Rallying is back. Okay, rallying has been back in different places for a while. But for me, rallying is back this weekend.
The North Armagh Motor Club welcomes spectators to the Loughgall Stages Rally this Saturday. It will be the first rally attended by fans in Ireland since March 2020.
It will be my first trip to a rally since Galway International kick-started what was set to be a thrilling Irish Tarmac Rally Championship last year.
Loughgall Country Park might not offer the same challenge as Galway’s glass-like roads but Loughgall’s narrow park lanes will still test the expectant crews. Also, one can hope an August Saturday in County Armagh should be a touch warmer than Loughrea’s wintry rain showers.
The Northern Ireland Rally Championship makes its debut at Loughgall’s single-venue rally making it an unknown for many of the leading contenders.
In fact, its tight confines could make life difficult for those driving four-wheel-drive machinery.
Damian Toner will defend his 2019 win with the Ford Escort Mk2 driver on a five-time winning streak around his local rally. Seeded sixth, don’t be surprised if he is the early pace-setter on Saturday morning.
The six-stage rally covers the same stretch of tarmac all day. Crews will tackle the 3.3 mile “Manor” test three times before facing “Drumilly” in the afternoon. Drumilly also runs three times and is a reverse of Manor.
NI Rally competitors will be used to single-venue running after the championship’s opening rounds at Bishopscourt and Shackletown. However, Loughgall is anything but an open circuit-style rally.
Cars will rarely hit top gear, and when they do it will be on a narrow, rough section with a braking zone ready to bite if not approached correctly.
Tight junctions and chicanes are balanced with smooth flowing bends midway through the country park stage. The flowing section comes with a warning as it is lined either side by trees.
The slippery surface under those treacherous trees is another test and one that may give those with experience the edge on first arrival.
For those spectating, Loughgall has a fan favourite up its sleeve. As drivers approach Drumilly’s flying finish, they’ll encounter a long sweeping hairpin in front of Manor House. How R5s and WRCs slide around the hilltop bend will be intriguing but for the old school purist, seeing those rear-wheel-drives perform a perfect power slide – it will be like rallying was never away.