Formula 1 has the Monaco Grand Prix. Rallycross has Lydden Hill. The World Rally Championship has Rally Finland. And the Irish Tarmac Championship has the Donegal International Rally.
All points scoring rounds like any other, but all mean just that little bit more. Winning in Donegal is almost as important as winning Ireland’s domestic championship, that’s how big a deal it is.
This week, that’s exactly what Ireland’s very best will be vying to do. And DirtFish will be there to experience this magic rally for ourselves on what will be the event’s 50th anniversary.
But first, here’s all the key things you need to know ahead of this year’s Donegal, starting with a look back at the Irish Tarmac season so far.
How they stand ahead of Donegal
This year’s Irish Tarmac Rally Championship has predominantly been about three drivers: Josh Moffett, Alastair Fisher and Callum Devine. All three have taken victories, but it’s Moffett that’s really risen above the parapet.
Across the Irish Tarmac and national championships this season, the Hyundai i20 R5 pilot has already won seven events. Seven. And on his other two appearances, he was second.
“The season has been very positive to date so far,” Moffett puts it mildly. But he has perhaps benefited by all the extra seat time compared to his rivals, given he’s competing in two championships instead of just one.
“I think there’s a fine line there between ‘that’s too much’ and I suppose the other side of it is we’re always game ready,” Moffett adds.
“Obviously I work, I don’t even know if you could call it a normal job but Monday to Friday I’m fairly devoted to my job so the rallying’s only a hobby for us at the weekends, so it’s trying to get a nice balance there.
“But I guess some of the other crews that maybe aren’t doing as many rallies, they trade the events maybe with a bit of testing before the event where generally the last time I went testing was actually before Galway at the start of the year. It’s all just been rallies.”
Regardless, he’s been a bit of a revelation this season so far and shocked a few with his stellar performances – not least because the Moffett and Hyundai package didn’t look this competitive at the end of last year.
“I would say there hasn’t been an event this year or even over Christmas where we haven’t tried something new on the car and maybe we realized something is working a bit better and something isn’t quite as good and we go back for the next event,” Moffett says.
“We’re just continuously trying to improve that and obviously there’s different conditions and different rallies where you need a different set-up anyway.
“I suppose we are probably getting a better understanding of the car and how it works well, and I think it’s fair enough to say we did struggle with the car for a long time getting it where we wanted it to be and where I was comfortable driving it.
“But at least we seem to be on top of it now.”
You can say that again.
Moffett, the 2018 Irish Tarmac champion, won in Galway for the first time at the start of the year and doubled up with victory in West Cork after a close battle with Callum Devine ended when Devine’s Ford Fiesta Rally2 stopped with gearbox trouble.
He was second on the Circuit of Ireland and then second again in Killarney for Rally of the Lakes, but that one was a bit of an off-beat performance where he “wasn’t even looking forward to the rally”.
“I just had so much going on, and more so work-related stuff more than rallying,” Moffett says.
“I went with the mindset of ‘we need to finish here, get some reasonable points, it’s a long rally, it’s a difficult rally and if we’re there at the end we’ll probably collect some good points anyway.’
I think top three would probably have been a good resultMeirion Evans
“We still finished up with second place so that was probably a very good result considering the mindset going into it.”
Moffett’s closest challenger in the championship so far is Devine, who since making the switch from Fiesta to Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 has looked rejuvenated.
Welshman Meirion Evans is third, but fourth place belies the potential Alastair Fisher has shown this season. He won the Circuit and so nearly won Killarney but for an off on the last stage. It’s been an impressive campaign given he hadn’t rallied at all since February 2020 prior to this season.
“I feel I was realistic heading to Galway. I think top three would probably have been a good result,” Fisher tells DirtFish.
“I think if you counted it up, the guys that finished in the top three in Galway had done up on 35 rallies between them since I’d done one. We were running in fourth but then we got a puncture which dropped us to seventh.
Fisher, nephew of Irish rallying legend Bertie, was back on the podium in West Cork, but cut adrift of the lead battle: “West Cork was a bit of a funny one because we had four or five quickest times in West Cork but we made a mistake and we ran the short gearbox.
“I think we were expecting more speed out of the short gearbox but it ended up there was a software limiter which meant our top speed was only 111mph.
“I felt we were committing really well and anyone I spoke to that was out watching said we were really committed but we spent over four minutes on the limiter that weekend. I think that probably disguised what should’ve been a bit of a stronger result to be honest.”
And therein came the Circuit of Ireland win: “I just sort of felt that I probably wasn’t doing myself justice and I just really knuckled down on the second day of the Circuit,” Fisher recalls.
“I just really knuckled down and just went for it really. It was as simple as that. We didn’t make a massive improvement with the car, the car was always pretty good and it was just a case of the feeling was really good and our notes seemed to be really strong on that second day of the Circuit and it just sort of flowed from there.”
The form continued into Rally of the Lakes and Fisher lost a likely win when he crashed out.
“We just got stuck,” Fisher admits. “I watched the in-car back from the previous pass of the stage and we were probably a car length later on the brakes and such is the margin, we just sort of washed out three quarters of the way round a medium to slow left-hander and we dropped off the road and just got stuck essentially.
“It’s not that it was a massive, reckless accident from being on the ragged edge, you’re probably talking a braking point that was less than half a second out of place really.”
