The serenity of the scene belied the challenge that awaited. Max McRae’s Donegal International Rally debut was the equivalent of playing your first tennis match on grass at Wimbledon – but yet nobody looked stressed.
Alister McRae greeted DirtFish with a smile: “Wonderful weather,” he grinned, looking up at the grey sky – a bit of a contrast to what he’s used to in Australia. His boy was here to tackle his first ever rally outside of Europe, and first proper rally on asphalt.
But, waiting for Max and co-driver Mac Kierans to pull into service from parc fermé, Alister was more than happy to chew the fat.
“The Mount Errigal hotel hasn’t changed and I’m sure when I left that the last time I had a hangover!” he laughed. “When you drive in you remember stuff, but to think what is that 25 or 26 years [since I was last here]?
“It’s a long time but you still remember a lot of it and you still see some of the faces, they look the same age as they were then but that’s just because I’m older as well!”
In all seriousness though, there was an important mission in-hand: “I just hope he can basically get a good clean run, get through all the stages and just build the speed up,” said Alister.
“It’s definitely a baptism of fire, especially now that it’s wet and it’s drying out so it’s going to be tricky.
“All the stages today I think will be the tricky ones so if he can get through them without any problems and then he’s got Saturday and Sunday to start to have a bit of a push and see.
“He doesn’t have a lot of experience at all so it’ll be a steep learning curve. Obviously everything he’s jumped into he’s gone well so we’ll see how it goes.”
The sight of McRae’s Ford Fiesta Rally4 halted the conversation, and Alister was straight over to catch up with Max. DirtFish offered our hand – it was the first time this writer had met Max – and soon got talking about the three-day challenge that lay ahead.
“It’s my first rally out of Australia, so pretty excited, pretty nervous, mixture of emotions all round but we’ll just get into it,” Max said in his unassuming manner that DirtFish soon comes to learn is typical of the man.
“I think today we’ll just get through these stages because these stages are pretty tricky. Saturday, Sunday on the classic stages we might be able to have a bit of a push, but again we just want to get to the end of it.
“It’s a big rally as well so we’ve got lots of time to get into it, and yeah we’ll just have fun as well and get experience.”
It’s at that moment Max is presented with an iPhone. Jimmy McRae and Arthur Kierans have been out doing gravel notes on the day’s stages, and they’ve got the onboard for Max to look at. We joined him.
“Looks sketchy,” we remarked.
“Yeah it’s tricky,” responded Max. “Lots of places to catch you out.”
Attempting to contemplate just what a task this is going to be, we asked: “How old are you?”
“I’m 18 today actually,” said Max.
“You kept that quiet!”
And with that, he’s off and away into his very first Donegal.
Despite the peril, McRae makes it look easy. A slide into the side of a haybale that dents the bodywork slightly on Friday aside, McRae brings the car back without a scratch on it. His consistency is rewarded with a third place finish in class and 53rd overall, 38 spots up on his seeding of 91.
“We weren’t looking at that coming into the weekend but after seeing some times we saw if we could have a bit of a push on and it was really nice to come away with third against some real quick drivers, some of the quickest in the country,” Max admitted.
“It was a tricky weekend straight from the start, I’ve definitely learned a lot more this weekend than I have in any of the other rallies that I’ve done. But we’ve made it to the end and that’s the main thing, so we’re over the moon with that.”
The pride from Max’s gramps and Irish rallying royalty Jimmy was obvious. There to welcome Max in at the end of the last stage, he was beaming when analyzing Max’s performance with DirtFish.
“I told him if you’re lying in a ditch on the first or second stage then you’re not getting the experience of driving these roads, so just drive to your own ability and that’s what he did. He was quite good I’ll tell you.
I know if I was that age I wouldn't have been fit to do that, no way!Arthur Kierans
“When you think that he’s never even seen the roads in Ireland never mind driven them, I think it’s a fantastic result. So cool and comfortable, I’ve been more worried than Max has been. But it’s a fantastic result.”
Dad Alister’s view was similar: “I’m really impressed, especially coming for the first time because each day was a different type of day.
“The first day was wet and slippy then it dried out, the second day was a bit faster and drier and then today it was wet again so each day’s been different and he’s coped with it really well.”
“He drove very well, I know if I was that age I wouldn’t have been fit to do that, no way!” laughed co-driver Kierans.
“To take the car home without a mark on it on such a tricky rally on tricky stages, it’s very, very good to be quite honest. It’s brilliant.”
What was perhaps more brilliant though was to see a McRae back on the entry list in Ireland. The family may be more widely remembered for the exploits of Colin in particular in the World Rally Championship, or Jimmy, Colin and Alister in the British Rally Championship.
“We let dad go in everywhere first, he’s like royalty here!” Alister laughed. Jimmy agreed: “”I’m more famous in Ireland than I am on Lanark high street!” Jimmy chuckled. Seven Circuit of Ireland wins would do that.
But it was wonderful to witness it. Jimmy is a walking legend on the Emerald Isle, and that was no more obvious than walking to the finish ramp with him and Alister outside the Mount Errigal Hotel, and legions of fans shouting “Jimmy! Jimmy!”
It means a lot because people are still passionate about what my uncle did and what my dad and my grandpa have doneMax McRae
Max too was welcomed by all – other competitors keen to get photos with him and share their memories of his gramps Jimmy, dad Alister or uncle Colin.
“It means a lot because people are still passionate about what my uncle did and what my dad and my grandpa have done,” Max said candidly.
“You see more people come up to my grandad than my dad to get photos! My gramps always walks with a smile, so he still loves seeing all the fans and what not, and I like interacting with people and seeing the fans.
“It’s nice to see everyone, especially to come over here and everyone loves it so it’s pretty cool. It’s completely different here in terms of fans and the energy around the service park.”
The moment wasn’t lost on Jimmy either.
“I’ve now done gravel notes for Colin, Alister and Max,” he said. “That’s the job complete.”