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When Skoda Motorsport reigned in Armagh

Three Skoda Fabia S2000s ruled the roads surrounding Armagh on Easter weekend in 2012. Bobby Willis had reignited the Circuit of Ireland by attracting the Intercontinental Rally Challenge to the Emerald Isle.

Juho Hanninen was to beat off the challenge of Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen that weekend. The pair were in a class of their own as they finished ahead of Jan Kopecky who made it a Skoda 1-2-3.

Growing up in the countryside, 15 minutes west of Armagh, I was no stranger to rallying nor was I unfamiliar with the stages that the IRC crews were raging through. My parents’ house was sandwiched between the Hollow and Drumhillery tests. What was new to me though was the manufacturer presence and international class of the event. I had gone to Rally Ireland three years earlier but at thirteen years of age, I was still too young to realise its magnitude.

The 2012 Circuit started for me at shakedown. My brother picked me up, we drove five minutes down the Killylea Road, and there we were watching the IRC’s best right on our doorstep.

As the sun went down and the spotlights came on what do I remember from that night?

It can only be the magnificent bangs that exploded from the exhaust of Tommy Doyle’s Renault Clio. I went to sleep that night living off the vibrant smell expelled by the S2000s’ race fuel.

Patience was needed on Good Friday as the opening stage started in late afternoon around the Titanic Quarter. The wait was worthwhile as the crews headed to a pair of stages in County Tyrone with the second loop taking place in darkness.

Before tasting an Irish stage at night, the field first had to overcome the challenge provided by a well-timed shower of rain. It was Mikkelsen who headed to service with a marginal lead over Hanninen.

Skoda’s future WRC drivers had already stamped their authority on the event but as my brother and I stood in the moonlight somewhere between the Moy and Benburb there were two other cars we were waiting for in anticipation. 

Fermanagh’s Alastair Fisher was back in his Ford Fiesta S2000 fresh off the back of a WRC Academy win on Rally Portugal. A rally on which Fisher beat Elfyn Evans and Pontus Tidemand. Looking back that season could have changed Fisher’s rallying path forever but it just wasn’t to be. Finishing runner-up to Evans on the next round kept him in the championship lead but retirements were to put an end to his challenge later in the season.

Craig Breen was also present at the Circuit that year in his new Peugeot 207 S2000 as the reigning WRC Academy champion. A one and a half minute time penalty on the opening evening put an end to Irish hopes of a podium finish but a strong display on the second day was a better representation of Breen’s potential.

Day two focused on stages around Killylea and Markethill as well as the short runs through Lisburn. Two passes through the Drumhillery stage were on the menu for us and the IRC crews were at breakneck speed through South Armagh’s asphalt roads. It was becoming normal to hear a distant S2000 chattering on its limiter.

My memory from that day was the cuts taken by the leading crews. They had come to see what the Irish stages were all about. They came and with their commitment and understanding of the roads took it to the next level.

Hanninen went on to win that day after Mikkelsen’s error in Lisburn.

The Circuit of Ireland’s foray in the IRC and later the European Rally Championship gave us all something to look forward to between 2012 and 2016.

Credit has to go to Bobby Willis and his team for having the vision and ambition to put the sleeping giant back on the map. The four events didn’t come without their challenges and when news broke that there would be no return in 2017 it was sad to see the end of the ERC’s time in Ireland.

But they were good while they lasted and that Easter week in 2012 will live long in my memory.

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