Was it fate or was it a plan?
Eamonn Kelly, the Junior WRC driver who sat plum last in the championship heading to Croatia Rally, crossed the finish-line first – almost quite by accident.
Clambering out of his Ford Fiesta Rally3, battling all sorts of emotions, his words resonated with thousands of rally fans around the world.
“It’s obviously been an emotional week for everyone, Irish as well, so there’s no question who you could dedicate this win to,” Kelly said.
“There’s a man up there in the sky shining down on us today – that one’s for him.”
That man was, of course, Craig Breen – a man who knew a thing or two about dramatic victories in the World Rally Championship’s junior feeder series.
If there had been a script for the rally, this would surely have been it: an Irish driver winning.
But most would have placed their dollars on William Creighton instead. Winner of the opening round in Sweden, and leader after the first day in Croatia, Kelly’s fellow Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy member was in position to deliver the Irish rallying community a result it so badly needed.
That it was Kelly who swooped in and secured it proved that, even in a discipline as tightly fought as rallying, the tortoise can still beat the hare.
Kelly had a tough debut JWRC event in Sweden, rolling out on the sixth stage. Determined to avoid the same mistake in Croatia, the 24-year-old and his team hatched a plan.
“When we looked at Sweden we tried to really break it down and analyze what went wrong, and the thing that went wrong was the fact we didn’t have a plan,” Kelly tells DirtFish.
“So the plan for Croatia was to try and just be steady and consistent, and we knew then on top of that it would be a very, very tricky rally. When you looked at the results from the past few years it was usually a lot of retirements, a lot of mistakes and super-rallys so we knew if we were steady and consistent and managed to limit the amount of mistakes we made, come Sunday we probably wouldn’t be in a bad position.
“We just said ‘look no matter what happens stick to it, don’t stray from it’. We did that right up to the very last minute and look how it paid off…”
From the outset, it was clear that Creighton and Laurent Pellier’s epic speed (and battle) on the snow and ice would translate onto asphalt too. As early as stage one, they were in a class of their own – Pellier particularly as he opened up an impressive 15.4-second lead right from the off.
But slowly but surely Creighton came back at the Frenchman, nipping ahead on the first stage of the afternoon to carry a nine-second advantage into the rally’s second day.
The rest? Roberto Blach Núñez had crashed, but everyone else remained in the race albeit three minutes down on the runaway leaders.
Kelly was fifth, 3m49s adrift of his rally-leading countryman.
“At the end of the first stage we lost our brakes, and then for the second stage which was 25km, I had very, very little brake in the pedal – it was effectively pumping the brakes all the way from the start to the finish because when I lost them they never came back and we didn’t really have time to bleed them in between the stages,” he explains.
“So that was quite a challenge. And I also spun on that stage too and stalled so I think we dropped quite a bit on that, but then got them bled for the stage after and we were fourth quickest so it was good to come back.
“We were having a decent run on that fourth stage but then we lost our power-steering near the end of it – that was actually quite sketchy because it happened to me mid-corner, and it just cut out, and it was a real wrestling match!
“It was one of those heart-stopping moments where it was just on the edge. It was a long corner which tightened and just as it tightened the power-steering went. Thankfully I managed to get it round and got it to the end of the stage.
“The rest of the day was quite steady – again set a couple of average times and a couple of top-three times, we just stuck to the plan for the rest of the day and didn’t do anything crazy.”
Kelly might not have been up to anything crazy, but there was no better word to describe what unfolded on Saturday.
Creighton was first to fall. Caught out in a fast left-right sequence, he lost the rear of his Fiesta and rolled down a bank and out of the lead. That gave Pellier a massive lead that he was more than capable of defending until the end.
But the rally gods had other ideas.
Holding a four-minute lead as he began the afternoon, sudden engine issues stifled Pellier’s progress.
Losing two minutes on the first stage of the loop alone, Pellier’s lead was halved and, out of nowhere, he was there for the taking. Managing the issue, he did well to limit the damage as the day progressed – but with the problem related to the head gasket he knew he was in for more pain on Sunday.
Meanwhile both Diego Domínguez and Raúl Hernández had crashed on the same stage, elevating Tom Rensonnet into second and Kelly up onto the podium, half a minute down on his Belgian rival.
