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The most eagerly anticipated event of the year for the entire rally community in Ireland has to be the Donegal International Rally. Even with the economy the way it is 140 crews made the start of the event. The Donegal Rally never fails to draw a big entry as it has some of the best asphalt rally miles in the world and the world’s best have been here to take on such classics like Knockalla, Atlantic Drive and Glen. Last years winner Garry Jennings and Neil Doherty where back to defend their crown against a very tough looking field of WRC cars lining up behind them.

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This was actually my first time to be at the start of any international rally as usually I am already on my way or finding the best vantage point on the first stage of the day. It was nice to see the buzz in Letterkenny and even though I was impressed by the crowds I was assured that it was usually more busy than this! Still it was great to be there.

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It was also nice to see such fantastic machinery sitting in the centre of town, bringing the rally to the people so to speak. I do not usually get to see the cars this close as again being out on the stages and rushing around the countryside means I only catch them for a glimpse as they blast past in the blink of an eye on stage. Declan Boyle’s Impreza looks fantastic and check out the Hyuandi Impreza WRC in the foreground. 😉

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Phil Collins (no, not the Genisis front man), from Wales is one of the top National Rally competitors and drives a beautiful MkII Escort

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Another great advantage of coming to the start of any rally is being able to get to see the drivers up close. Peugeot works driver Craig Breen and Darragh O’Riordan were having a lengthy discussion at the start of the event. Craig was not in Donegal in a Peugeot though and was just out for some fun in a MkII Escort that he was absolutely flying in at the Rally of the Lakes.

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The Irish rallying community owes a lot to many people and one of those people has to be Alan “Plum” Tyndall of RPM. Plum and RPM have been covering rallying here in Ireland for countless years and always produce high quality coverage. I remember writing letters to RPM when I was a kid asking about did they have “this” rally and “that” rally. Usually I was asking about obscure rallies my dad competed on in the 70’s and 80’s.

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So off we went and headed for Special Stage 2 – Clark Mountain. We reached the mid-point of the stage with a little jump which promised some nice action and it didn’t disappoint. I expected Garry Jennings to be going very hard at this point and he certainly was! Also very impressive at this point where Darren Gass, Sam Moffett and…

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… Derek McGarrity. Rallying, it seems, in the North West is as popular as ever and this photo certainly depicts that with spectators as far as the eye can see. This section was very much for the brave soul with its long, inviting straight to its vicious, suck-you-in-spit-you-out bumps and jumps.

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Darragh O’Riordan’s Fiesta was definitely one of the most interesting cars at the rally and I was looking forward to seeing it been driven in anger. Darragh, however, was having problems with the suspension setup with the car proving very difficult to steer and keep between the hedges and the last thing you need on a bumpy Donegal road is to be driving at over the ton with a car your not super confident with.

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Seamus Leonard from my home town, Omagh, is a Donegal regular in his Impreza WRC and is always “there or there abouts” as they say in rallying. After the second loop of stages Seamus was in a fantastic 5th overall in a Ford Focus sandwich with Derek McGarrity infront and Donagh Kelly in the Airtricity Focus just behind waiting to pounce.

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Craig Breen taking to the air on Clark Mountain in his Escort with Karl Atkinson calling the notes. Craig was expected by many to be leading the national part of the rally but by the end of the day was almost a minute down on the leader Gary McPhillips. Coming from a Peugeot 207 S2000 car to a MkII can’t be easy even for someone as talented as Craig.

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Donegal in summer, does it get any better?

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HASS Motorsport had a selection of wheels, luckily for me I forgot my cheque book 😉

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The VooDoo girls certainly brightened up the Service Park

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After six stages Garry Jennings led the rally along with co-driver Neil Doherty

 
At the end of day one Garry Jennings had a 10 second lead from Darren Gass in another Subaru Impreza WRC. Sam Moffett who was out for only his second run in the newer shape WRC Impreza impressed everyone with his pace showing that his win on home soil on the Monaghan National Rally was not down to just local knowledge, as he was only 16 seconds behind Gass. The battle in the National rally was being lead by Gary McPhillips from Manus Kelly by 18 seconds with Rodney Wilton in yet another MkII Escort a further 10 seconds back. For day one we had beautiful sunshine – what would day two hold? Would we get the perfect rally weekend?

