Callum Devine loves an asphalt challenge and it’s fair to say he was eager to sample what Barum Rally Zlin had to offer this year’s European Rally Championship crews.
Devine headed to the Czech Republic last week carrying confidence in the pace he showed at Rally di Roma a month earlier. Barum Rally offered another chance to gain more asphalt experience in his M-Sport Ford Fiesta Rally2.
The only snag in Devine’s plan was how unique Barum Rally is. While it sounded similar to his home stages in Ireland, the addition of some big cuts made his Czech Republic visit an altogether different prospect.
Before the rally, Devine told Rally Insight he would be happy with a top ten finish or at least a regular fight with those in the top ten.
Finishing seventh overall meant it was mission complete for Devine and his ever-improving stage-times were probably the most promising witnessed this year.
In fact, Devine finished as Barum Rally’s top rookie and was the first driver to bring a non-Skoda over the finish ramp.
“I think the rally went well for us,” summarised Devine. “Considering we had some small wee mechanical issues.
“We went there and did our own thing, we never really got caught up in too many battles.
“We were happy with that and we just improved our speed at our own tempo. Day one was quite tricky with the changeable conditions, cuts, and mud, a lot of risk would have had to be taken.
“On the second day we were definitely happy with our speed improvement. It was definitely a good boost.”
A pop-off valve issue proved to be a bit of a distraction behind the wheel of the Rally2 Fiesta. But Devine reckoned it didn’t annoy him too much, along with co-driver James Fulton, he was there to enjoy the rally and focus on his own performance.
Despite the precarious conditions, Devine was revelling on Zlin’s stages.
“Some of the stages were pretty crazy to be honest. You would be coming through the stage and it would be dry and then for three kilometres it would be soaking wet.
“Then you would come through it and the stage would be bone dry again. It was kind of weird but it was pretty cool to be honest, I enjoyed it anyway.
“The stages were very good, a bit like home, very bumpy. There were a lot of surfaces changes and it went from fast to bumpy. The big difference was the cuts in corners. They have deep ditches and strips of grass rather than the stone ditches we have at home.
“Everyone cuts into them and pulls out loads of mud which is what makes it very tricky as more and more cars go through.
“It definitely lived up to my expectations, if not higher.
“The last stage on Saturday night was one of the big stages and I would say it was fifty per cent gravel and fifty per cent tarmac. Then the cuts and stuff, it was just class.
“Our game plan was to build up our own speed because we were probably the only crew in the top ten or fifteen that hadn’t been there before. We had no previous experience and I think that plan made it quite comfortable for us to drive.”
Knowing Devine it is no surprise that his best result on Saturday came on that last stage of the day. Pindula in the dark is one of those spine-tingling tarmac tests only certain rallies can offer.
His late night charge edged him closer to Spain’s ERC title challenger Efren Llarena and kick-started a battle that would last throughout Barum Rally’s final day.
“The fight with Llarena, on day one we were a good 20-odd seconds off him, maybe more. It was dry on Sunday morning and we just took off out of the blocks.
“We started setting some good times and started to claw him in, which was really encouraging.
“Llarena is third in the championship, he’s been flying all year, and he has done that rally before. To be racing him and some of the Czech regulars was great.
“Going into the final stage we were quite comfortable thinking we would take time out of him again. On the first pass of the big stage, we took ten or more seconds off him.
“But it started to rain at the start of that stage. It started spitting and we were already at the stage with no time to change the tyres.
“To be fair we only had two soft slicks spare and we had four medium slicks on the car. We were planning for the stage to be dry like the previous ones.
“It was a bit unfortunate but that’s the way it goes, we pushed hard when we had dry patches and we were happy with our driving.
“It was soaking and then parts of the stage was dry making it very tricky.
“Llarena had managed to get two wets and had two softs on so he had the best tyre choice for it.
“Fair play to him and Sara [Fernandez] as it was good racing and good craic with them throughout the stages and with some of the Czech guys as well.”
Devine may have just missed out on a top six finish but he had clearly loved his Czech debut. As the ERC moves back to gravel in a couple of weeks for the Azores Rally, Devine will be hoping he can continue to carry his current form into the latter half of the season.
But for now, he’s just living off the good of a tricky weekend of rallying.
“It was just a spectacular rally.
“The crowds, the atmosphere, it was great to have everyone back in service.
“Definitely the most enjoyable rally I have done in the ERC in the last two years. It would be one we would go back to.
“The stages were great, really enjoyable.
“The competition is extremely strong and everyone welcomes the rally really, really well.
“It was just a good rally all-round.”
Photos courtesy of FIA European Rally Championship