This weekend we should be making our now annual pilgrimage to the west of Ireland for the Galway International Rally. 2021 would have seen the 50th anniversary of the event but unfortunately, the dreaded Covid-19 put paid to any planned celebrations.
The extremes of weather are typically present along Ireland’s west coast in February. The Galway Rally has definitely been subject to every imaginable type of weather. Snow, ice, floods, and low-lying sun are just some of the conditions that crews have had to deal with over the years.
Galway has traditionally marked the start of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. Long before social media, the season’s sponsorship deals were announced courtesy of the crews putting on a show in their latest state-of-the-art investment.
We think of Austin McHale in the glorious Xtravision BMW M3 or the burble of the boxer engine as Kenny McKinstry and Robbie Philpott unveiled the Kaliber sponsored Subaru Legacy.
Three poignant memories that come to mind when I think about Galway involve three legends of the sport who are sadly no longer with us.
In 1986 Bertie Fisher and Austin Frazer experienced one of the scariest moments witnessed by Irish rallying. While braking hard into a right-hand corner, Fisher’s brake pedal went straight to the floor.
The Fermanagh driver’s skill came to the fore as he threaded the Opel Manta 400 through the narrowest of gaps to avoid contact with any of the spectators. This incident brought to the fore safety concerns surrounding the sport at the time and Fisher was at the forefront of the reform that was clearly needed.
Three years later Ford driver Mark Lovell was in Galway to defend his title in the powerful Sierra Cosworth. The star of the first day, however, was undoubtedly Frank Meagher.
Lovell had problems in the early stages but it was Meagher is his beloved Ford Escort Mk2 who was setting the pace. Unfortunately, the Escort’s engine let go and Meagher was out.
Another aside from that event was that while Lovell pushed to make up his lost time he managed to catch another competitor on a stage. Feeling he was getting held up, Lovell gave the other car a “gentle nudge” as he called it. This reputedly occurred at a speed excess of 100 mph!
Fast forward to the noughties and Ireland was gripped by World Rally Car fever. In 2007 Marcus Gronholm brought his M-Sport prepared Ford Focus WRC to perfect the car’s set-up for Rally Ireland. The island’s first-ever appearance in the World Rally Championship was the penultimate round in that year’s WRC calendar.
Home-grown hero Eugene Donnelly was also debuting his Subaru Impreza S12 in Galway and he was giving world rally champion Gronholm a run for his money. Holding a one-second lead, the Maghera man slid off the road on Galway’s penultimate stage to allow the Finn to claim a rare Irish Tarmac victory for the Focus.
Donnelly, along with rally engineer Derek McGeehan, made the headlines in Galway again when they brought the Mini WRC to Ireland for the first time in 2012. Donnelly managed to claim a fine second overall less than two seconds off the rally win.
It has been said that if Donnelly had won that particular event, it would have seen other crews swap their 2-litre cars in favour of the nimbler and more advanced 1.6-litre cousins. Instead, the 2-litre World Rally Car continued to rule the roost for a few more years.
Two years ago Craig Breen and Paul Nagle announced in the led up to the Galway Rally that they were teaming up and intended to bring a Ford Fiesta R5 to Galway. Many expected the WRC returnees to make light work of their Irish rivals but Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble hadn’t read the script!
The Ulster crew harried the ex-Citroen employees all the way to the finish. In the end, less than 15 seconds separated them and set the precedent for one of the best seasons in the Irish Tarmac Championship’s history.
Galway will be sadly missed this weekend. There is always a special atmosphere around Eyre Square for the ceremonial start. To see the excitement from the general public ahead of a season of rallying is a joy to behold.
Fingers crossed we can return to Eyre Square in 2022 and cheer our heroes over the start ramp once again.
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Photos by Kevin Glendinning