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A very different morning was in store for the crews in comparison to the beautiful sunshine of Friday. Saturday opened with Garrygort and Knockalla completed twice and overnight leader Garry Jennings was trading seconds with Darren Gass with Darren taking first blood on the first Garrygort stage. Garry had a big moment on SS9, the second time over, having to take to the greenery in order to avoid hitting hay bales and causing serious damage to the car. Gass also reported that he had as issue at one junction, having to use the escape road.

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Sam Moffett was consistently fast over the opening loop of Saturday morning – driving fast but no major panic and although dropping more time to the leaders you cannot fail to be impressed by his driving. The Ford Focus WRC’s of Derek McGarrity (above) and Donagh Kelly rounded out the Top 5. Derek was complaining about a gearbox malady that had being plaguing the car since the start of the rally. Donagh who would have preferred to have had RHD for the rally was beginning to settle in to the Focus’ handling characteristics.

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Stephen Wright and his sister Susanne are yet another young rallying duo from Monaghan. Stephen was in second place in the GroupN category behind Martin Doherty in a similarly mounted Evolution IX. Just 11 seconds lay between Stephen and the lead of the category. Shane Maguire, another young Monaghan driver was in third place. On a personal note it was great to see the likes of Sam and Josh Moffett, Stephen Wright and Shane Maguire all competing on such a high profile rally. I remember competing at Latton Quarry at the same events with these young drivers back in 2006 and they where bloody quick then!

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This incident in the morning actually led to the cancellation of the second run over Knockalla. Organisers had deemed it too dangerous to run the cars over the stage especially with the already slippery and wet conditions

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Frank Kelly in “Baby Blue” approaching the first hairpin on Knockalla

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They are a hardy bunch those rally spectators!

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Craig Breen on his fight back

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Overnight National Rally leader Gary McPhillips (above) was under pressure from the chasing pack but still held the lead. Craig Breen was now on a big push in order to get back on terms with the leaders and was fastest through the second run over Garrygort, SS9. Frank Kelly was not far behind Craig and was waiting to pounce should any of the top crews slip up.

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Wesley Patterson & Sean Hayde leading the Historic category on Saturday mornings run up Knockalla

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Lying 2nd in the category after Friday’s stage was yet another stunning MkII Escort this time in the hands of Seamus O’Connell. Seamus having better luck than the last time we seen him

 
The afternoon stages where based closer in towards Letterkenny and, as with the mornings stages, ran twice. The next few hours would stand the rally on its head. Over the first loop of the Grove Hall and Gartan stages Jennings increased his lead by only 5 seconds to Darren Gass. Unfortunately on the following stage, SS13, Darren and his co-driver Enda Sherry went off the road and subsequently out of the event leaving Garry with a 1 minute 12 second lead over Sam Moffett. Derek McGarrity was having continuing problems with the gearbox in his Ford Focus with Donagh Kelly setting 2nd fastest time on SS13. Seamus Leonard held fifth only 30 seconds back from the Airtricity Focus of Kelly after an eventful day seeing him in and out of a “shuck” on one stage. The Group N lead was held by Martin Doherty who was still being harassed by the Wright Lancer Evolution IX. Gary McPhillips continued to lead the National Rally from Manus Kelly but was coming under increasing pressure from Manus who had cut Gary’s lead by setting some quick times and an overshoot did not help McPhillips’ cause either. Frank Kelly and Craig Breen were driving very hard too at this point beating both McPhillips and Manus Kelly on SS13. Craig had suffered steering damage on an earlier stage. Right in the middle of this group was Adrian Hetherington who was setting consistently quick times to lie in front of both Breen and Kelly at the end of the day.
 

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Sunday Morning and we should be talking about “rally leader” Garry Jennings but unfortunately due to clocking into a time control early the previous evening Garry and co-driver Neil received a 3 minute penalty dropping them too 5th allowing everyone previously in the Top 5 up a place. This was a really unfortunate error for the crew and I have seen a lot of people giving out about the organisers enforcing the rule here but it is there in black and white. As mad as the crew would have been I am very sure they would understand the situation and move on from it. So at the start of the final day we had a new leader in the shape of Sam Moffett and James O’Reilly in the McKinstry Motorsport S14 Subaru Impreza WRC.

