs for June’s Donegal Rally. Donegal will always be Donegal and the number of WRCs there this year will depend on this domino effect.
A gap of four weeks now lies ahead before Round 2, the West Cork Rally. You’d wonder how things could get better but they most definitely will.
The fast, flowing roads around Clonakilty make special stages that are loved by the drivers. While the arrival of the British Rally Championship will create even more battles in a more traditional two-day format. There’s every chance the list of potential rally winners will be as long as it’s ever been before. The only possible worry for West Cork is that we forget about that guy Mikko coming over from Finland in his Ford Escort Mk2!