Matt Edwards was doing the unthinkable. You’re not supposed to be challenging for victory on your very first Donegal International Rally – particularly on your first event in a new car and with a new co-driver.
Yet that’s exactly where Edwards found himself last weekend – leading Ireland’s biggest rally against all the local experts.
After a scintillating scrap with Callum Devine ended on the final morning when Devine missed his braking and smacked a haybale, damaging his radiator beyond repair, Edwards was seemingly on for a huge scalp.
But then it all went wrong on a fifth-gear corner. The stage was immediately canceled and the new rally leader was out – in a big way.
“We hit a kerb hidden in the grass on a right-hander and that seemingly took a little nick out the rim and the tire’s gone down instantly, so we didn’t make the next left,” Edwards told DirtFish.
Initially the reigning British Rally champion suspected he may have hit a rock, but a “post-mortem” from fellow competitor Jason Mitchell revealed “a fresh mark on this kerb”.
“We got most of the way round the corner but ran out of the road because the right-front was flat,” Edwards added, “and then we hit a straw bale that was protecting a big concrete block which was in turn protecting a stone-wall driveway entrance.”
It’s that concrete block that did the real damage. The Citroën C3 Rally2 Edwards was driving was a write-off, and both he and Dave Moynihan were injured. Both spent a couple of nights in Letterkenny hospital as Edwards broke a few ribs and bruised a long, while Moynihan broke some ribs, his shoulder and suffered with a hip fracture.
“Yeah, it was quite scary,” Edwards admitted. “I think the impact wasn’t expected because all I could see was a bale, I couldn’t see the concrete block so it was very unexpected and knocked the wind out of us very severely for a lengthy amount of time and Dave was obviously in a serious amount of discomfort as well.
I was in the ambulance I didn't know what Dave's situation was, it was quite serious for a while I thinkMatt Edwards
“I managed to get out and I as good as fainted in the ambulance afterwards which was uncomfortable, lots of activity going on and then the worry when I was in the ambulance I didn’t know what Dave’s situation was, it was quite serious for a while I think.”
Edwards was quick to point to the effectiveness of the current safety protocols in rallying, paying particular credit to the first crew on the scene Alastair Fisher and Gordon Noble.
“The only faces I actually remember from the incident are Ali and Gordy, because Gordy was at my door and Ali was at David’s door. They stopped and helped and the next car Josh [Moffett] went to the next radio point.
“I activated the tracker and it was the perfect example of what that system and what that process is designed to do. Everybody was there quickly and everybody reacted how they should do, having paid attention and taken onboard the briefings and everything like that.
“I remember Ali checking Dave’s airway as he was making a load of noise, and I could see him out the corner of my eye lifting his head up to clear his airway. I remember snippets of stuff like that that are very important and had it been more serious, it’s obviously good to know that almost the first emergency service is the car behind.
“It’s a good message and obviously a very good showing by Ali and Gordon in that situation despite the pressure of the rally and all that going on – when it comes down to it, you’d like to think everybody in the field would do the same thing.”
Edwards can perhaps count himself fortunate to escape without any life-changing injuries, but should he have had to escape at all?
With a lead of 19.2 seconds starting the Atlantic Drive stage, it raises questions of whether he was trying too hard in the circumstances. But Edwards believes he had to take the line he did in order to protect his lead.
“We had don’t cut on it and I wasn’t cutting it, I was just at the edge of the grass on the road,” he said.
“We weren’t in the grass, you couldn’t go in the grass. Five millimeters has been the margin and OK, I could’ve got away with not being that close to the grass but at the same time when you’re trying to drive properly you use all the road.
“So when there’s a left-hander after a right, you keep in on the right for a good line on the left. It wasn’t a mistake in speed or aggression or anything, it was just an unfortunate thing and the consequences were very, very high.”
Despite the obvious negative of suffering a serious crash – amazingly the first rally-ending accident of the 37-year-old’s career – Edwards is “really only seeing positives” from his Donegal weekend.
“I think there’s a lot of positives, I am really only seeing positives. I’m quite good at doing that,” he explained.
“And the other positive for me is it wasn’t a psychological error, it wasn’t a misjudgement of speed and trying too hard and being silly or anything like that. My decision at the start of the stage was I’ve got to drive… 20 seconds would soon disappear in some of those stages if you took your eye off the ball, so I’ve got to drive quick, I’ve got to commit to the notes and concentrate and that’s the only thing I ever do when I’m leading a rally.
“So arguably in my mind I’d done the hard work and I just needed to do what I’m comfortable and used to doing which is leading a rally. All that side of it I’m happy with.
“I was gobsmacked [that] we were second fastest on the first stage, and second fastest on the first three was a huge reward for a lot of effort from everybody. We’d all put a lot of effort into putting as much into what we had, and we did 12 miles of testing which was very, very little and we were constantly changing things to try and make little gains all the time, and it yielded a really good result against most people’s expectations.
“I think it’s only really positive. The negative obviously is we’ve had an accident and we’re both hurt and unfortunately destroyed a car which I’ve never done, and it’s the first time I’ve ever ended a rally off the road at my own doing if you like.
“OK I’ve clipped a few bits and bobs and broken a joint or a wheel in the past but I’ve never actually finished a rally off the road because of an accident. It is a first in that sense and that’s not great.
“I’m not going to dwell on that fact because I’ve probably had a fairly good run of it in that sense.”
He well and truly proved a point too. Despite all the unfamiliarity on what was also Edwards’ first start in a four-wheel-drive car all year, he was mixing it at the very front. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t up against stiff competition.
The aim now is to do that on a more regular basis.
“I want to try and get back out on another event,” Edwards said.
“I’ve sort of proved to myself that I’m still capable of it and want to do it. Obviously the proof will be in the pudding actually getting in a car again because it was a scary thing, but I think from what we’ve done and the way we’ve done it on that event has made a good case for trying to get some leverage and some backing to try and do another event or the championship.”