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Spectators avidly listening to Highland Radio to get the latest on the rally and whats going on. The updates come thick and fast!

 
Sunday should be the wind down day, the day to take your foot off slightly, brake earlier into the corners and just cruise home…. right?? Wrong! No such luck for the crews as Sunday holds yet more classic Donegal stages with the likes of Glen, Fanad Head and the awesome Atlantic Drive. Maybe being rally leader on the Donegal rally was getting to Sam Moffett as he stalled the Subaru on the start line but by the end of the stage, although not fastest, he was part of the top times as everyone was just a few seconds off each other with Seamus Leonard taking the fastest stage time of everyone. Seamus really got his head down over the next couple of stages to move into third place setting some great times however by the end of the day Donegal driver Donagh Kelly would be in front. It was apparent that Garry Jennings’ pace was dropping off slightly on this first loop of the last day and it would be hard to blame him for losing interest after driving his heart out and leading the rally from Friday. Garry didn’t let it get to him for that long as he set some quicker times over the final loop moving himself up into third overall.

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After an absolutely fraut rally with gearbox problems I am sure Derek McGarrity in the Kerr’s Tyres Focus WRC was delighted to see the final stage and get the car home. Only a few miles from the end of the stage the Focus cried enough and Derek and co-driver James McKee had to retire. What absolute rotten luck for them after they had soldiered on through the rally with a Focus gearbox that just did not want to play ball.

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It wouldn’t be Donegal without a Toyota Corolla Twin-cam – Ollie Harvey & Donal Kelly

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Darragh O’Riordan & Tony McDaid had a difficult rally with the car being too stiff but brought the Fiesta home in 6th

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Not to be out down by the WRC guys the National Rally held a few surprises too. First to fall by the way side was Craig Breen when his Escort refused to start at service meaning he was OTL and out of the rally. Gary McPhillips still lead from a hard charging Manus Kelly who by SS17 had managed to get into the lead. McPhillips had a cracked manifold but that is to take nothing away from Manus Kelly – he was just driving darn quick! Frank Kelly (above) had moved up to third place with a string of quick times in the damp conditions. Frank’s experience on loose surfaces surely coming to good use on the slippery Donegal asphalt, which would see him into 2nd place overall at the end of the rally, a fantastic result. The slender lead Manus Kelly had eked out was not to last long as heart break would await him on Fanad Head when he put the car off and out of the lead. Gary McPhillips inherited back the lead and thus the National Rally win but what a display both drivers put up for all the crowds who came out to watch them.

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Fanad Head would claim another car, this time Martin Doherty’s Evo IX and thus the GroupN lead and win was passed onto the hard charging Stephen and Susanne Wright. Seamus Heron (above) came home second overall in the Carella/DJ Rally Hire Evolution IX and 3rd place went to Shane Maguire in his, it has to be said outnumbered, Subaru Impreza.

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Wesley Patterson took the Historic win in his Escort from Seamus O’Connell whom he had battled with all weekend.

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Donagh Kelly & Kevin Flanagan came home in a superb 2nd position overall in the Airtricity Focus WRC

 
So to the victor go the spoils….

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Sam Moffett and co-driver James O’Reilly picked up a popular victory on the Donegal International Rally in the McKinstry Motorsport/Combilift Subaru Impreza WRC car. Sam came to Donegal off the back of a victory in the same car on his home rally in Monaghan but proved that his victory was no mere flash in the pan. From Friday through to Sunday Sam may not have been the fastest but he was consistently quick and when all around him were losing their heads he quietly and confidently kept his and showed great maturity in driving such an amazing car on an amazing rally in tough conditions. The Jennings team will be ruing that time penalty but all credit goes to the Moffett crew on what surely is the first of many ITRC rally wins.
 
Words: Patrick McCullagh
Photos: Patrick McCullagh, Graham Curry and John Moag
 

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