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23 Apr 2014

ERC Circuit of Ireland 2014

ERC Circuit Of Ireland 2014

Photos: Reinis Babrovskis
Text: Christopher Andrews

Easter is traditionally a time for changing seasons, chocolate eggs and, in Ireland, rally cars. Since 1931, the narrow country roads and undulating drumlins of Ireland, north and south have reverberated to the sound of high performance engines, as drivers attempted to take home one of the most prestigious prizes in rallying – the Circuit of Ireland trophy. The rally has changed a great deal over the past decades and is now much shorter than the five day marathon it used to be. Nevertheless, the 2014 event rolled back the years and proved to be an epic, action-packed, high drama weekend.

This year’s Circuit of Ireland rally was, in essence, two rallies in one. Not only was the ‘Circuit’ Round 2 of the Clonakilty Black Pudding Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, but it was Round 4 of the European Rally Championship (ERC). As a flagship event for the ERC, the ‘Circuit’ was able to introduce a host of the best young rally drivers from across the continent to the infamous, bumpy Irish tar.

The event headquarters and service park was based around the magnificent Titanic visitor centre in Belfast, whilst the special stages were located deep in the sweeping farmland and hills of County Antrim and County Down. Good Friday still marked the start of the real competitive action, but qualifying for the top ERC crews took place on the preceding Thursday, before a ceremonial start to launch the rally in front of Belfast’s historic City Hall.

Straight from the start ramp the cars returned to the HQ for the final rest before the rally begins on the Friday morning.

Prior to qualifying, it had been expected that the main battle for ERC honours would be between Peugeot’s Kevin Abbring, home country hero Craig Breen and the Skoda factory drivers, Esapekka Lappi and Sepp Weigand. Breen had won the previous ERC round in Greece in the new Peugeot 208 T16 and also had the benefit of extensive experience of rallying in Ireland. He was desperate to do well on home turf and take the win. But qualifying threw up a surprise, when Dubliner Robert Barrable, taking a break from his usual WRC 2 championship activities set fastest time on the shakedown stage…

In the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, a close tussle was expected between the Subaru Impreza WRCs of Garry Jennings and Declan Boyle. Eugene Donnelly had much to prove, after crashing his JCW Mini WRC in the previous round in Galway, whilst Donagh Kelly in the Ford Focus WRC was keen to build upon a very solid and promising start to his season. The Tarmac Championship regulars were joined by Derek McGarrity in another JCW Mini WRC and the fastest milkman in the west, Declan Gallagher, whose aim was to deliver a further modified category win in his diminutive Toyota Starlet.

On a sun-drenched day 1, Esapekka Lappi bounced into an early lead, setting seven stage fastest times to leave the rest of the field like hungry hounds chasing a rabbit. Lappi’s pace was ferocious. At one point, he had a nigh on a twenty second cushion on his nearest rival Craig Breen. But a fight back by the Irishman on the afternoon stages, which included the gigantic jumps of the legendary Hamilton’s Folly stage, cut the gap in half. Breen hadn’t an easy time either. During the course of the chase he had to survive losing two rear windows and ripping off a back bumper.

Elsewhere, Irish privateers Barrable and Sam Moffett enjoyed a fruitful day at the top end of the leader board, setting times every bit as quick as the other factory drivers, Abbring and Wiegand. Indeed, Abbring became the first major casualty of the rally, when he suffered a cooling problem on SS7 and was forced to retire.

An inauspicious slow start from Garry Jennings meant that after two stages, he trailed Donagh Kelly in the Irish Tarmac Championship section. But by SS3, he moved into top spot and looked comfortable leading from the front. Behind him Declan Boyle and Kelly gave chase, whilst Eugene Donnelly was struggling uncharacteristically in his Mini, overshooting a junction on SS6. Things, however, would change dramatically on day 2.

