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No Rallying Until Next Year

It would seem that there will be no more stage rallies in Northern Ireland until 2021. All major 2020 championships in the island of Ireland have now been cancelled. These include the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, the Triton Showers Irish National Rally Championship and the Valvoline Irish Forest Rally Championship.

The remaining rounds of McGrady Insurance Motorsport UK Northern Ireland Rally Championship have been canned. It remains unclear whether current points leader Derek McGarrity can be called 2020 NI Champion. Just two of the planned five rounds were able to go ahead.

Latest events to be called off here in Northern Ireland include the popular single venue  Loughgall Country Park Rally due on 4th July and the Today’s Ulster Rally which was due in August. Also cancelled are both the Lakeland Stages and the Bushwacker Rally which should have taken place in September, they were due to be part of the new McGrady Insurance NI Gravel Rally Challenge.

Although the governing body (MUK) have issued guidelines as to how rallying could return after lockdown restrictions have been eased, these would appear to be totally unworkable. For example co-drivers would not be permitted (unless they live in the same household as the driver) and service parks would have to comply with social distancing rules. In this situation only driver-only Rally Time Trials would work.

Internationally, the World Rally Championship MAY resume with Rally Finland on 6th August. Wales Rally GB organisers are still planning for their event, the penultimate round of the WRC, to go ahead in late October. This would of course depend on the coronavirus situation in the country at that time. It has also been stated by clerk of the course Iain Campbell that Rally GB couldn’t take place without paying spectators. Ticket sales generate more than half a million pounds of the rally’s income, money that is not available from other sources. By the way, there appears to be a very slight chance that WRC Rally Northern Ireland may still be able to go ahead as early as next year, but I wouldn’t depend on it!

Talking of next year, here’s some exclusive news......Both the Circuit of Ireland at Easter and the Ulster Rally in August are set to be included In the 2021 Northern Ireland Rally Championship. According to a draft calendar (yet to be confirmed) there will be seven all tarmac rounds, three single venue rallies and four closed-road events. Sounds very exciting. Hopefully an extended championship should attract decent entry lists and give us all something to look forward to.

Looking Back

Donegal: A Rally of Triumphs and Tragedies

This month should have seen some of us BRMC members officiating on one of my favourite events, the Donegal International Rally. Held in mid June, the weather is usually kind and the craic in the host town of Letterkenny always mighty. An estimated 70,000 spectators were in attendance last year. The cancellation of this year’s rally due to the continuing effects of the coronavirus pandemic means a huge loss in revenue to the whole county of Donegal and particularly to the town of Letterkenny itself.

Last year the rally (not for the first time) ended in tragic circumstances on the final day with the death of three-time winner Manus Kelly as a result of an accident on the Fanad Head stage. The 2020 Joule Donegal International Rally should have given the organising Donegal Motor Club a chance to regroup and to add a new and positive chapter to the 50-year history of the most popular rally in Ireland. Now all the club can do is to look forward and plan for a return to their classic stages in June 2021.

35 Years Ago......1985

This was my first year timekeeping in Donegal. Partnered with my neighbour and former club member Neil Boulton, we covered the start of four special stages. I was the first person to start a MG Metro 6R4 in an International Rally! Tony Pond debuted the brand new works Computervision sponsored blue and white beast on the Donegal Rally 1985. The supercar (which I thought at that time was exceptionally wide) was fastest on the first six stages, and one minute ahead of everyone, before the engine blew! The Metro later ran as a course car with 007 on the doors. Of course the local wags and wise guys then referred to the “main man” as Tony BOND!

The rally was won by Billy Coleman in the Rothmans Porsche 911 after a titanic battle with Austin McHale’s black Shell Oils Opel Manta 400. Coleman led after day one, but lost a huge amount of time to McHale on day two only to claw back to 37 seconds behind going into the final day. Then by the start of the penultimate stage the gap was down to just 8 seconds. Billy blitzed the short stage to take victory by ONE second.... the final stage was cancelled because too many spectators had jammed the roads!

30 Years Ago......1990

This was the year of the battle of the amazing BMW M3’s in Donegal. Austin McHale in the black Xtra-vision car won the rally by 9 seconds from Bertie Fisher’s white Tough Mac example. Vincent Bonner led after day two in his Opel Manta 400 but dropped to eighth on the final day with mechanical problems. Then Fisher edged in front, but he ultimately lost the rally win after picking up a ten second penalty for an “off-schedule” tyre change. Had the penalty been quashed, Bertie would have won by ONE second. James Cullen was third in a Ford Sierra Cosworth. Andrew Nesbitt made his Donegal debut in  Manta 400 and impressed many on his way to seventh place.

20 Years Ago......2000

Andrew Nesbitt in his Subaru Impreza S7 WRC was fastest on all 22 stages of the Donegal Rally, a record that still stands today. I was only able to help on the Saturday stages that year. The weather on Fanad Head was fine with great views of Lough Swilly to be had. Four of us were timing the finish of this classic test. We had a trouble free day apart from some competitors who had bother getting stopped for their times. James Cullen was a distant second, 3 minutes down to the flying Nesbitt.

10 Years Ago......2010

We all know Motorsport can be dangerous and accidents do happen. The Donegal Rally takes the safety of officials, competitors and spectators very seriously indeed. Despite this the rally has had its share of tragic circumstances over the years, including of course 2019. In 2002 we had the sad loss of two young marshals, then in 2008 a spectator died. In both incidents the unfortunate victims were struck by competing cars.

In 2010 a young co-driver, Thomas Maguire from Longcross in Co.Meath, was fatally injured when the Citroen C2R2 Max he was sharing with driver Shane Buckley, left the road on a fast section on the famous Knockalla stage and plunged over a cliff. Shane was badly hurt but survived. The accident happened on day two and the final Sunday section was cancelled as a result.

We had been covering the finish time controls of Malin Head on Friday, John and Anna Hughes were with Victor and myself. A total of 144 competitors passed through our finish the first time and then 133 on run two with no incidents to report. A street stage in Buncrana which attracted a crowd of 10,000 spectators followed the second Malin test.

On Saturday morning we were on the end of Fanad Head for the two runs of this popular stage. Craig Breen had a massive sixth gear accident on the first run in his Fiesta S2000, but he and his co-driver were uninjured. They had been in second place after the Friday tests. By the end of the second Fanad stage we had 121 cars left as the crews then headed to the faithful Knockalla test. We headed back to Rally HQ where news of the tragic accident began to filter through around 5pm that evening.

Around 1,500 competitors, officials (including ourselves) and fans attended a hastily arranged memorial service in rally HQ, the Mount Errigal Hotel, Letterkenny on the Sunday morning for the late Thomas Maguire. Damien Crawford, Chairman of Donegal MC, addressed the large crowd and spoke of a close-knit rallying community who competed together, played together and mourned together. Shane Buckley’s immediate family attended as everyone prayed for his speedy recovery.

Gareth MacHale and Brian Murphy led the rally from start to finish in their Ford Focus WRC, the same car Gareth drove to victory in 2009. Tim McNulty and Paul Kiely were a distant second in a Subaru S12B while Daragh O’Riordan was third in his S11 example, with co-driver Tony McDaid emulating his dad Robert who had finished third last year with Sean Devine. David Bogie beat all the quick Escort Mk.2 drivers to win the National Rally in his fantastic MG Metro 6R4.


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