Early in 2019 Ireland welcomed back two of its World Rally Championship stars. Craig Breen and Paul Nagle paired up to spend a season of rejuvenation in the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. After a hat-trick of victories in Galway, West Cork, and Northern Ireland’s Easter Stages, the focus was now on Nagle’s local round – Killarney’s International Rally of the Lakes.
Irish rallying thrives on its embodiment of great rallies, international heroes, and instrumental figures.
Sometimes the three combine to create accounts that will be recalled for decades by fans and friends along the same countryside hedgerows, mountain passes, and scenic shorelines that set the scene of the original story.
Those who ventured to Killarney for the Rally of the Lakes 12 months ago witnessed a hometown hero achieve his boyhood dream to create a story that will become a part of Irish rallying folklore.
Home to Molls Gap, Healy Pass, and Ardgroom, Killarney’s roads were made for rallying. The perfect setting for a momentous occasion like this.
A Kerryman through and through, Nagle was eager to finally win his home rally.
“It was always a target for me to win the Rally of the Lakes,” explained the five-time World Rally winner. “But before last year I hadn’t done it in a proper car in eleven years.
“I did it with Craig [Breen] in 2013 in a Mk2 Escort but it was back in 2008 with Kris [Meeke] in the Clio which was my last big result in Killarney.
“We had a fantastic run that weekend finishing fifth and it really kicked off our career together.”
Nagle began his co-driving career over twenty years ago on Killarney’s Historic Rally. His Rally of the Lakes debut in 1998 brought immediate success with a class win in Kieran O’Neill’s Opel Kadett.
A National win came alongside Eugene Donnelly followed by a Group N win and several top-ten finishes. He even finished runner-up in 2003 alongside Donie O’Sullivan. However, an overall Rally of the Lakes victory had eluded Kerry’s popular co-driver.
After a decade rallying around the world with Meeke, Breen, and briefly Andreas Mikkelsen, Nagle had the Intercontinental Rally Challenge title to his name along with his WRC wins.
But somehow fate had it that Nagle was to be in Killarney on the first weekend in May last year.
“It was the event’s 40th-anniversary, no Kerryman had ever won it before, and my Dad who was very heavily involved in the Motor Club for the 40 years had just passed away the Christmas before.
“It just all felt right that weekend. I had the right tools beside me: the proper car and the proper driver.
“So to win, it was a massive success and it was a fitting tribute.
“Since I was a young lad, the Rally of the Lakes was the highlight of the year.
“When I was in school, my friends and I headed off to Molls Gap on the Saturday morning.
“It was a huge thing for us back then. It was our Champions League final or our All-Ireland football weekend.”
It’s all too easy to assume Breen and Nagle’s victory was always guaranteed. But as anyone involved in rallying will know there are plenty of snags ready and waiting to spoil a crew’s plans.
Despite his enthusiasm for Killarney’s stages, Breen was relatively inexperienced on the Kerry tarmac. A visit nine years earlier in his Super 2000 Fiesta the only experience of relevance held by the Waterford man.
The pair faced genuine competition from their nearest challengers Alastair Fisher and Callum Devine. Both drivers found their stride in Killarney and stretched their legs at different points of the two-day rally.
Devine took the coveted fastest time through Molls Gap while Fisher was untouchable on Sheen River, taking a third out of Breen’s Sunday lead on the 10-kilometre test.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to win it and I put a lot of pressure on Craig, he was under immense pressure.
“I was glad to get over the finish line at the end of the last stage on Sunday.
“I’d like to go back and do it again so I could enjoy it more.
“I was nervous and anxious even with all my experience, victories, and years in various championships. This one just had me on edge.
“When you put on the helmet and count 5-4-3-2-1-GO, all the nerves go away. You just do your job inside the car and do it to the best of your ability.
“But when you are hanging around service and you might have a 20-minute holding area or a half an hour service you start thinking about only being a few stages from victory.”
Breen and Nagle managed the pre-event expectations and final loop nerves to finish the final 20-kilometres of Gortnagane with a 15-second advantage over Fisher and Gordon Noble.
Nagle reckons their rally was won on Saturday’s reversed runs of Ardgroom and Cod’s Head. Their notes were made from scratch and a near-perfect drive from Breen had them win seven of the day’s eight special stages.
“Craig wanted to do Killarney, he knew the stages, he’d seen all the videos. When we showed up we were expected to win and he never put a wheel wrong from start to finish.
“In Killarney, there was huge pressure put on him and he managed it very well. When Alastair did start coming back at him on Sunday he was able to fight back.
“He can manage that 20-second lead comfortably, he’s a very clever driver that way.”
Both Nagle and Breen have a love for Irish rallying that is hard to hide. They know their history, they have their heroes, and they made the most of the opportunity to spend some precious time on home ground last year.
With no Rally of the Lakes this weekend, like the rest of us, Nagle will be missing the sights and sounds that are habitual to Kerry’s first weekend in May.
It’s during a quiet period of time like this when we can appreciate the things that have gone before.
Nagle wrote a story 12 months ago without realising it.
Overcoming pressures and expectations, he took his maiden Rally of the Lakes win on its 40th-anniversary, watched over by his Father, Maurice, who planted that co-driving seed many years earlier.
Photos by David Harrigan
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