Surprises were plentiful on day 1. It was hard to decide which was the most significant. Either the commanding way Lappi dominated on asphalt, or the way the vast majority of the field had come through unscathed, despite the challenging stages.Day 2, Saturday, was a car-killer by comparison. By the end of the opening stage, Breen was forced to retire his Peugeot 208 T16 after a mysterious power loss, ending his dream of winning his home round. Likewise, Irish Tarmac challenger Eugene Donnelly’s dismal run of form continued when he slid his Mini WRC off the road. With Breen gone, the pressure was off for Lappi. Barrable moved into second place, but he was over a minute behind. Lappi knew that if he could see the rest of the day out, victory would be his. With both Peugeots gone, the Skoda Motorsport team were keen to pile on the pressure and take maximum points from the event. Wiegand was tasked with hunting down Barrable in order to take a 1-2 finish for the Czech team.

In the ERC Junior rally, Chris Ingram had coaxed some remarkable times out of his Renault Twingo R2, until his rally ended in spectacular fashion with a mighty roll on SS13, which led to the cancellation of the stage. Jan Černý was the main beneficiary from Ingram’s demise and he took his Peugeot 208 R2 home to claim full Junior Championship points.

SS13 also proved to be the unluckiest of stages for Sam Moffett. The morning had begun brightly with a fastest time. But mechanical gremlins invaded his Ford Fiesta RRC on SS12 and Moffett’s rally was over on the following stage.

Jennings’ stranglehold over the Irish Tarmac Championship runners continued, with a string of blistering times that left his rivals trailing in his wake. Over the mammoth 30km Bronte Homeland stage, Jennings managed to record a time that was almost 30 seconds faster than nearest challenger, Declan Boyle. Meanwhile, the Toyota Starlet of Gallagher continued to obliterate all others in the modified classes. By the middle of Saturday, Gallagher had fashioned an unassailable lead. With two stages to go, Wiegand and Barrable were still going toe to toe. The German Skoda driver had the gap down to 6 seconds, but Barrable’s stage times were only marginally slower. Second position was set to be decided in a showdown over the final two stages.
In an extraordinary turn of events, the opportunity to win round 2 of the Clonakilty Black Pudding Irish Tarmac Championship would also be decided over the very last stages. Only an unforeseen incident could have broken Garry Jennings’ grip on the event and this was the case. Jennings ran into problems on SS17, losing time in buckets, but crucially allowing Declan Boyle to close with 3.3 seconds of first place. The win would come down to an all or nothing dash over the final run though Gregorlough. Jennings charged though the stage like a runaway express train. All he could do was set a time and hope Boyle couldn’t better it. However, on a sweeping right hander, near the finish, the back end of Jennings Impreza clipped a grass verge, catapulting the car into an enormous barrel roll, before coming to rest in a hedge. It was the cruel way to lose the rally. Victory was Boyle’s, with Donagh Kelly taking second and Derek McGarrity 3rd with the Starlet of Gallagher winning the modified section once again.

Barrable too, lost time on SS17 with an excursion into a field, allowing Sepp Weigand to pinch second place. Wiegand’s position was by no means secure, going into the last stage; however, he knew it would take a monumental effort from Barrable to take the place back. Barrable pushed hard, but Weigand pushed that little bit harder to cement second place for Skoda and ensure that the Czech manufacture monopolised the top steps of the podium. 

Esapekka Lappi’s win takes him to the top of the ERC standings and brought the curtain down on a magnificent drive from a world champion in the making.

Results ERC Round 4:

1. Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm Skoda Fabia S2000
2. Sepp Wiegand/Frank Christian Skoda Fabia S2000
3. Robert Barrable/Stuart Loudon Ford Fiesta R5 ERC
2WD Champion: Daniel McKenna/Aurthur Kierans Citroen DS3 R3T ERC
Production Cup Winner: Josh Moffett/John Rowan Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX
ERC Junior Championship Winner: Jan Černý/Pavel Kohout Peugeot 208 R2
Clonakilty Black Pudding Irish Tarmac Championship Round 2
1. Declan Boyle/Brian Boyle Subaru Impreza WRC
2. Donagh Kelly/Kevin Flanagan Ford Focus WRC
3. Derek McGarrity/James McKee JCW Mini WRC
Modified Championship WinnerDeclan Gallagher/Ryan Moore Toyota Starlet

More photos from the stunning event:

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