Over 90 cars will tackle some of Northern Ireland’s finest gravel stages on Saturday’s Fivemiletown Rally. An inspired effort by the rally’s organisers has helped resurrect the Northern Irish event which ran for the first time in three years in 2019.
Entries for the 10-stage event include four WRCs, nine R5s and a stellar list of two-wheel-drive cars including Martin McCormack’s RAC-winning Ford Escort Mk2.
Niall McGonigle has been instrumental in getting the event back on its feet. He explains how it has all happened:
“I joined the club in 2018 and we got it resurrected for last year. Mick McCullagh from Euro M-Sport came forward with a sponsor from Lithuania, Samsonas Motorsport, who manufacture gearboxes and dampers.
“It all went from there. We only started with around 50 cars last year and now with a massive effort this year we’ll have over 90 cars.
“The effort has all paid off. It’s going brilliant to be honest and I’m really really happy.”
Callum Devine, who is preparing for the start of his European Rally Championship, had just confirmed his entry 10 minutes before my conversation with McGonigle. But what is drawing so many crews to the event?
“Extra mileage is a big thing,” said McGonigle. “Forestry has a problem trying to get mileage in this country because the forests are so small. We have a seven-mile stage on Saturday which is pretty long for the north.
“A low entry fee is massive for us as well because the entries down south have gone sky-high. We’ve got a £350 entry fee which is very appetising for competitors.
“We have reduced the number of chicanes this year as well. There is only one chicane throughout the whole rally which seems to be attracting a lot more people.
“We’re also the first round of the new Northern Ireland Forest Rally Challenge so hopefully that brings a bit of buzz with it.”
One driver to tackle Fivemiletown’s stages is Lithuania’s Martynas Samsonas, who manages Samsonas Motorsport. He turned heads in his two different BMWs at both Fivemiletown and the Bushwhacker Rally last year.
“I’m always excited to be back in Ireland,” said Samsonas. “It’s like a second home to me with so many memories and kind, rally-mad people.
“This year we’ll drive the same rear-wheel-drive BMW E36 as last year. It has a few big improvements to its suspension and Fivemiletown’s stages will be the best place to test them.
“Janis Vorobjovs will be driving the four-wheel-drive E46 M3 that we drove on the Bushwhacker last autumn. It’s the exact same as it was then.
“Omagh Motor Club has done a huge amount of work and attracted a record number of entrants which is the biggest reward for the whole organising team.
“Concerning our cars and the rally for us, I hope that we can have a similar speed with the rear-wheel-drive guys and that Janis’s speed is similar to the four-wheel-drive guys. If we can stay in the fight, this will be the biggest reward for us.”
Whether you’re following the Baltic BMW’s, backing the R5 of last year’s winner Niall McCullough, or simply dying to see modified gravel junkies like Shane McGirr, with stages like Jenkin, you won’t be left disappointed. Fresh from his opening Junior World Rally Championship round, local man Jon Armstrong won’t be there on Saturday but took pleasure as he looked back on fond memories of his Fivemiletown Spring Rally starts.
“Fivemiletown was the first proper rally I ever did,” said Armstrong. “I was in the little Fiesta ST with the goal of finishing and figuring out what doing a rally was all about.
“I just enjoyed myself having never driven properly with pacenotes before, I was just trying to drive like Colin McRae that day. We ended up finishing 13th overall which was unbelievable looking back.
“It’s definitely a rally that I’d love to win some time. Maybe I need to save up a few pennies and come back home in an R5 for it next year.
“The stages there are second to none, Jenkin when it’s run to its full length is a brilliant stage. There is just a bit of everything in them, it is technical but there are some fast bits as well. You need to be careful in the tight bits as they can bite you. They’re proper stages.
“It’s a really good event, it’s a credit to the guys organising it and I’ll definitely be following the times on Saturday.”
Photos by Mark McCullagh