Ireland isn’t short of spectacular rally stages. Take Torr Head for instance, once famously described as Ouninphoja on Tarmac.
Then there’s Hamilton’s Folly, Ring and of course Molls Gap. But Knockalla is as famous as the lot, perhaps even more so.
Few ribbons of Tarmac anywhere in the world lend themselves to rallying as much as the Knockalla stage on the Donegal International Rally does – the beginning of the stage in particular as it snakes its way up the mountain and then back down, hugging the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.
Naturally, a setting as good as this is an absolutely haven for spectators who camp out early to get the best view in town. I know, because I was one of them last Saturday.
I’ve seen countless photographs (and onboards) of the first hairpin of Knockalla over the years, but I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw it for the first time, in real life. The elevation change is far more aggressive than you might think from one hairpin to the next, and the road even more gorgeous than you can imagine.
Up the bank I went, perched in position and ready for the cars which wouldn’t be here for nearly two hours. But the anticipation gets you through – could this hallowed ground really be as good as it’s supposed to be?
Yes, it was.
As friend and Irish rally journalist Adam Hall put it: “You don’t often want to go to the popular spots, but this is Knockalla.”
Callum Devine was first into view and the bark of his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 was glorious as he navigated his way through. Clean, efficient, quick – next up was Matt Edwards mimmicking this style. They were going for a rally win, no crowd pleasing today.
But then Josh Moffett arrived. Taking a wide line to the tight left-hand hairpin, Moffett yanked the handbrake and lit the rear tires up, performing a beautiful slide through the corner – much to the crowd’s delight.
“He simply cannot resist it,” I heard someone say. But it turns out this bout of showboating wasn’t actually intentional.
“I’ve had a few nice slides round there before and we’ve a few nice photos of it,” Moffett told DirtFish.
“[But this year] no, I tell you I came into it and I wanted to try and get a nice line through it, but just at the very end I suppose my tires were probably a bit cold and we just ran on a wee bit further than I wanted, so I just had to give it that wee flick and it was a nice slide round it.
“We were a bit tidier the second time, but the crowd likes the slide anyway,” he laughed.
The great thing about camping out and watching rallying for the day is the ability to analyze different driving techniques. Gareth MacHale’s was certainly intriguing as he ran it very wide and showered us all with clouts of mud. Cheers mate.
There were a few other interesting interpretations of how to tackle this corner. Ryan Loughran outbraked himself and nudged the bank before reversing his Ford Escort Mk2 out and on its way again, and Patrick O’Connor got greedy with the handbrake and over-rotated his Mitsubishi, trundling onto the inside grass as a result.
It’s a classic isn’t it, it’s one of the best stages in Ireland or most well known anywayCallum Devine
But the biggest cheer was reserved for Johnnie Mulholland’s Škoda Fabia S2000. Mulholland got it badly wrong, massively outbraking himself and sliding right off the corner – his car coming to rest teetering on the edge of the road. And that edge of the road was really the edge of the road. He’d be facing a long old trip down to the beach had the car gone any further.
Fair play to the spectators that got him free, it never looked like it was coming out. But I guess that’s the advantage of crashing at a spot where there are so many fans – even if it makes the error more embarrassing.
Knockalla isn’t all about the first few hairpins though, even if this is what it’s most famous for. It’s a busy stage that has a bit of everything.
“That first bit is obviously very famous, I’ve got the postcard picture on the hairpin and all that! But then you go up the hill and start the descent down the other side and all you can see is the sea, it takes a bit of focus and concentration to put it together,” Edwards explained to DirtFish.
“There’s all sorts of roads in that stage – there’s wide roads, very narrow roads, there’s straight, it’s just one to the next and you’ve got to be quite disciplined to drive to each conditions and obviously be very in tune with your car.”
“Knockalla’s always been some buzz,” added Devine. “When you’re sitting at the bottom there and you can see the whole way up, you can watch cars go right the way to the top so it’s a great buzz and there’s always a great crowd at the bottom of it too which builds a great atmosphere too.
“It’s a classic isn’t it, it’s one of the best stages in Ireland or most well known anyway. Usually when you’re starting with cold tires with a delay it makes you that wee bit more anxious to get going, yeah it’s good, it’s a good stage.”
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It’s therefore not just a stage for the spectators, the drivers find it special too.
“I think it’s just the build-up at the start of the stage,” Alastair Fisher said when asked by DirtFish what makes Knockalla so revered.
“All the spectators are heading up the hill and you can see them lined at the hairpins, you know from a driving point of view it’s always somewhere where there is an err of caution, down by the cliffside there because the tires are always usually pretty cold and you’re trying to get a bit of heat into them but it’s nice to get over the top then and head down the back.
“Even when you go in-land there’s loads of tricky sections. It’s quite technical in the middle and then it opens out really fast over some jumps and bumps towards the end. It has a bit of everything really and you really have to be good all-round to get a good time on it.”
This year it was Devine and Edwards that took the honor of fastest through.
“Aw, that is mega,” said British Rally champion Edwards. “That is something to behold is to have that time.”
Devine’s secret to success, a balls-out approach?
“I think so,” he laughed. “It has to be flat out, it has to be precision, it has to be braking, it has to be everything.”
And that’s what Knockalla absolutely provides: everything.