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MI Rally Academy continues to lead by example

Motorsport Ireland’s Rally Academy has been one of the highlights of rallying in Ireland in recent years. The programme’s plans for 2020 looked set to raise the bar even higher. Callum Devine, Josh McErlean, and James Wilson were gifted opportunities of a lifetime while yet more young drivers and co-drivers began their academy adventure.

Then coronavirus arrived and brought the world to a standstill. Postponements, suspensions, and cancellations have become the norm.

But social distancing has not stopped Sean McHugh and his team of mentors from delivering the best possible advice to Ireland’s rallying stars of tomorrow. The commitment from everyone involved speaks volumes for the academy’s aspirations.

“We had planned to have four academy days this year,” explains academy co-ordinator McHugh. “We already had the first day in January – a classroom and fitness day.

“We gathered all eligible members: 11 drivers and seven co-drivers.

“On this first day, Kevin Walsh, of 100% fitness, gave a presentation on nutrition and fitness.

“All participants were assessed on their baseline fitness, given a ten-week starter fitness programme, and we just missed out on the first assessment as we went into lockdown. Maybe lucky for some!

“We also had a presentation on media from Andy Walsh who is regularly doing stage-end interviews.

“The lockdown cancelled our plans to have our second day and as it became apparent that there would be no gatherings we decided to go into the virtual world.

“Through the Zoom platform, we had our second ‘day’ over three recent online meetings.”

The MI Rally Academy is supported by 1982 Irish Tarmac champion, John Coyne, who is passionate about giving the next generation an opportunity to succeed in the sport he has enjoyed throughout his life.

Sports performance, media, fitness, nutrition, pacenotes, and car set-up are all areas of advice provided by different subject matter experts. These experts have dialed into the Zoom meetings to guide the academy members.

“The presentations are very focused on making good use of time,” says McHugh. “Sports  performance coach, Alan Heary, has been fantastic on setting weekly goals – having a schedule and plan. Then deliver on the plan. 

“The fitness has involved videos on exercise in isolation. For example, I never knew there were as many ways to do a push-up. Eight and counting as per the most recent video. 

“You may have noticed the social media work being done by the amount of traffic online by all the participants. That’s thanks to Andy Walsh and Leo Nulty. 

“Philip Case advises us on car set-up, I still don’t understand suspension rebound, I better do my homework.

“Killian Duffy is the main speaker at our next Zoom meeting.”

2019 Billy Coleman Award winner, McErlean, has had his British Rally Championship plans halted due to the recent rally postponements.

“Let’s say it’s a little weird at the moment,” explains McErlean. “it’s not like it’s just me not rallying, no one is.

“We must remain positive and get through it, we won’t get anywhere being negative.”

The 20-year-old was hoping to continue his impressive form this year after an impressive Junior BRC win last year. A permanent step up to R5 machinery the reward for his success.

“The MI Rally Academy is really pushing things forward in these difficult times with its virtual meetings.

“There is a team of people working hard together to maximise this opportunity for us, from fitness to media, it’s starting to become a complete package.”

Josh McErlean on this year’s BRC opener – Cambrian Rally (Jakob Ebrey Photography)

McErlean’s Billy Coleman Award predecessor James Wilson made a perfect start to his 2020 season, winning the opening round of the Irish Forestry Championship. The encouragement that this gave academy organisers is clear to see.

Wilson’s transition from R2 to R5 alongside the academy is a great standard for others to follow and early signs of what can be achieved through these partnerships.

The J1000 – J1600 – R2 – R5 ladder is taking shape.

With the MI Rally Drivers Academy proving to be an instant hit, its sister-programme for co-drivers will be hoping for similar results.

Headed by Greg Shinnors, a list of experienced navigators are on hand to train the next generation. Established competitors Killian Duffy, James O’Brien, Rory Kennedy, and Paul McLoughlin will have plenty of advice to share with their mentees.

An early accomplishment for the co-drivers academy was its representation at this year’s Oman International Rally courtesy of Derek O’Brien. According to McHugh this wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the contacts provided by the academy’s experienced mentors.

With Devine, Wilson, and McErlean leading Ireland’s next generation of champions there is much positivity surrounding Motorsport Ireland’s Rally Academy. It’s thanks to the commitment of its ambassadors, co-ordinators, mentors, and mentees that the future looks so bright.

To think it’s only in its second year is quite remarkable. I for one am looking forward to seeing how the students perform in life after lockdown.

Cover photo by Alan Noonan

Driver AcademyCo-driver Academy
Callum DevineEamonn Creedon
James WilsonDylan Doonan
Josh McErleanConor Mohan
Brian BradyLorcan Moore
William CreightonDerek O’Brien
David KellyGrace O’Brien
Shane KenneallyDean O’Sullivan
Derek Mackarel
Kieran Reen
Stephen Reynolds
Nigel Roche
Callum Devine rounded off a brilliant 2019 with a podium finish on the ERC’s final round – Rally Hungary (Thomas Fenetre)

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