The Irish rally that attracts the world’s best

There's only one place to be in June and that's in the stunning north-west of Ireland for the Donegal International Rally

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Merry Christmas. Six months late? Six months early? Actually, neither. Not this weekend. Not in the north-west corner of Ireland. It’s time for the Donegal International Rally, it’s Christmas in June.

That’s how important this week’s round of the Irish Tarmac Championship is to the town of Letterkenny. Nobody knows that better than James Cullen. He’s born, raised and rallied in the place. In the event’s 52-year history, only three drivers have contested the rally more than Cullen’s 25 starts.

“Just making the start was something very special,” Cullen told DirtFish. “When I was young, I used to ride my bike to see the cars. We get so many people coming to the town and so many of the legends of our sport have competed here, people like Sébastien Loeb, Jimmy McRae, Mark Lovell and the more known drivers from around here, drivers like Vincent Bonner, Cahal [Curley] and, of course Billy Coleman.”

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Donegal and MK2 Escorts are a match made in heaven

Why do they come? Simple. The roads.

Cullen smiles: “God made Ireland and made Donegal for rallying.”

And it really is that good. This is as far north as Irish rallying goes – it’s hard to imagine rally cars on a latitude higher than the stunning Fanad Head or Atlantic Drive. But this week, a capacity entry (there are more than 80 cars… on the reserve list) will take to some of the world’s finest asphalt. And showcasing those roads are some of the most scenic vistas around – the hairpin on the Knockalla stage anybody?

The roads and the rally have never changed down the years, it’s just the players that have evolved. Yesterday’s Bertie Fisher and Frank Meagher are today’s Keith Cronin and Callum Devine.

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Josh Moffett is just one of the previous winners lining up for this year's rally

And it’s Cronin who leads the charge towards another home title. The Ford Fiesta Rally2 driver started his season with two from two wins before rival Matt Edwards edged him for a narrow Circuit of Ireland win in his C and M Motorsport Fiesta. There was more frustration with fourth place in Killarney in May.

“We’ve finished every round so far, which is always a plus,” said Cronin. “We could have been in a much stronger position points-wise if the Circuit and Killarney had gone our way, but you’re never going to get a year where every rally goes perfectly, it just won’t happen.”

There’s not much in Ireland that Cronin hasn’t won, but Donegal is missing from the trophy cabinet – same for Edwards. Devine? He won it last year.

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The stunning backdrop of the north-west of Ireland is part of what makes Donegal so special

The competition’s not all focused at the front – while around 15% of the 120-strong entry is Rally2 cars, the fever goes right through a field of rear-wheel drive Toyota Starlets, Corollas Mini Cooper S and, of course, the obligatory flotilla of Ford Escort Mk2s.

A ceremonial start gets the event going in Letterkenny on Thursday evening with three full days of rallying and 170 miles of competition across Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Christmas has very much come early. Or late. Who cares, it’s Donegal time.

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