R5s TO THE FRONT: DID IT WORK?

The Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship changed rules in 2016. Jack Benyon ar­gues it was for the bet­ter

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on­tro­ver­sial. It’s the only word you can use to de­scribe the Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship’s change of rules for 2016. And it was change of fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance.

For years, Ire­land had the man­tle of hav­ing more World Rally Cars per square mile than any other coun­try in the world. You know the story: Ber­tie Fisher, Austin Mchale, An­drew Nes­bitt. The world’s fastest rally cars and some of the nar­row­est, fastest and best Tar­mac roads, at least out­side of main­land Europe.

But the cham­pi­onship took a new di­rec­tion. The or­gan­is­ers elected to make the R5-spec­i­fi­ca­tion cars the fastest el­i­gi­ble to score points in the cham­pi­onship, with World Rally Cars still al­lowed to en­ter un­der a sep­a­rate cup. Could WRC cars win events? Yes. Could they win the Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship? Nope.

The crux of the ar­gu­ment was sim­ple. Those with WRC cars wanted a few years of tran­si­tion to phase out the 1600cc WRC cars which were in­tro­duced in the WRC in 2012. They also wanted the fastest cars on the fastest roads.

The counter ar­gu­ment was also sim­ple. The WRC cars were de­creas­ing in num­bers, and al­most ev­ery ma­jor na­tional rally cham­pi­onship in the world had ei­ther switched to, or was switch­ing to, R5s at the front. Com­pe­ti­tion was the back­bone of that ar­gu­ment.

So the de­ci­sion was made. R5s to the fore, WRCS to the sheds. There’s enough sheds in Ire­land filled with some of the WRC’S best cars as it is.

David Gray, chair­man of the Tar­mac Rally Or­gan­is­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (TROA), which or­gan­ises the Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship, ex­plains the de­ci­sion.

“It was made be­cause in 2015 the ma­jor­ity of the TROA saw a cham­pi­onship fall­ing apart with two or three World Rally Cars com­pet­ing at the front, and not con­sis­tently,” says Gray. “We felt we had to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. It was quite clear lis­ten­ing to com­peti­tors that the R5 was go­ing to be the car to have. We had pledges from all sorts of com­peti­tors say­ing ‘go down that route and we’ll pro­vide the cars’. And they did. It was 15 or 16 in Gal­way.”

With big launches like the ITRC in Gal­way came the risk of an un­ful­filled prophecy, and en­tries drop­ping away through the year. But on a ra­tio of en­tries lost per round, the ITRC per­formed bet­ter than the Bri­tish cham­pi­onship this year.

The bat­tle was fought be­tween Keith Cronin, Alas­tair Fisher, Josh Mof­fett, Sam Mof­fett and Jonny Greer. Three-time Bri­tish cham­pion Cronin won the open­ing two rounds and looked like a dead cert for the cham­pi­onship. But wins for Fisher on the Cir­cuit of Ire­land, Rally of the Lakes and the Ul­ster put him back in con­tention. An off on the fi­nal round in Cork cur­tailed what had been a stun­ning bat­tle with Cronin all year.

With Fisher out, the four re­main­ing ex­po­nents could still win the ti­tle. Cronin came through safe to head the stand­ings while Josh Mof­fett won his first over­all in­ter­na­tional event.

West Cork driver Cronin was bril­liant through the 2016 season and only a costly off on the Cir­cuit and a re­tire­ment in Kil­lar­ney marred his record. He also came within a whisker of beat­ing a World Rally Car out­right as his bat­tle with Manus Kelly’s Subaru Im­preza S12B WRC went down to the last stage in Done­gal. Cronin’s times over Moll’s Gap and At­lantic Drive were great.

The ex­cite­ment of the season on the whole, as well as on the fi­nal round, is some­thing Gray be­lieves jus­ti­fied the TROA’S de­ci­sion to change the rules.

“I re­ally be­lieve that I’ve never wit­nessed any­thing like last season,” adds Gray. “I didn’t be­lieve that in Gal­way when all this started, I would stand at the last stage and not know who would win the rally or who would be cham­pion.

“The footage was much more ex­cit­ing than the pre­vi­ous year’s be­cause you had peo­ple fight­ing for tenths of a sec­ond.”

Cham­pi­onship con­tender Alas­tair Fisher – nephew of late mul­ti­ple Ir­ish cham­pion Ber­tie – mir­rored Gray’s thoughts on the spec­ta­cle.

“It’s been re­ally re­vi­talised in 2016 and it’s had a re­ally good fol­low­ing,” says Fisher. “Peo­ple have been keep­ing a good eye on it and I think the spec­ta­tors have en­joyed ev­ery­body’s com­mit­ment in the R5s.

“I think it’s only re­ally start­ing. I think we’ll get some of the guys who have had World Rally Cars in the past start mak­ing the jump across and that will only in­crease the pop­u­lar­ity of the cham­pi­onship.”

The cham­pi­onship drops a round with the Cir­cuit of Ire­land not run­ning this year, so the best six of seven rounds count.

The cham­pi­onship can’t make many fun­da­men­tal changes to im­prove this year, but it shouldn’t. The for­mula cre­ated last year pro­duced the clos­est fight in top-level na­tional rallying. And with in­tent for new R5s to come flood­ing to the Emer­ald Isle, the con­tro­ver­sial rule change has been a jus­ti­fied one. ■

Cronin (cen­tre, right) cel­e­brates suc­cess in Cork Cronin was 2016 cham­pion

EN­TRIES R5s/s2000s on each round

EVENT

Gal­way West Cork Cir­cuit of Ire­land Kil­lar­ney Done­gal Ul­ster Cork ‘20’ R5 S2000 TO­TAL 11 9 10 5 5 8 7 4 4 2 4 4 4 1 15 13 12 9 9 12 8

STAND­INGS Ir­ish Tar­mac Cham­pi­onship, 2016

Fisher fought for ITRC ti­tle POS

DRIVER/CO-DRIVER

Keith Cronin/ Mikie Galvin Sam Mof­fett/ Karl Atkin­son Josh Mof­fett/john Rowan Alas­tair Fisher/gordy No­ble Jonny Greer/ Kirsty Rid­dick Stephen Wright/james Ful­ton Joe Mc­go­nigle/ciaran Gainey Bren­dan Cu­miskey Cal­lum Devine/ Keith Mo­ri­arty Aaron Mchale/ Enda Sherry

CAR

Citroen DS 3 R5 Ford Fi­esta R5 Ford Fi­esta R5 Ford Fi­esta R5 Citroen DS 3 R5 Ford Fi­esta R5 Skoda Fabia S2000 Ford Fi­esta R5 Opel Adam R2 Skoda Fabia S2000 PTS 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 78 75 72 70 55 54 31 25.5 25 24

R5s came out in force for series ITRC shared with BRC twice

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