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A world of difference in Donegal

When you get a message from Adam Hall telling you that he’s been thinking, well you know where this is going…

“Would you be interested in writing about the most memorable rally you’ve attended?”

Now as most of you know I have seen quite a bit of rallying so there was a serious amount of head-scratching to come up with just one event. In a world that has gone slightly mad, it was nice to have a distraction even just for a short while.

The event I have chosen is the 2006 Shell Donegal International Rally.

It probably seems rather weird in this day and age of instant access to all the latest news on your phone but back then my phone basically was a phone. You could send a text message as long as it wasn’t any longer than 160 characters.

There were lots of rumours flying around that Colin McRae was coming over and Andrew Nesbitt was doing a big deal plus much more.

To arrive at An Grianan Theatre on Friday morning to see an MG Metro 6R4 parked over on the side, two WRC Mitsubishis, plus one of the greatest line-ups of rally cars this country has witnessed was overwhelming.

I’m not normally speechless but to see McRae walking out of the drivers’ briefing was one of those few moments. There were 23 WRCs, 23 top-line Group N cars, and 34 modified cars in Class 13 and 14. All the other classes were extremely well supported too.

My Dad, my good friend Mickey, his daughter and I headed out the Derry Road to get a place on the ditch to watch the show unfold.

As the clocks stopped at the end of the first stage it looked as if the Mitsubishi team were in trouble, Andrew Nesbitt was sixth and Mark Higgins was back in 13th.

McRae was blitzing the National times, over 24 seconds ahead of Dessie Keenan in his 2.4-litre Ford Escort Mk2. McRae’s time would have put him in seventh overall if the National and International times were combined. For a car at least 20 years out of date and wasn’t in full tarmac spec, this was a mark of his talent.

By the end of the opening day, Kevin Lynch and Allan Harryman were leading from Tim McNulty and Anthony Nestor. Gareth Jones and Dave Moynihan rounded out the top three all of whom were in various Subaru WRCs.

The favoured crews were not showing well at this point. The Mitsubishis were sixth and tenth while Eugene Donnelly in the Corolla had been leading but an under-bonnet fire dropped him well down the field.

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist were a class apart in the National Rally, already almost two minutes ahead of Dessie Keenan who in turn was 16 seconds ahead of Phil Collins. McRae’s times would have kept him in the top 10 if times were combined.

Then the favourites hit their stride on Saturday.

Mark Higgins, who had Rory Kennedy on the notes, came into his own taking five fastest times over the ten stages and jumped from tenth to second. Nesbitt took three stage wins to claim the overnight lead. Exactly 22 seconds separated the Mitsubishi team-mates. The top three was now barren of Subarus as Gareth MacHale moved into third place in the family Ford Focus.

McRae survived a lurid spin and several small niggles with the car to extend his National lead to almost four minutes.

Would the Mitsubishi guys fight to the finish or would they hold station?

If the two leaders were supposed to be driving for the finish it wasn’t evident on the stages.

The two cars were visibly faster than the chasing pack. Indeed, Nesbitt nearly threw it all away on the very last stage, Atlantic Drive, sliding into the ditch and losing 17 seconds to Higgins but still winning by a 26-second margin.

MacHale was third, a further 30 seconds back.

The two Mitsubishis when they got working were the most awesome rally cars we’ve seen here in privateer hands.

McRae took the National win by almost seven and a half minutes. Keenan and Camillus Bradley completed the podium.

McRae loved the Donegal experience and by the finish it was already being talked about that he would love to return and fight for the overall win. This never came to pass, but the legend of McRae in Donegal lives on. Anyone who saw and heard the Metro 6R4 tear through Donegal will never forget the experience.

So, after much deliberation this is the story of the most memorable event I have attended.

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