Rallying comes in many different flavors.
There are the high-speed jumps of the Finnish forests, the abrasive asphalt of Corsica’s 10,000 turns and, of course, Sweden’s snow.
But there are few places better than the Emerald Isle, where the cars thread narrow lanes and dive between hedgerows down stages all backdropped by some of the world’s most stunning scenery. Rallying on the island of Ireland is launched into 2024 from Eyre Square, Galway on Friday evening.
The Tarmac Championship is on.
Founded in 1978, the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship (ITRC) plays host to some of the world’s most iconic rallies, and has brought World Rally Championship stars to Ireland’s shores for generations, from Ari Vatanen in the 1970s through to current-gen heroes like Elfyn Evans.
But what is it about those lanes and that place that attracts the world’s best? Paul Nagle, Ireland’s most successful co-driver with five WRC wins, has the answer.
“It’s a unique championship,” Nagle told DirtFish. “We have some of the best stages in the world, with some of the best rallies as well. We have fantastic Tarmac roads, and every round is iconic in its own way.”
This year’s ITRC will feature seven rounds, each carrying a name which immediately conjures imagery of epic battles between legendary names. And each offers very different characteristics and challenges, from tight, technical country roads to wide open high-speed blasts.
“Starting with this week (Feb 3-4),” said the Irishman, who won the ITRC title with Craig Breen in 2019. “Galway will be really slippery because of the rain you always get, and you also have the famous stone walls [alongside the roads] which are ready to catch you out.
“Next is West Cork which on St. Patrick’s Day weekend. There it’s really fast, open roads, followed by the Circuit of Ireland up [in Northern Ireland]. There are a real variety of different roads, from any part of five or six counties up there.
“Killarney (Rally of the Lakes) and Donegal is where the real heart of the championship is. In Killarney, you have stages such as Moll’s Gap and Ballaghbeama, which are really technical and really, really abrasive roads. In Donegal, there’s the famous Knockalla and Atlantic Drive [stages], similar stages to Killarney, very quick and abrasive as well.
“The speeds are quite high on both those events, and when the rain comes in, you have to have a lot of knowledge to be competitive there.
“Round six is the Ulster Rally, which has been a round of the British Rally Championship and then September is the final round, Cork 20 – that’s the event where Sébastien Loeb was so impressed with the roads when he came over in .
“Every event in Irish rallying has its own character, its own type of stages, and that’s why it is so challenging for all the crews.”
Growing up, I always wanted to win the Tarmac [Championship]Paul Nagle
But it isn’t just the roads that catch your eye in the ITRC. Take a look around you. What a backdrop. There are few places in the world where you can watch a rally car flash past at full tilt, and admire a stunning view at the same time. Nagle agrees.
“There’ll be some beautiful scenery this year,” he said. “Down by Ardfield in West Cork it’s stunning. From Killarney all the way up to Donegal, we’re blessed with that scenery in Ireland.”
Ireland’s megastar appeal
With roads that encourage drivers to push, set against some outstanding natural beauty, it’s easy to see why so many world-class drivers have come to compete in Ireland over the years.
Among the most famous of those is Colin McRae, who competed on the Donegal International Rally in 2006 driving his own Metro 6R4, just for the sheer pleasure of it. A year on, the WRC stars came to town, with several top drivers including then-title protagonists Sébastien Loeb and Marcus Grönholm competing in Ireland ahead of that year’s inaugural WRC event in the country.
The appreciation of the Irish lanes was – and is – universal. Talk to Evans about his favourite stage and its Hamilton’s Folly rather than Gartheiniog that comes to mind.
But as much as those memories are special for Nagle, it’s stories about the local heroes that have become a part of Irish culture and inspired generations of Irish rallying fans and competitors.
Nagle added: “[The ITRC] does have a massive history, because you have the likes of Bertie Fisher, Austin MacHale, Eugene Donnelly and Derek McGarrity, all of whom have won championships. There’s massive pride in winning it, the competition is there year-in-year-out, and we’ve seen some fantastic names on the trophies. So it’s a big accolade for anyone to win.
“When I was growing up, I always wanted to win the Tarmac [Championship], and I was fortunate enough to do that in 2019 [alongside Craig Breen]. Even though my career had gone in a different direction, it was nice to come home and win that title. It was on the bucket list from a young age.
“Without a doubt it’s the pinnacle [of Irish motorsport]. We get a lot of publicity out of it, the social media following is huge and mainstream TV comes to some of the rounds, so it gets a lot of support locally and internationally.”
This year’s protagonists
The competition in the ITRC is as fierce today as it ever has been. With 27 Rally2 cars on the round one entry list, this year’s season-opener in Galway is going to be a typically hard-fought affair.
And there’s a fresh battle brewing at the very front, with last year’s title rivals Callum Devine and Josh Moffett joined by multiple BRC title winners Matt Edwards and Keith Cronin for what should be a titanic title scrap.
“You’ll expect Keith [Cronin] and Matt [Edwards] to compete with the regulars from last year,” added Nagle, “but there’s eight or nine guys who can win any rally this year. There’s a lot of people with new [Rally2] cars, we have Citroëns, Fords, Hyundais and Škoda, and no doubt when the Toyotas become more available they’ll be there too. So in Irish rallying at the moment, it’s very, very strong.”
If Rally2 cars aren’t your thing, fear not. The ITRC offers no end of entertainment when it comes to its variety of cars, some of which are totally unique to Irish shores.
“There are the Rally3s and Rally4s,” furthered the former WRC star. “Then we have the historics, which is a big entry now with 20 or 30 cars each rally, with BDAs (Ford Escort Mk2s) and Porsches.
“And, don’t forget, the modified Escorts, they really fill up the entry lists and can be very, very competitive. They will be in the top-10 overall in most rallies, and all have 2.5-liter Millington [engines] with, maybe, 350 horsepower. They’ll be beating Rally2 cars on some rallies, they are fantastic and they’ll spend the whole year racing each other.”
Rally Ireland hype
If world-renowned stages, stunning scenery and close competition in crazy cars aren’t enough to get you excited about this year’s ITRC, then there’s still one very good reason to keep your eye on it. With Ireland looking likely to return to the WRC calendar in 2025, this year’s Irish championship will offer a preview of what to expect when the world championship arrives.
Nagle’s as excited as anybody about the prospect of a WRC return. He said: “When you have the possibility of Ireland getting into the world championship next year, it’s adding more hype to the whole championship this year. And folks from the Irish championship will be hyped to compete in the WRC round if it comes.
“It was brilliant for the championship [when the WRC last came to Ireland in 2009] and brilliant to have world class drivers coming to Ireland to compete against the locals. It gave a great boost to Irish motorsport back then, and it could happen again next year if we do get a WRC round – we’d expect WRC drivers back in the Rally1 cars competing in ITRC [as a warm-up].”
“With the scenery of places like Moll’s Gap, they’d be beautiful backdrops for a powerstage in the WRC.”