Eamonn Kelly is a young man with a rising reputation in the British Rally Championship. The Donegal driver leads BRC’s junior section after the series’ opening three rounds.
Like many, Kelly’s path in rallying took an unexpected stop when coronavirus halted the sport last year. The 22-year-old jumped at the chance to compete in Motorsport UK’s top rally championship when its calendar was revealed this year.
Up against established championship hopefuls, Kelly faced a steep learning curve as he started the season still to make his gravel debut.
Three rounds in, Kelly and co-driver Conor Mohan, are already showing clear signs of their development. On just his third ever gravel rally, August’s Grampian Forest Rally, Kelly claimed his maiden Junior BRC win.
It’s a win that propelled the Irish duo to the top of Junior BRC’s standings, 14 points ahead of Scotsman Finlay Retson.
“To be honest, I was surprised,” Kelly told Rally Insight when asked about leading JBRC. “I knew we had the pace to be there at some stage and I’ve always believed in myself but I didn’t think it would come so quick.
“I suppose the progress has been really good, we’ve made a good step after each round.
“We have been consistent too which is something that I have been trying to work on since my first proper year of rallying in 2019.
“Back then, I stepped into the Fiesta and had no consistency at all, and that really annoyed me. So this year I was like ‘I have to be consistent’ and out of everything I have been delighted about that.
“The speed is coming along nicely as well, there is still a lot to come but I’m really happy with the progress so far.”
Oulton Park’s Neil Howard Stages kicked off this year’s British Rally Championship in an unusual circuit-based fashion. Northern Ireland’s William Creighton was the man to beat on the season opener as Kelly was among several JBRC drivers to lose time stuck behind competitors along the looped circuit stage.
Four stage wins from eight was still a great showing for Kelly on his BRC debut but the Irishman knew bigger challenges lay ahead as he prepared for the Nicky Grist Stages in Wales.
“The Nicky Grist finished as a tie-break for third,” explained Kelly, “and they based it on the first stage [results] so I lost out because I wasn’t quick enough out of the blocks.
“I was so far off the pace at the start of the day. It was only our second-ever gravel rally and we were learning so much.
“We did the M-Sport Stages a week before the Nicky Grist and it was my first gravel rally. It was really loose and slippery because of the heavy rain. So I was used to the car moving around a lot, even on the straights.
“The difference in grip on the Nicky Grist caught me by surprise on the first loop. Then once we got the hang of it in the evening it was so enjoyable. We even grabbed the fastest stage-time at the very end which was really encouraging.
“The stages over there are unreal, so fast with so much grip.
“We were able to carry the confidence from that into the Grampian.”
Carry the confidence they certainly did. Kelly and Mohan got to grips with their Ford Fiesta Rally4 on the Scottish gravel to hold a solid second position from stage two to stage four. Kelly’s second position turned into a 14-second lead when 2020 Junior WRC driver, Ruairi Bell, stopped on stage five with an electrical problem.
One stage stood between Kelly and his first JBRC win. Nerves? No problem. Kelly kept his cool over the final 10 kilometres to head an all-Irish podium in JBRC.
Three rounds in, Junior BRC has had three different rally winners as well as three different championship leaders. Kelly is the latest man to hold the two honours but rather than focus on his position on the leaderboard, he is grateful for the opportunity to learn from his competitive rivalries.
“There is nothing better than having a large amount of really fast drivers. I think it fair to say there are at least six drivers able to win any round, it can go any way.
“They are lads who are putting in equal amounts of effort to push each other. You know that if you aren’t putting in the effort you can be damn sure that somebody else is.
“That is what you want, it has played a massive part in bringing us on faster.
“You can see the likes of Will Creighton and Ruairi Bell who have been there before and have WRC experience. You can see it in their times, especially on gravel. It shows what is really there and makes you realise what the cars are capable of.
“It pushes you to try to find that time which is exactly what you want. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t know, and maybe you wouldn’t try to work that bit harder to find that time. It’s perfect.
“We’re in a good position now but we’re taking it round by round. We still feel like we have a long way to go in bringing on our own pace. We looked at the in-car footage from each round and there is still a lot to improve on.
“You’re only as good as your last result so it is all about going round by round and trying to get faster each time.”
Kelly faces another new gravel rally next, Yorkshire’s Trackrod Rally. BRC’s end of September event starts a busy three weeks for Donegal’s latest driving talent.
There is just one free weekend between the Trackrod and its subsequent round in Mull. It won’t quite be a free weekend for Kelly either as he tackles roads much closer to home on the Donegal Harvest Rally.
Indeed it is a busy second half of the BRC season with four rounds crammed into three months and with an Ulster Rally finale likely to decide the championship, there is plenty for Kelly to aim for.
But before all of that, Kelly is heading back to Scotland in two weeks’ time to gain more gravel experience on the Galloway Hills Rally. The learning goes on and with Kelly’s positive attitude one wouldn’t be surprised if the results kept coming too.
Photos courtesy of British Rally Championship