Donegal delivers



By Tony Jardine

Anticipation is a wonderful thing, as it can cloud the reality when you arrive at the startline.

Everything was going to plan. After three-and-a-half days of intense-but-joyous recce-ing through the glorious Donegal scenery, world-class navigator Gordon Noble had given his professional input into our pace notes – the likes of ‘shiny, slippy and tyt, CARE!!!’ – and we were ready.

This year, by the time we got to the first stage of the 2015 Donegal International Rally at Trentagh, I remembered I had to be sharp. We, as drivers and co-drivers, look out for each other – that was the message, and it was as simple as that. Damien Crawford, one of the prime movers of the rally, had expertly crafted the drivers’ briefing at a packed theatre in Letterkenny and we all knew the reality of the chances we were about to take, but my mind had gone blank.

From the archive: how to go rallying on a budget (2012)

Now, I was hoping to be sharp on stage one, but I wasn’t. However, we got through and, relieved, I started to settle down and we got into a rhythm only for the rain to hit by the fourth stage. And in a 300bhp Mitsubishi Evo 9 on slicks, I got into a big tank slapper just reaching for the wipers.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and we knew that with the likes of the classic Knockalla, Carnhill and Gartan stages to come, both Gordon and I would be in for a super day’s rallying. We really enjoyed Knockalla – a winding, climbing stage that shows the natural beauty of the wild Atlantic – despite a slow puncture towards the end. When we got out to check the tyre, we were struck with the beauty of this picturesque corner of the North West of Ireland.

Alarmingly I found the car almost steering itself halfway through Saturday afternoon, and at the following service the KG Motorsport team discovered a crack in the cross member. They instantly decided on taking no risk at all, such is the ferocious speed and demanding nature of Donegal, and decided that it had to be replaced. It meant we would ‘super rally’ on Sunday, but we were still in the event, and that was the most important thing. The KG boys worked so late into the night to keep us going – they wouldn’t let us retire.

That break gave me the chance to be a tourist in the service area at Milford, and to walk around listening to the ‘nearly’ stories from the other crews. Rivals lent parts to rivals, lent each other technicians to fix cars, and supported each other to keep going, get it fixed. I then understood the pride that each and every crew on the Donegal International has, not just in the event, but each other, and all those who visit the rally every year.

From the archive: Tony takes Damien to Swansea as his co-driver (2008)

And oh boy, what a rally! Donegal runs over 300km, with a mix of wide open and narrow roads, tight and twisty tracks through villages up and over the Glen, not to mention the cliffs that surround Knockalla. Sitting in Martin Howley’s superb Group A Evo 9 (backed by his Castle Murray House Hotel) and flat in fifth at God knows what speed, I just had to trust Gordon. He was calm and collected, even when I got sideways on a damp right-hander – with the left-rear in the ditch he just urged me to “Keep the power on!”

The weather was mixed over the weekend and went from heat to heavy rain, but the Kumho soft-cut slicks were a godsend, coping so well on the demanding roads we faced, and all the while keeping up an amazing level of grip, while some others went beyond the level of grip they had.

Over High Glen we came across two stricken cars, one a very rapid Ford Escort MkI from Scotland that went off and caught the roof of an already retired Mitsubishi lying in a ditch at the side of the road. Both crews were out of their cars, warning approaching drivers to take care.

From the archive: Tony take Damien on the McRae Stages (2009)

Emotions ran high on the Sunday, when previous winner Garry Jennings and Donegal man Rory Kennedy took the win. They had led from the front and drove very well in their Subaru WRC. The finish ramp outside the Mount Errigal hotel was awash with tears, smiles and congratulations all round. Two of the first to say well done were last year’s winners Declan and Brian Boyle, who themselves finished second.

Declan was overheard to say: “Well, if I wasn’t gonna win it, I’m delighted its Garry and Rory.” There’s a lot of sportsmanship on display in Donegal.

With close to 200 cars on the event, I began to wonder how it even happens. It takes massive organisation to manage and run something of this size, but tourism initiative Failte Ireland helps make it so with the depth of its resources, as well as the support of the Wild Atlantic Way. The other big plus for the event is that the whole county of Donegal gets behind the rally, from shop owners to hoteliers and residents in rural towns.

Lockton MIS Motorsport boss Dermot Hanafin always said that the Donegal International is the jewel in the crown of Irish rallying, and he’s right.

KG Motorsport, led by Keiron Graffin and his brother Ryan, kept us going throughout the whole event. Even when we cracked the cross member and had to super rally, the whole team carried on working – it was a superb performance by all of them.

We made up 20 places on the final day and crossed the finish ramp to receive big hugs from the forces behind the Donegal event.

After joining in the finish celebrations with Garry Jennings, Gordon and I headed off with team co-ordinator Andrew Stewart for our own night of celebrations. We ended up in a lovely Irish pub in scenic Ramelton called the Bridge Bar where I was able to go behind the counter and serve real pints of Guinness to all the customers. The party had started.

Donegal 2016 anyone? Yes please, count me in.

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