Ir­ish ral­ly­ing’s new rules

R5 and S2000 rally cars can bring the com­pe­ti­tion back to Ire­land. By Jack Benyon

Motor Sport News - - In This Issue - Pho­tos: Roy Demp­ster and Martin Walsh

Rule changes don’t al­ways go down well with com­peti­tors and spectators. Hu­mans are, af­ter all, crea­tures of habit and change can be in­tim­i­dat­ing.

It’s no dif­fer­ent in mo­tor­sport, but rarely has a rule change been hit with such de­bate and mixed opin­ion as the Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship’s de­ci­sion to rule World Rally Cars in­el­i­gi­ble for the over­all cham­pi­onship.

World Rally Cars can still com­pete in the Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship, and if a WR Car crosses the fin­ish ramp first on any of its rounds, it will be de­clared the win­ner of that rally.

The change comes with the ad­di­tion of a new WRC Cup. In­stead of scor­ing points to­wards the over­all cham­pi­onship – which will be the pre­serve of those driv­ing S2000 or R5-spec ma­chines –the WR Cars score in their own divi­sion in­stead.

Any fans of the Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship will know that for as long as mem­ory serves it has fea­tured – and been won by – the most mod­ern and quick­est cars. The likes of Ber­tie Fisher, Austin Machale, An­drew Nes­bitt and more re­cently Garry Jen­nings have en­deared them­selves to rally fans across the world with their ag­gres­sive styles, throw­ing WR Cars around chal­leng­ing closed roads with inches of lee­way to spare.

Herein lies the main de­bate against the rule change: spectators want to watch the fastest and most spec­tac­u­lar cars and the driv­ers want to drive them. It’s that sim­ple.

The fact that the WR Cars can no longer win the cham­pi­onship over­all has up­set many. Surely the fastest cars and driv­ers should win the ti­tle?

Mod­ern times

The prob­lem with this ar­gu­ment is that it doesn’t fac­tor in com­pe­ti­tion. For years, the cham­pi­onship’s num­ber of WR Cars has been dwin­dling to the point where the over­all cham­pi­onship fea­tured only a hand­ful of the ma­chines that com­peted on ev­ery round, or even a ma­jor­ity of rounds.

For that rea­son, the fo­cus has slipped away from the cham­pi­onship and onto bet­ter-at­tended in­di­vid­ual events, such as the Done­gal Rally and Cork ‘20’. Even Done­gal strug­gled to at­tract an abun­dance of WRC Cars last year.

Cham­pi­onship chair­man David Gray is keen to point out that the se­ries has re­sponded to driv­ers who con­tin­u­ally asked for bet­ter com­pe­ti­tion in the se­ries.

“If you want to call some­thing a cham­pi­onship – and the point was made many times – you need com­pe­ti­tion and this is what the guys asked for,” says Gray. “Yes they all love their cars and love to drive them, but above all they all have a com­pet­i­tive streak in them, oth­er­wise they wouldn’t be rally driv­ers. We were fail­ing to give them that com­pet­i­tive­ness. So I think that is the cor­ner­stone of the change.”

If the open­ing round of the cham­pi­onship is any­thing to go by, then com­pe­ti­tion is ex­actly what the driv­ers are go­ing to get. There will be a sim­i­lar num­ber of WR Cars (seven ex­pected to start in Gal­way) as last year, with an added 14 R5 and S2000 cars to the Gal­way en­try. And the strict FIA tech­ni­cal reg­u­la­tions mean the R5s are likely to re­main close in terms of pace, only adding to the com­pe­ti­tion.

On mul­ti­ple rounds of the WRC last year, R5 cars in the right hands beat some of the less com­pet­i­tive WRCS. Gray be­lieves that’s also a pos­si­bil­ity this year, and it won’t just be the ‘big’ cars win­ning the events.

“I’m still wait­ing with great an­tic­i­pa­tion how the R5s will do on the Gal­way Rally be­cause they are dif­fer­ent cars than a year ago,” Gray adds. “The Fi­es­tas are up 30bhp and Keith Cronin [Citroen DS 3 R5] can beat any­body on his day. There’s a good chance R5s will win over­all events this year.

