The wheels are rolling in earnest now for the 19th-21st June Topaz Donegal Rally, and the Donegal Motor Club has again laid out a demanding route and attracted a top class entry for the event, which is round 5 of the Tarmac Championship. Letterkenny again plays host to the rally, and as well as the 151 cars in the main event, there are once more additional categories for Historics and Juniors. Inclusive in the main field are the National Modified cars while the exciting Fiesta Sporting Trophy contenders compete over the Saturday stages.
Heading the main field is Gareth MacHale and his co-driver Brian Murphy in their Focus WRC, Gareth heading six of the Tarmac Championship World Rally Car drivers, Eugene Donnelly, Eamonn Boland, Tim McNulty, Derek McGarrity and Aaron MacHale. In reality, any of those top six are capable of spraying the champagne at the Letterkenny finish following the expected three days of high speed rally action. At numbers 7 & 8 are two more World Rally Cars to be driven by Donegal men PJ McDermott and Daniel Doherty, with another local man, Shaun Gallagher at 9 and Seamus Leonard at 10, both in GpN Mitsubishi Lancers.
Both PJ McDermott and Daniel Doherty are capable of springing a big surprise. Although McDermott hasn’t done so much rallying this year he showed in the past couple of seasons that he can set superb times. Daniel Doherty’s P2000 Subaru has languished in Kenny McKinstry’s workshop since last year’s Donegal, so in theory Daniel and his co-driving brother Michael may be rusty. But last year they also came out of rally retirement, and in that same P2000 Impreza shocked the establishment with their speed. An extra spur for the rallying brothers this time will be rallying over the fabulous roads of their home territory on the Inishowen Peninsula. It is seven years since the rally went up there.
Letterkenny’s Shaun Gallagher has concentrated in contesting the Junior section of the World Rally Championship in recent years, so it will be a treat for him to contest his home rally again, this time in his GpN Lancer. However Shaun won’t get it easy as there is a fabulous line-up of 20 GpN competition over and beyond Seamus Leonard seeded immediately behind. Just two we will mention here are Garry Jennings, who starts at 11 and has Rory Kennedy co-driving. For Rory this will be his 30th time competing on the rally and he is just as enthusiastic now as he was then.
Rory co-drove for the late great Bertie Fisher for many years on the Donegal Rally. This year there is another Fisher name in the Donegal entry list, that of Bertie’s nephew Alastair who, judging by his speed on his first season in a GpN Lancer, is a real chip of the old block.
Twelve years have elapsed since there was a MacHale name on the winner’s trophy here in Donegal. That was Gareth’s father Austin and it was his 2nd Donegal International win. Gareth MacHale has been close many times to winning a round of the Tarmac Championship, and he would dearly love to do it here in Donegal, scene of so many epic rally battles. He was lying 3rd on the rally last year until it was stopped prematurely, and he turned in some stunning times on that occasion. Gareth’s preparation team has checked every nut and bolt on his fabulous Focus WRC for this Donegal Rally and he is certainly in with every chance of breaking into the Donegal and indeed the Tarmac Championship honours list.
Speaking from his Dublin base Gareth commented before the rally, “Yes, it would be good to win in Donegal. It is one of my favourite rallies. I love the bumpy and jumpy stages and being over three days it will be a real challenge. When you look at all the top drivers, it took them years before they started winning, building up the experience.”
Five years ago Eugene Donnelly scored his first Donegal Rally win and the Maghera man whooped with joy then, declaring that it has been his dream since as long as he could remember to win Donegal. Eugene went on from there to become multiple Tarmac Champion and one of Ireland’s most prolific rally winners.
Eugene’s sentiments on the Donegal Rally haven’t changed since that first win. He rates it as very special as well as being the toughest of challenges. In theory Eugene’s Skoda Fabia, slightly older than the current crop of World Rally Subarus and Fords, should be outgunned. But Eugene seems to have this magic touch of making underrated cars go faster than everything else. Following his great run in the Skoda at Chatsworth last weekend, Eugene commented: “I’m really looking forward to Donegal. It is a big undertaking, and our thoughts are not going to be totally on outright speed, on winning, but more on our goal for the year, Championship points.”
Preparation and suspension set-up have a lot to do with it as well, nowhere more so than here in Donegal and Eugene’s engineer Derek McGeehan leaves no stone unturned in the preparation of this Fabia. Eugene currently leads the Tarmac points, with 48. This year’s Killarney Rally of the Lakes winner Tim McNulty is 2nd on 36. Current Tarmac Champion Eamonn Boland has 34. Gareth MacHale 30, Aaron MacHale 25 and Alastair Fisher, top GpN exponent in the overall standings, is sixth and has 16 points.
Heading the modified category in this bulging Donegal entry is young Scotsman David Bogie, who drives one of the exciting Metro 6R4s. He will be up against a veritable plethora of the finest Mk2 Escort machinery in the country, with such drivers as Wesley Patterson, Rodney Wilton, Gary McPhillips, Martin McGee, Manus Kelly, Damien Gallagher and Camillus Bradley just some of the top names sure to provide lots of fireworks.
Derek Boyd, to be co-driven by his daughter Roisin, heads the Historic category in his Porsche 911 and young Craig Breen/Gareth Roberts head the Fiesta list. The Historics join the rally on the Saturday afternoon stages. The main rally starts at Letterkenny, from An Grainan Theatre, at 9.45am. travelling to Inishowen where there are 6.stages on Friday, 8.on Saturday and 6..on Sunday, before the finish at the Mount Errigal Hotel on Sunday evening at 5.54pm.
Clerk of the Course, Danny Gormley. said “I want to thank the many helpers who gave up their time to put this event together, and to Topaz for their commitment to the event. Their dedication to the event was very much appreciated by all in Donegal and to rally fans throughout Ireland.”
Finally we would like to emphasise that safety is uppermost in the minds of the rally organisers and we would ask everyone involved in the rally, spectators, service crews and competitors to be aware at all times of their safety and the safety of everyone else involved. Our thanks go to all those who are helping with the organisation, the Garda Siochana, Topaz Energy. Donegal Oil, Inishowen Oil, Ordnance Survey Ireland, Eircom, O2, Mount Errigal Hotel , Donegal County Council & Engineers, Letterkenny Town Council, Health Services Executive, Donegal Tourism, North West Tourism, Tony Kelly Cars, McGinley Motors, Hegarty’s Auto Services, Letterkenny Chevrolet, Medical Officers And Rescue Teams, Diver’s Garage, Letterkenny Institute Of Technology, Local Newspapers, Highland Radio, Brian & Liz Patterson, Derryveagh Crystal, Limavady Printing Co., Hills Of Donegal Tourism, Donegal Road Safety Working Group, Civil Defence.