Callum Devine will finally get his Motorsport Ireland backed European Rally Championship campaign started on next weekend’s Rally di Roma Capitale. Devine has been on an upward trajectory since moving up to Rally2 machinery after completing the Junior World Rally Championship two years ago.
His four-wheel-drive pace and quick development have been noted by Hyundai with the WRC manufacturer adding the 26-year-old to its Junior programme earlier this year.
Devine and co-driver Brian Hoy are aiming for success in the ERC1 Junior championship which comprises four of the ERC’s six rounds for drivers under the age of 29.
However, the Claudy driver will still compete on the other two rounds including Rally Hungary where Devine made his ERC1 debut last year.
Rally di Roma Capitale will be the first event in quite a while for most of the crews. Devine’s last event was February’s Fivemiletown Rally which was used as gravel preparation ahead of the ERC’s original opener, Azores Rally.
While everyone has missed the on-stage action over the past four months, Devine can see some personal positives in the delay.
“To be fair for us we aren’t complaining about the break,” admitted Devine. “It has given us a bit more time to put things into place.
“With our work as well, the start of the year is always a bit sluggish. We’re happy to start now and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
A Ford Fiesta R5 helped Devine make a big impression on the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship last year, finishing third in the championship and regularly battling experienced rivals, Craig Breen and Alastair Fisher.
The partnership with Hyundai represents a magnificent opportunity for the young driver but with seat-time in the i20 R5 limited to Rally Hungary and Fivemiletown, the trip to the Azores’ unique gravel roads back in March was going to be a big challenge.
Coronavirus forced Azores Rally’s postponement and Devine has since had the chance to test an updated i20 R5 ahead of starting the European series on his favoured asphalt surface.
“Rather than being out of the seat, being away so long, and still having to get into the swing of gravel again, tarmac is more our thing so it makes the return a bit more comfortable.
“We had a test on tarmac which was our first time back in the car. It was really the first time with the new dampers and the small upgrades to the car that have been made since Rally Hungary last year.
“I was saying to Philip [Case] at the test, the car is so different compared to back in Hungary.
“With the Fiesta I was so confident with what the car would do, going over jumps for example I knew what way it would handle.
“I think now the Hyundai is a whole lot better [than last year] and I have great confidence in the car. I think now a wee bit more seat-time would be the thing.”
Devine’s relationship with Motorsport Ireland and Hyundai extends far beyond gaining a seat in the i20 R5 for a season in the ERC.
Devine has the chance to gain an insight into how Hyundai develops an optimum set-up for its rally cars, he has already seen how professional drivers like Breen works with engineers, and he will be given the opportunity to work with new teams.
Optimising his Fiesta’s set-up was one of the key areas to Devine’s success at home in 2019. Gaining that confidence to keep the throttle open, trusting in the car’s balance, and reading how it will react.
Now, Devine will have to do it all over again, in a different car, and on a variety of new surfaces. A challenge but equally an opportunity to gain knowledge from his new surroundings and engineers.
Motorsport Ireland’s International Driver of the Year has already received a taste of that set-up advice. He’s also had a chance to see how his compatriot Breen works with Hyundai, and it clearly left an impression.
“Being around the team and getting a run [in the car] with Craig was definitely an eye-opener for me. I learned plenty from Craig just about the set-up and what it can do.
“Craig didn’t have to put me in the car or whatever but he was very helpful. He brought me in when he was talking about the set-up and even to hear him talking to an engineer, he knows so much.”
Devine’s Italian summer won’t end in Rome, instead, he’ll join an Italian rally team, HMI, to compete on Rally di Alba a week after the ERC opener. The national event isn’t linked to his competitive plans but gives Hyundai a chance to look at how Devine operates in an unfamiliar environment.
“It was organised through a contact with Hyundai. It will be good for me to work with another team and trying to learn from them.
“Obviously I need to show that I can work with them, I know Hyundai is looking out to see if I can work with other people.”
It is shaping up to be an extremely busy second half of the year for Ireland’s latest rally hopeful.
The ERC has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic with a healthier calendar than its bigger cousin, the World Rally Championship. This has put the ERC in the sights of many Rally2 stars like Oliver Solberg and M-Sport’s Adrien Formaux.
Devine is gunning for the ERC1 Junior title but despite the increased competition he is reveling in the opportunity to go head-to-head with the world’s fastest young rally drivers.
“They are great drivers to gauge myself off which is brilliant.
“Compared to last year there are so many drivers, there is a mix of maybe 10 drivers that could pick it up on any round.
“It is good for us, when we were going for the ERC we said that we wanted to go for the championship that is the most feasible.
“Everyone wants to go to the WRC but it is just a colossal amount of money.
“When we looked at the ERC we thought at least we can gauge ourselves, work on our own budget, and work with our own teams.
“You’re just not up against the big teams, but now the ERC is just as strong as the WRC2 category so it has worked out well for us.”
It is a stark contrast to his predicament 18 months ago. After a difficult year in the JWRC, a disheartened Devine was out in the dark and his 2019 plans were unknown.
Since then there has been no looking back. The County Derry digger driver has built strong foundations for an international rally career at a rate of knots.
His podium on Rally Hungary to finish off last year proved his speed wasn’t limited to home shores.
Now within the welcoming walls of Hyundai, Devine has a fresh sheet to write the next chapter of a career that is packed with potential.
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Photos courtesy of European Rally Championship