Irish rallying’s new rules
R5 and S2000 rally cars can bring the competition back to Ireland. By Jack Benyon
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?
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.”
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.
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