Rally Insight Awards – Drive of 2021

2021 is quickly coming to an end; rallying’s stage-side sights and sounds are resting in winter storage. Before we get stuck into a new season, it is only fitting to pay tribute to the best rallying moments we’ve enjoyed in the past 12 months.

I’m proud to reveal Rally Insight’s first ever end of year award post. Over the next three weeks I am giving my wonderful readers the chance to vote for their “Drive of 2021”, “Rally of 2021”, and “Driver of 2021”.

As with most things Rally Insight, the nominees all have a link to rallying in Ireland. Don’t worry, this by no means limits the quantity or quality of nominees on offer.

To kick things off, I’m inviting you all to vote for the most impressive drive of the year. There are 10 candidates, I’ll give an overview of each one and at the end you have the opportunity to vote for your favourite at the bottom of this post.

The nominees are listed in chronological order, and while I’ll give some background info, the final decision lies solely with you!

Votes will close on Thursday 16 December and the winner will be announced a day later.

1 Josh McErlean / Keaton Williams – Rally di Alba

3rd overall

22-year-old Josh McErlean has been Motorsport Ireland’s Mr Consistent since winning the Billy Coleman Award in 2019. His two seasons in the MI Rally Academy have been focused on progression and development.

Pitched into the deep end of R5 competition in the World and European Championships. Three top fives in WRC 3 highlighted McErlean’s potential this year but it was the then 21-year-old’s maiden podium finish on Italy’s Rally di Alba that showed the young man meant business in 2021.

Seeded 12th, McErlean and Williams were surrounded by rapid locals but only one R5 crew could beat them over Rally di Alba’s nine stages. McErlean finished third overall behind European, Italian, and Turkish Rally Champion – Luca Rossetti, and the World Rally Car of Corrado Fontana.

2 Jon Armstrong / Phil Hall – Ypres Rally Belgium

1st Junior WRC

Jon Armstrong headed to Junior WRC’s penultimate round, Ypres Rally Belgium, knowing he had to get a strong result if his championship challenge was to continue.

Of course, Ypres is a risky place to go for broke. Despite making his debut on the notorious event, it didn’t take long for Armstrong and co-driver Phil Hall to stamp their authority in the Rally4 category.

The Northern Irishman built a 50-second lead over Ypres’ opening day, even though he completed half the stages with a bent rear axle. Armstrong’s approach changed over the remaining two days to ensure he came away with his second Junior WRC win in four rounds.

Four stages around Spa-Francorchamps concluded Ypres Rally Belgium and Armstrong maintained his faultless performance to clinch a one-minute Junior WRC victory.

3 Colin O’Donoghue / Kieran O’Donoghue – Escort Rally Special

1st overall

Colin O’Donoghue sealed Belgium’s highly coveted Escort Rally crown in dramatic circumstances back in September. His 28-second winning margin was impressive in its own right considering it was O’Donoghue’s first event outside of Ireland and only his fourth outside Munster.

The Kerry driver lost functionality of his paddle-shift system halfway through the Escort Rally Special and was forced to clutch going through some gears. Then, a burst rear shock absorber gave the Irish crew a bumpy ride over the final three stages.

Anyway, it all wasn’t enough to stop the O’Donoghues from claiming Belgium’s top modified crown. It was another success that highlight’s this modified man’s winning instinct. 

4 Patrick O’Brien / Stephen O’Brien – Bushwhacker Rally

1st overall

You just had to walk through the Bushwhacker’s Saturday morning Parc Ferme to realise that we were in for a treat on gravel rallying’s return to Northern Ireland. R5, Rally2, and World Rally Cars were everywhere.

Who would be the man to beat on the infamous Omagh Grand Prix?

That man was Patrick O’Brien. His cool, calm, and collected demeanour no doubt helped get him across the line to seal his maiden rally win. On the stages, O’Brien was fast. Very fast.

Nobody could touch the 24-year-old. Four stage wins from five put the rally well and truly in O’Brien’s hands with one to go. He “drove like a granny” on the final test to take the win. His slow run… still enough to go second-fastest on the longest stage of the day!

5 Callum Devine / Brian Hoy – Cork 20 International Rally

1st overall

Ireland welcomed closed-road rallying back on September’s Cork 20 International Rally. A top class entry lined up for nine quick tarmac stages but the question on everyone’s lips was could Callum Devine show his time in Europe had given him an edge on his return home.

Confusions with stage-times was about the only thing that threatened to come in the way of Devine’s first ever international rally win. An in-form Meirion Evans kept him honest and the World Rally Car of Roy White meant the Rally2 crews had to be at their best.

