Next month’s Rally Croatia will start another season of aspiring rally stars battling for tenths in the Junior World Rally Championship. It’s a special year for the series as it marks 20 years since its debut in 2001.
JWRC’s first champion?
It’s fair to say that the series started off on the right foot.
Drivers either side of the Irish border have dabbled in rallying’s top junior championship since its inception two decades ago.
Jon Armstrong and William Creighton double Ireland’s interest in the JWRC this year, only the second time in the series’ history two Irish crews will battle it out to become Junior World Champion.
The two young drivers will be hoping history repeats itself as Craig Breen claimed victory that year with Alastair Fisher finishing third. Breen’s 2011 WRC Academy crown remains a highlight of Ireland’s motorsport history but when you go down the list of previous JWRC drivers; talent from the Emerald Isle has been present right across the past 20 years.
Fermanagh’s Niall McShea set an early high standard, finishing third in the very first championship which was then called the FIA Cup for S1600 Drivers.
It was a highly competitive opening year with Loeb and McShea joined by Giandomenico Basso, Andrea Dallavilla, and Francois Duval.
Loeb was untouchable in 2001, taking five wins from his five JWRC starts.
McShea returned the following year before Kris Meeke took up Northern Ireland’s representation in the S1600 series. The future WRC star competed in JWRC from 2003 to ‘06, claiming two rally wins, and a championship podium in ‘05.
Then came World Rally Team Ireland and Shaun Gallagher in 2007 and ‘08. Second on Rally Jordan helped Gallagher to fourth in his second attempt at the championship.
After graduating from the JWRC, Gallagher went four-wheel-drive and achieved Group N honours on Rally Ireland.
The championship’s rebranding as WRC Academy attracted two well-known drivers from Ireland in 2011. Breen and Fisher fancied their chances against the world’s best and it was Breen who rose to the top by the finest of margins on a nail-biting Rally Great Britain finale.
In fact, it was decided on the very last stage, Myherin, as Breen picked up the last stage-winning point he needed to clinch the title from Estonia’s Egon Kaur.
Celebrations followed in the “cowshed” and that unbelievable weekend of 14 stage wins from 17 will always evoke special memories of the much-missed, highly talented Welsh co-driver – Gareth Roberts.
The half a million euro prize fund was pivotal in securing Breen’s professional future in rallying. 10 years on Breen has reached the top but it’s clear to see his determination hasn’t dried up a bit as he strives for more WRC success.
Fisher finished third in the WRC Academy that year, victory on Rally France the highlight. He returned for a second year in the Academy which started perfectly with victory on Rally Portugal.
A second-place finish on the infamous Acropolis kept Fisher’s championship momentum going but two consecutive non-finishes in Germany and France quashed any hopes of a title. A title that went to a certain Welsh hotshot – Elfyn Evans!
Fisher’s last JWRC attempt came in 2014 as the series moved from M-Sport’s Fiesta R2 to Citroen’s DS3 R3T. Fisher claimed two event wins in France and Great Britain but missed out on the title by a single point.
Looking back, the Northern Irishman’s victory in France is all the more laudable now when you consider the French drivers he had to beat: Eric Camilli, Stephane Lefebvre, and Yohan Rossel.
Ireland’s JWRC presence was retained in 2015 by Daniel McKenna who had talent aplenty for the world series. The Monaghan driver managed three rounds before the realities of rallying at that level struck home.
The same financial difficulties hit Robert Duggan in 2017 who similarly had no shortage of pace and talent to match the performances of his Irish predecessors.
Callum Devine is the most recent Irishman to complete a full season in the JWRC. He pitted himself against the world’s best young drivers in 2018 after winning the Junior British Rally Championship the year before.
Fourth in the championship was Devine’s reward with his return to Irish rallying in 2019 showing the benefits of his newly acquired WRC experience.
Now it’s all about Armstrong and Creighton. 20 years on from McShea’s battles with Loeb, the importance of Junior WRC in rallying’s ladder of progression hasn’t lessened one bit.
Last year’s champion, Tom Kristensson, is yet another example of that. The Swede getting his first Rally2 drive with M-Sport this weekend as part of their WRC 2 line-up.
Both Armstrong and Creighton have taken different routes to secure their Junior WRC break and following in the footsteps of several icons of Irish rallying, they’ll have the whole island behind them as they tackle a testing opening round – Rally Croatia.
Photos courtesy of Junior WRC