The rally academy furthering Ireland’s co-driver heritage

Motoring enthusiasts in Ireland have long been proud of the island’s ability to punch above its weight on the international rallying stage. While most of the headlines remain reserved for our superstar drivers, Ireland’s co-drivers have been key to our global rallying reputation.

As we head into 2022, Rally Insight caught up with those involved in a programme determined to continue to grow Ireland’s international rallying strength – Motorsport Ireland’s Elite Co-Driver Academy.

Seven young co-drivers have already benefited from the academy’s inaugural programme. Now, academy mentors are on the look-out for their next group of students. After talking to mentors and students, I can assure you, this is an opportunity budding co-drivers won’t want to miss.

The programme, which runs in parallel with MI’s Driver Academy, is headed up by Greg Shinnors. As if one peerless mentor wasn’t enough, the academy has enlisted a total of six. James O’Brien, Rory Kennedy, Paul Nagle, Paul McLoughlin, and Killian Duffy combine to create a portfolio of experience that sums up what the academy is all about.

“You probably don’t see the passion that these guys have for the initiative,” Shinnors described. “We are all bringing something different and together we are bringing a wealth of experience to the table.

“We can’t promise lotto winning numbers but we are trying to deliver something positive to young co-drivers with the hunger, passion, and commitment to go forward.”

Co-Driver Academy members were present on Motorsport Ireland’s development days alongside MI’s Driver Academy. Physical, mental, nutritional, and media training modules were all on the agenda. It set a strong benchmark for any sports programme.

The co-drivers then topped up their learning with focused elements to hone their navigational skills.

“Advice ranged from the basics of what equipment to use,” explained academy graduate Grace O’Brien, “to writing and calling pacenotes, event management, and preparation of event schedules.

“We were also extremely fortunate to have guest speakers, who currently work with World Rally Championship teams, provide an insight into areas that we have less exposure to.

“But one of the most invaluable aspects of the academy is having the mentors available at all times at the end of the phone for any query, big or small.”

Lead mentor Shinnors explained the point further:

“It’s not all about pacenotes, we’re trying to give them the full a-z of skills they’ll need going forward.

“They have seen the homework that Paul Nagle and Aaron Johnston are putting in, the effort that Gordon Noble is putting into an event before he even gets near the recce.

“It may not be for everyone but if they are serious they need to put in the hard graft.

“To be fair it’s very impressive to see how serious the younger generation are about their fitness and training – that is inspiring.”

Guest visits from Johnston and Noble were backed up with a gravel note session by Derek Brannigan, who played a pivotal role in Kris Meeke’s WRC campaigns, as well as one-to-one pacenote tuition with Roy White.

It is hard to imagine where else you could receive such an array of tutorials from individuals at the top of their game.

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The story could end there but I have only skimmed the surface. Collaboration like this leads to much more than taking onboard new information. The wealth of contacts that the academy now provides has given each member plenty of new opportunities.

“Finding a new “seat” as a co-driver can be difficult particularly if drivers are not aware of the experience that you have,” O’Brien described. “Each Academy Co-Driver brought something different to the table, whether we had co-driven in the United States or Europe, competed in Rally2 cars or Rally4 cars, or worked as part of a gravel crew.

“So we have been fortunate that so many opportunities came through the academy; offers of “seats”, the opportunity to attend test days, work with engineers, write pacenotes with different drivers… They are just a few examples.”

O’Brien is just one of seven co-drivers that comprised the first Elite Co-Driver Academy. She was joined by Lorcan Moore, Conor Mohan, Dylan Doonan, Eamon Creedon, Dean O’Sullivan, and Derek O’Brien.

Their exploits last year ensured the academy’s presence was felt right across the world.

If there was a series in particular that felt the academy’s full force, however, it was the British Rally Championship. Almost all of the academy members featured in the BRC last year.

One in particular had quite the season in Britain’s premier junior series. Alongside Eamonn Kelly, Monaghan’s Conor Mohan sealed two Junior BRC wins on his way to second in the championship with the Donegal driver.

Speaking to Rally Insight, Mohan explained what his key take-away was from the whole academy experience:

“It was great for my self-confidence to be selected as one of the seven academy co-drivers.

“You always had it in your head that you had to be a good representative for them and to perform at your best on each event.

“A big thing I learned was to always be ready to take every opportunity that comes because you never know what door it might open.”

Applications for the Motorsport Ireland Elite Co-Driver Academy are open until noon on Monday 21st February. A selection day will follow on Sunday 27th February. Further details are available here.

Academy graduate, Lorcan Moore, explains how the application went for him back in 2019.

“When I heard about the Academy I jumped at the chance. I wanted to have something to make me stand out from other navigators. 

“I filled in the form online, submitted some of my recent in-car footage, and attended a selection day in Athlone.

“We were assessed on pacenote writing ability and were interviewed by a selection panel led by Greg Shinnors.

“Along with the ongoing mentoring, we would debrief after an event to see what went well and what could be improved.

“The interactions were generally about the future and it all was very progressive.

“One thing they have helped us with is how to adapt and cope with a co-driver’s lifestyle.

“You need to be prepared to drop everything and go if the phone rings to be in Dublin Airport tomorrow morning should the opportunity present itself.”

As Shinnors and co. prepare to select the academy’s latest recruits, Moore and O’Brien will continue with the set-up as academy graduates.

It is clear the past two years have been invaluable for each academy member and the elite programme now has a solid template to build on in 2022 and beyond.

Shinnors was keen to point out the commitment required from each co-driver. It was an attribute that impressed him from the original seven.

Moore’s final quote is the one that sticks with me, it is not just the theory or knowledge that professional co-driving demands. To become the next Nagle or Johnston, the up and coming generation need to prepare themselves for the co-driver’s lifestyle.

But with a list of co-driving icons available on direct-dial, the academy provides a world-leading support network to get the right candidate through it.

Photos courtesy of British Rally Championship

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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