The 2022 Irish Forest Rally Championship gets underway in Killarney this weekend with several contenders hoping to get an early jump in Ireland’s premier gravel series.
One such driver is 2021 Bushwhacker Rally winner Patrick O’Brien. After a rallyless coronavirus break, the 24-year-old grabbed an R5 outing on the Bushwhacker with both hands to claim an impressive victory.
O’Brien’s success last September was only his second drive in an R5. Mechanical gremlins hindered his only other outing last year, November’s Ulster Rally, but it’s safe to say the Omagh driver’s plans are set to be much busier in 2022.
The Irish Forest Rally Championship will be O’Brien’s main focus and if all goes well he may crop up on some British Rally Championship rounds too.
“I just can’t wait to get back into the R5,” exclaimed the Ford Fiesta driver. “They’re brilliant and so easy to drive. They are so simple in a way.
“I really can’t wait to get back into it and now that we have a proper programme, I’m definitely looking forward to it.
“It is exciting to have a full season planned. It gives us a focus now.
“Rather than going to a few rallies for a bit of fun I have to have a bit of a business head to do a job when I’m rallying. It’s not a case of just going flat-out all the time.”
O’Brien is set to face stiff competition in the Forest Championship as 2016 and 2019 champions Desi Henry and Cathan McCourt return to the woods. Jordan Hone is another gravel sensation taking an R5 Fiesta to Killarney on Sunday.
It’s an exciting prospect and one O’Brien is relishing. After all, the 2015 Junior Forest champion is there to pit himself against the best.
As for Killarney Forestry Rally itself, O’Brien is keen to race through what appear to be three fast stages.
“To be honest, I like when the rallies are new. It means that everyone is on the same level and haven’t had recent experience.
“Killarney will be a very fast rally which I don’t mind at all. I actually like fast rallies but this looks extremely fast.”
With booming entries on Irish Tarmac and the National Rally Championship’s opening rounds, it is great to see a competitive front-end in the first forest rally of the year. If O’Brien’s Bushwhacker performance was anything to go by, McCourt and Henry will have their work cut out to maintain their gravel supremacy.
Indeed, it’s easy to overlook how important the Bushwhacker was for O’Brien last year.
“That result set this year in stone to be honest,” said the recently inducted Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy member. “Before Bushwhacker we were wondering, if we had an R5 could we be there and on the pace at all.
“Once we knew that then we could plan for this year. It let everyone else know that we could mix it with the boys as well.”
Killarney Forestry Rally takes place on Sunday 20 February with the first of six stages starting at 10:30.
Photos by Kevin Glendinning