There is a county tucked away in the northwest corner of Ireland that is known throughout the world for the winding tarmac roads which traverse the rugged coastline and hills. In June every year the sun comes out, the tarmac gets sticky and the county of Donegal goes tarmac rally mad. However, there is more rallying in Donegal than just tarmac. As you can guess with wild and rugged terrain around the North Atlantic coast there are also lots of hills, forestry and off-road tracks, so this weekend, as Autolifers newest photographer I ventured into the hills to witness the third round of the Valvoline Irish Forestry Championship.

6am is early on a normal day, but after 2 weeks of glorious sunshine, 6am was feeling particularly early as rain battered the windows as I ate breakfast. “I volunteered for this”, I told myself as I packed the last of my gear into the car and headed for the hills. Packing the car with camera gear, wet gear and enough food to keep me going for a few days rallying is a common process for me, a well-drilled procedure that I know well from photographing rallying all over Ireland… but this time was different. I’ve never even been to a forestry rally before, never mind taken pictures at one before, so there was some trepidation as I set off.

Two and a half hours later I arrived at a car park in the middle of the Donegal hills. It was wet, cold and there was only one way into the opening stage… on foot. A few local contacts had mentioned a jump on the first stage and had shown me roughly where it was on the map, it looked close enough to the start of the stage. In reality, it wasn’t…

About 4 miles of hiking later, I was standing in the crisp morning air with the rain falling gently around me looking at the rolling, undulating hills that the tourists flock to this part of the world to see… and a massive inflatable green arch, bedecked with sponsorship, which was stretched over the gravel track. My first real shock with gravel rallying came as the first car approached, I was conditioned to expect the fastest cars to be running at the head of the field. I knew the 2-wheel drives run first on gravel but there was still some slight recalibration in my mind when the first car over the crest was a Peugeot 106 driven by a junior.

The first stage of a rally is always interesting, some drivers bed themselves in gently, some just go for it. I was at a point 4 miles into the stage, which was also only 4 miles into the rally and as the cars approached on the blindside of the crest, it was obvious who had taken their bravery pills with their morning cuppa before the cars were even in view. The sound of highly stressed racing engines screamed as the approached the jump but with the more cautious drivers the sound dulled as they approached, but the drivers who were on it just kept their throttle foot flat to the floor.

One of the favourites for the event, Adrian Hetherington, decided to go for it in his Corolla WRC. Adrian launched the Toyota over the jump in spectacular fashion but this tactic proved to be short lived, as the Corolla would clip a rock later in the stage causing the crew to retire. Unfortunately the first stage claimed a good few cars, many of them clipping the same rock which had been exposed from a bank in a cut.

Stages 2 and 3 were similar affairs to stage 1; fast, treacherous and rain-soaked and as the crews returned to Donegal Town for their first service Marty McCormack led the way in his Skoda Fabia R5 closely followed by Patrick O’Brien in his Evo 6, with Jordan Hone rounding out the top 3 in an Evo 9. In 4th place and top 2-wheel drive was David Crossan in the stalwart of Irish rallying, a Mark 2 Escort.

For the late morning loop of stages stages 1, 2 & 3 were repeated as 4, 5 & 6 and there was a much welcome break in the otherwise incessant rain, drying the gravel tracks and even exposing some dust. As the cars came through on the second pass over the stage, there was a different demeanour about the cars. Everyone had settled in, everyone was getting down to business. Through the second loop, McCormack extended his lead over O’Brien with Jon Armstrong moving into third place, profiting from Jordan Hone’s mishap when he slid his Evo off the road and into a ditch. After the opening 6 stages David Crossan held onto 4th place overall and was still in the lead of the 2-wheel drive cars with Shane McGirr keeping the pressure on in his Toyota Starlet.

In the evening, Stages 7 and 8 were scheduled to be 2 passes over a long 17km stage, however, the first run was cancelled and the second stage was delayed.

Coupled with the delays, the rain began to fall and the light began to fade so it made for welcome respite from the weather when the first car arrived into the square left where I had taken up position. Marty McCormack and David Moynihan were in a league of their own and posted fastest time through the final stage to cement victory and the claim the top step of the podium in Donegal Town. Patrick and Stephen O’Brien brought their Evo 6 through the final stage cleanly to finish second but Jon Armstrong encountered difficulties, leaving the Mark 2 crew of David Crossen and Damien Fleming to pick up the pieces and take third overall and first in the 2-wheel drive battle.

As I got home at 10pm, 16 hours after I had left, I had spent 2 hours 30 minutes reflecting on the event that I had just been to and there were two things that really stood out;

1. The Jumps. The amount of time that the cars are in the air on the gravel is really, really impressive and is fantastic to watch. I would encourage anyone interested in motorsport to put on their hiking boots (and coat) and tramp into the forests for their nearest event.
2. I’m hooked. I will definitely be back in the forests. In fact, the first thing I did when I arrived home was to find out when the next one was …… then I started drying all my wet gear.
Words & Photos: David Harrigan
For more from David check out his page of Facebook here