It had a damaging impact on Fisher’s championship, but if anyone wants to know what makes Irish rallying so special, this was a clear example. Devine was fastest on all six of the final day’s stages before Fisher’s off, but he only managed to claw 3.1 seconds out of his rival across them,
“Killarney was just an awesome battle for two days with Callum,” Fisher smiles.
“I think the two of us really pulled each other along and the commitment and consistency we had to maintain for the two days really was next level stuff.
“Whatever it was, I think it was seven stages, Callum took something like three or four seconds out of me over seven stages which, some of them we were dead equal to the point of a tenth of a second.
“Up Molls Gap which was an equal quickest, and I think there was 0.2 and maybe 0.4 between us on a couple of other stages.”
More of the same in Donegal please.
Donegal’s entry + itinerary
Sam Moffett leads the line courtesy of his 2019 victory (the last time the rally ran) over current M-Sport Ford driver Craig Breen.
But he won’t be scoring championship points as instead he’s elected to drive a Ford Fiesta WRC which isn’t eligible in the Irish Tarmac championship.
Sam’s biggest issue is he really hasn’t done that many rallies this year so he’s not really game ready at allJosh Moffett
“It’s not a case where Sam wanted to take the World car,” says his brother and number three seed, Josh.
“We tried looking at different R5 cars and what was available and there wasn’t anything really available that we wanted to go for. And the fact he wasn’t game ready and he probably wouldn’t be at the R5 race if he went in the R5, we just thought he’d be as well taking the World car and enjoying the event.
“Sam’s biggest issue is he really hasn’t done that many rallies this year so he’s not really game ready at all. But I suppose me and Sam would certainly be of the opinion that the World car is definitely still a faster car.
“An R5 car for us is maybe a more comfortable and certainly easier car to drive whereas I think if you get the reins of the WRC car you’ll make it work and it’ll certainly be faster.
“The World car’s obviously a lot more aggressive and it is a harder car to drive, but we’ve had that car long enough Sam should be able to manage it alright!”
A potentially faster car but driven by an out-of-practice driver certainly adds an interesting dimension to the competition, particularly when you factor in the fact this event is the only Irish international yet to be won by an R5/Rally2 car.
Devine starts at two ahead of Moffett and Fisher, while reigning British Rally champion Matt Edwards makes his first four-wheel-drive start of the season in an all-new car to him: a Citroën C3 Rally2.
Cathan McCourt, Evans, Garry Jennings, Jonny Greer, Desi Henry and also Eamonn Kelly and Gareth MacHale should all be in the Rally2 race.
The stages themselves are mighty. Names like Fanad Head, Knockalla and Atlantic Drive are famed the world over and really test driver’s mettle.
But the biggest challenge and unique selling point of the rally is its length. It’s the only three-day rally left in Ireland and, at 187 competitive miles, Donegal is a similar distance to a WRC event – in fact longer than the only pure asphalt so far this season in Croatia.
What makes Donegal so special?
All of the above and more adds to the charm that makes Donegal such a revered and keenly anticipated event.
“I suppose maybe everybody has their own reasons for it, but it’s the Donegal Rally. That’s the simplest way to put it,” says Moffett.
“There’s so many drivers that just gear up for this rally. It’s the only three-day rally left in Ireland as well, but I just think it has that prestigious name and the stages – it’s just a rally that everybody wants to win I guess.
“We had the discussion at the weekend, myself and Andy [Hayes, co-driver], and we were joking around: would you rather win the [Donegal] rally or win the championship? Which would mean more?
“And that’s how important that rally is to so many people, it’s something you have to consider nearly [as important].”
“It’s just the fact that it’s a three-day event, it runs to similar mileage to a world championship event,” adds Fisher.
I put Killarney and Donegal on a similar pedestal to be honest from a driving point of viewAlastair Fisher
“It’s the best part of three hours of driving with a three-day recce. For everybody it’s a bit of a pilgrimage and the spectators obviously flood Donegal, the locals embrace the rally.
“To an extent it’s no different from Killarney, I put Killarney and Donegal on a similar pedestal to be honest from a driving point of view, but for whatever reason – it’s probably the fact everybody flocks to Donegal and it’s the one everybody wants to win.”
Even Moffett – despite his healthy championship lead.
“The dropped scores is probably a big problem for us,” he explains, referencing the two mandated dropped points over the seven-round season.
“Obviously it’s good whenever you’ve had dropped rounds or whatever, but for us we’re in the position where we’ve two wins, two seconds, we need more good results and I’m not saying I want to risk a non-finish or anything like that but we can nearly afford a non-finish at this stage.
“So I suppose that’s all in our minds, we need to go to Donegal and push to try and get a good result there.
“If Sam was leading the rally by 20s and if I was second and I had a margin, I probably wouldn’t race after Sam for the win considering he’s not going to get championship points.
“[But] I want to be in the race.”
Fisher’s retort is as exciting as it is predictable.
“In general we’ve always went very strong on the stages in Donegal. They’re generally quite technical stages so from that point of view I feel confident I can make a good set of notes.
“Without a doubt we’ll be looking to push to be at the front and I think everybody has really good knowledge of Donegal at this stage, so it’ll definitely be the case where it’ll probably be tenths of seconds separating the lot of us again.”
Bring it on.