“I don’t want to come across as ‘I told you so’ as, at the end of the day, the driv­ers who have cho­sen to stick with the WR Cars are still my friends. I want to have them par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cham­pi­onship. As the sea­son pro­gresses, and as the R5 divi­sion re­ally gets go­ing, they could change their minds. Th­ese boys love com­pe­ti­tion.”

Fu­ture per­fect

Last year’s cham­pion Don­agh Kelly won’t be com­pet­ing a full sched­ule this year due to work com­mit­ments, but he be­lieves the rule change is the way for­ward, de­spite be­ing the owner of a Ford Fo­cus WRC.

“I think it’s good for the sport,” ex­plains Kelly. “It’s not just given the R5s a boost, it’s given the WRCS a boost as well. Gal­way will be a good event. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how it trans­lates to the rest of the year but it’s a promis­ing start and if it rein­vig­o­rates the whole cham­pi­onship it will be good.”

Kelly also be­lieves the cham­pi­onship needs an injection of ex­cite­ment, and that this doesn’t have to be a per­ma­nent move. It’s what works now.

“It needed a change, it be­came a bit stale and hope­fully next year, if it gets enough mo­men­tum, most driv­ers will change within a cou­ple of years to that cat­e­gory,” he adds.

More cars

While Ire­land has in­deed ben­e­fited from hav­ing world-class cars, what good is a cham­pi­onship with only three top-class ma­chines (and not al­ways the same three) com­pet­ing against each other?

Surely 10 sim­i­lar cars fight­ing it out for hon­ours is a more at­trac­tive prospect to com­peti­tors.

At least that’s what R5 cam­paigner Jonny Greer be­lieves, de­spite ad­mit­ting to be­ing bi­ased be­cause he runs an R5 DS 3.

“The or­gan­is­ers took a lot of flack last year for go­ing down this route, so it’s good if it comes off,” says Greer, who will be on the start ramp in Gal­way. “It’s the right move. I haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced the buzz around Gal­way in a long time.”

The cham­pi­onship will also fea­ture two rounds in the Bri­tish Rally Cham­pi­onship this year – Cir­cuit of Ire­land and the Ul­ster Rally. The BRC’S sim­i­lar move to R5/S2000S means the BRC driv­ers are el­i­gi­ble to score points in the Ir­ish cham­pi­onship should they reg­is­ter, which could also bring an in­crease in num­bers. There could be as many as 30 R5 cars at the Cir­cuit of Ire­land, which would pro­vide an in­cred­i­ble spec­ta­cle.

WR Cars here to stay

The or­gan­is­ers have no in­ten­tion of ban­ning WR Cars and, as Gray ex­plains, it was a mu­tual de­ci­sion that should the cars win ral­lies on pace,they will still be de­clared the of­fi­cial out­right win­ner.

This is by no means the death of the WR Cars in the cham­pi­onship. It’s the re­birth of com­pe­ti­tion.

“The one thing the cham­pi­onship and the R5 boys – as I call them – agree on is they are very happy with the win­ner cross­ing the ramp first,” says Gray. “It’s a friendly cham­pi­onship and, go­ing back to May when we had the first com­peti­tors meet­ing re­gard­ing the changes, it was made clear that the events can run whichever cat­e­gories and classes they de­cide. It was made clear we would not in­ter­fere in the events if they wish to run WR Cars and if a par­tic­u­lar car wins and he’s the win­ner.

“If it’s Jen­nings, Boyle or any other WR Car that wins the event over­all, I’ll be stood there clap­ping like ev­ery­body else. There’s no is­sue there at all: the best car and driver wins the event.”

Whichever side of the fence an in­di­vid­ual fan sits on, Gal­way is go­ing to pro­vide one of the most com­pet­i­tive ral­lies in Ire­land for some time. It could usher in a brave new era. ■

“I think it’s good for the sport” Don­agh Kelly

Boyle’s WRC Fi­esta will com­pete for Cup Keith Cronin is heav­ily favoured in his Citroen DS 3 R5 Ire­land has al­ways had the lat­est ma­chin­ery and great driv­ers

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