Donegal delights



By Tony Jardine

Since 2008, the magical Joule Donegal International Rally has perpetually drawn me to the North West of Ireland with its natural beauty of the Great Atlantic Way, wonderful people and the addiction that is the rally itself.

It’s not just me that it affects. Look down the years at some of the names in rallying that have been to Donegal to compete. Tony Pond in the Metro 6R4, Colin McRae in his Metro 6R4, Ari Vatanen in the Ford Escort and to crown that list off, none other than nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb, who wowed the crowds in his factory Citroën.

It has been said that the Donegal International is a happy rally, but never happy-go-lucky. The drivers’ briefing they hold on the Friday morning at the theatre in Letterkenny is unique. Donegal Motor Club uses a stimulating mix of humour and practical safety demos, coupled with a video that culminates in scary crashes that drive the safety message home. From the theatre we go straight onto the start line with a head full of sobering thoughts. Many other events could learn from this.

Normally I have a journalist or celebrity alongside me, but on this rare occasion I have a chance of learning because by luck I have one of the most experienced navigators out there in the shape of Gordon Noble to push me on. Noble’s achievements include winning the 2004 World Production title with Niall McShea, but he cites his most memorable result as winning the World Rally Championship South African candidate event, the Zulu Rally, in 2006.

Navigating for Alister McRae, the pair beat many WRC regulars, plus all the African stars on their home turf, not to mention two JWRC wins with Alastair Fisher on the world stage last year. Outside of his semi-professional rallying commitments, Gordon works as a traffic engineer in Omagh for the local roads authority. 2015 marks his 30-year anniversary on the job.

The event itself is three days of intense action over 20 stages, many classics among them. Knockalla, for example, has attitude, and is known throughout the land as an awesome stage; in places the road disappears from your view and all you can see is the Atlantic or the sky as you roller coaster at high speed, trusting your co-driver. There are sheer drops of up to 1000ft in places, making sure that your concentration is well and truly intact.

However, it is not just that challenge, it is the beauty of the area, the local people that support the event, the crews and the host town of Letterkenny that continually add to the feeling of warmth and participation when you arrive in County Donegal.

Nowhere else (except Wales Rally GB) could you compete over 300km and three days of fabulous stages, which is why the Irish drivers talk of the lure of the black stuff and of the ‘craic’ when you’re bang in the middle of the buzz of the Donegal International Rally. If you’re not in this part of the world in June you are missing out. I had to skip last year and promised myself it would not happen in 2015.

The event always clashes with a grand prix, but this year I was determined to come back, so I told the guys I won’t be covering Austria, (as well as my Sky Sports News commitments I have been working for beIN Sports’ live F1 weekend show across the Middle East and Africa) – that’s how much I want to compete on this rally again.

This year Gordon and I are competing in a Mitsubishi Evo 9 that is owned by one of rallying’s finest, Martin Howley. Without his help we would not be there. Martin’s Castle Murray House Hotel, Lockton MIS Motorsport, and my long-term tyre partners Kumho join us on this year’s jaunt to Donegal – they are simply the best tyres to have for this rigorous event, especially if it turns wet. KG Motorsport, which has a superb reputation, will run the car this year and that gives both Gordon and I great confidence.

In 2012 I had my best result when journalist Maurice Hamilton and I finished 14th overall, but over the years I have driven various different cars – one that sticks in the mind is the Skoda Octavia WRC of Richard Hogg that took all my experience just to get it off the line. It was quite a challenge for us, but the speed over the famous Donegal jumps was amazing – it was my first time in a world rally car, with no time for testing, and the power and acceleration were electrifying.

On the very first jump of the event the car took off, nearly over the heads of the watching spectators, landing spectacularly with our eyes out on stalks. It was a glorious beast with lots of torque that took all our concentration.

We are part of a near 200-strong entry list for this year’s event, including historics and juniors. When you take into account that the reserve list currently stands at over 35 – those numbers for an international really are remarkable – it also shows the pull and desire that the event creates. Everyone wants to be in Donegal.

This year the likes of Declan and Brian Boyle are returning to defend their crown, and in a brand new Fiesta WRC too. As the first all-‘home’ crew to win the event in over 30 years, I am told the celebrations went on for weeks last year. Garry Jennings will be there, as too will Craig Breen, fresh from his latest victory in the European Rally Championship, raring to go in a Ford Escort MkII.

Gordon and Tony on the podium in Scotland, 2011

Multiple Isle of Man TT winner Michael Dunlop will also be out in his brand new Ford Escort, and I am glad he is starting ahead of me as I wouldn’t want Mr Dunlop up my chuff. He was mighty impressive last year when he competed for the first time, and brought a large army of fans to watch the event as well.

Donegal is an rally where there is no shortage of fun and laughter, with spectators lining the stages every day to see the action. They themselves encourage good behaviour and work very well with An Garda Síochána, the national police in Ireland, to ensure that it all works efficiently when everyone co-operates and pulls together.

And that’s the thing about the Joule Donegal International Rally – everyone pulls together, and it works. I cannot wait to get over there.

For more information please visit the event website

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