It was a day to remember and a moment to savour for the reformed partnership of Devine and navigator Brian Hoy. They didn’t put a foot wrong over the nine stages and proved the doubters wrong to show who the new pacesetter is on Irish soil.

6 James Stafford / Jeff Case – Cork 20 International Rally

1st two-wheel-drive

James Stafford’s Darrian T90 wasn’t far behind the top four-wheel-drive crews heading Cork 20’s star studded field. Stafford and Jeff Case were in a league of their own to claim victory in Cork 20’s National Rally.

To finish 34.9 seconds ahead of a pair of Ford Escorts piloted by Gary Kiernan and Damian Toner is a big achievement, let alone when it’s done in mechanical adversity.

A stunning trio of times on Cork’s second loop of stages gave the Wexford man control of the national section. He led rival Toner by 46.6 seconds with three stages to go.

Then fourth gear went bang and Stafford realised he’d have to nurse his Darrian T90 home and hope he stayed in front.

Thankfully his gearbox held together and despite losing second and third gear, Stafford had enough outright speed to stay ahead of his hard charging modified rivals.

7 Craig Breen / Paul Nagle – Rally Finland

3rd overall

It’s almost impossible to pick Craig Breen and Paul Nagle’s best rally of 2021. There have been so many. A Rally Sanremo win, victory at home in Killarney, and of course those two WRC runner-ups in Estonia and Belgium.

But one weekend stands out – Rally Finland.

WRC’s favourite Irishmen were on a roll. Their part-time drives weren’t stopping the results from coming in and Finland was no different.

Rally Finland’s autumnal occurrence in 2021 provided the rarity of night-time running through those majestic Finnish forests. The fastest men through it? Craig and Paul.

Breen finished the opening day of a world rally as its leader, for the very first time. A special moment to savour as he lapped up the experience of Rally Finland in the dark.

Breen and Nagle settled for third in the end, just behind team-mates Ott Tanak and Martin Jarveoja. It was indeed a weekend to remember as Breen finally put pen to paper on his M-Sport contract for the next two years.

8 William Creighton / Liam Regan – Mull Rally

1st Junior BRC

County Antrim’s William Creighton and Liam Regan have been one of the busiest crews this year. Their Junior WRC campaign meant they missed a BRC round and a retirement on the Nicky Grist Stages left them with it all to do in the second half of the season if they were to finally claim the Junior BRC crown.

Mull Rally was a must-win for Creighton and the infamous island event was BRC’s toughest of 2021. Driveshaft failure on Mull’s opening 34-kilometre loop was a huge blow and dropped Creighton down to sixth in Junior BRC and 63rd overall.

11 JBRC stage wins from the remaining 15 stages catapulted the Northern Irish duo up the leaderboard to finish Mull Rally in an impressive eighth overall. Creighton and Regan’s faultless display secured their third Junior BRC win of the year, a key moment in their charge to seal the championship.

9 Matt Edwards / Darren Garrod – Ulster Rally

1st overall

A challenging Ulster Rally was a fitting decider to a dramatic year in the British Rally Championship. Matt Edwards and Osian Pryce had been season-long title rivals and entered the Ulster knowing the rally winner would take the championship honours.

Unsurprisingly the pace was hot, very hot! Edwards and Pryce ping-ponged their way through Ulster’s first seven stages, trading fastest-times and the rally lead on several occasions. Their speed left Ireland’s usual contenders in the dust.

The speed and risk taking nature of the tussle finally caught up with the duel. Pryce was out. A roll on Ulster’s penultimate stage put a third British title in Edwards’ hands.

The Welshman sealed the victory, an incredible two and a half minutes ahead of second-placed Jonny Greer.

10 Rob Duggan / Ger Conway – Killarney Historic Rally

1st modified

Rob Duggan and Ger Conway produced a dominant display to win Killarney Historic’s modified section. As expected it was a race between Duggan and local rival Colin O’Donoghue through the opening three stages. When the latter’s challenge came to an end on the second pass of Ballaghbeama it was Duggan’s crown to lose.

Ireland’s best two-wheel-drive crews were no match for Duggan on his home turf. He remains the master of Killarney and his dominance of Moll’s Gap is proving quite the tradition.

Teething problems with his newly built Escort left him unsure ahead of the rally but when it comes to Killarney it takes a lot to knock him off the top. Duggan dedicated the win to his close friend Johnny Hickey who passed away earlier in the year. A nice touch to a special home win at the end of the year.

It’s time to vote!

Please note I have added the requirement of entering your email address. This is only to remove the chance of multiple votes being made which would affect the final results.

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Adam Hall

Brought up in the Irish countryside, Adam was never far away from the world of rallying. From following local events like the Circuit of Ireland and the Ulster Rally, Adam now puts the stories from stages all around the world into words through his website Rally Insight.

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