“We knew Laurent had problems and then we were in a battle with Tom,” Kelly remembers, “but we just had to say ‘stick to the plan and just don’t mistakes’ because whenever you go by [someone on a stage] it just reinforces in your head ‘this is why we have the plan to try and limit mistakes because we don’t want to end up like that.’
“Because if you try and stick your neck out and capitalize on a mistake it can pay off but it could all so easily go the other way, and after Sweden I didn’t want that to happen.”
A recurrence of Friday’s brake issues aside, the Irishman’s day was clean. All according to plan.
So as the sun rose over Zagreb to signal the dawning of the final day, Kelly had no designs, or even dreams, of climbing higher than third. He was more than aware of Pellier’s persistent problem, but “to be honest I thought they would have made it to the end”.
And he simply couldn’t have predicted that the other car ahead of him, Rensonnet, would encounter engine trouble too.
Rensonnet’s problem was far less severe than Pellier’s, but it still drew Kelly to within just 5.3s of him with three stages to go. A wrong tire choice extended the gap back to 13.3s two stages from home, all while both Rensonnet and Kelly were rapidly closing on Pellier.
But with a fully healthy Ford up against two sick ones, Kelly was in the ascendency.
Every fiber in his body was screaming at him to push more and risk it for the biscuit, but he did well to resist the urge.
We'd seen how the rally had bitten everybody else, and we didn't want to be in that same position. That was really it – just stick to the plan. We knew it had worked so well up to thatEamonn Kelly
Even talking about it now days later, you can sense how much letting it go pained him.
“Every bit of you wants to push and get it,” he says.
“[But] it’s knowing that all the time, all the effort and everything you’ve put in to getting to that Sunday and into that position, knowing the feeling we had after Sweden, just the dejection of not finishing, and possibly if we had kept our heads we’d have come away with a third or fourth place, it was just reminding yourself of that and saying ‘look you’ve got this far, you need to really, really be mature here’.
“We’d seen how the rally had bitten everybody else, and we didn’t want to be in that same position. That was really it – just stick to the plan. We knew it had worked so well up to that.
“If I was going to go and disobey it and if something were to happen you would really, really kick yourself – why set a plan if you’re not going to stick to it?”
The penultimate stage, though, would change everything yet again. As Rensonnet dropped more time to fall behind Kelly, Pellier’s rally was done. He’d fought valiantly to stay in the race, but his Fiesta’s engine finally cried enough.
“I felt for them – I think everyone did,” he says.
But, quite unexpectedly, Kelly headed into the hour-long regroup with a 31.6s lead. Talk about pressure. And even though Rensonnet had problems, Kelly knew he still had to perform based on the first pass of the powerstage.
“It was weird, maybe even a hollow feeling,” he describes. “Tom had issues, it’s not how you want to see anyone fall short and he obviously drove very well too.
“It was kind of a weird feeling in that sense but we also knew that whatever issue he had it seemed to be only kicking in on really fast sections where the car was near maxing out, she was dying away on power.
“That’s as far as what I understood from what his navigator told us, but I knew that the following stage was very, very tight and twisty – there weren’t many fast sections, and the time before that he took time out of us so I knew he was capable of taking time.
“That’s what I had in my head; it might not necessarily have been the reality but that’s what I was telling myself. As far as I knew I couldn’t sit back, I had to go in and drive better than the first time.
“But that to be honest helped me just focus. We went over the notes – I remember sitting in the car with Conor [Mohan, co-driver] and didn’t look over any onboards or anything, just got him to call the notes back to me, closed my eyes and tried to picture every note that I could remember from the first run and that helped a lot.
“I knew exactly where I could have improved from the first stage without going balls out, so that’s exactly what we did. We sat on the startline and said ‘let’s just enjoy this, it’s our last WRC stage of the weekend so we’re going to have to soak in every moment and enjoy it’ and that’s what we did.”
Kelly did drop time, but eight tenths of a second were nowhere near enough to dent his lead. At just the second attempt, he was a winner in the Junior WRC and did it, essentially, by going as slowly as he could get away with.
But considering the tragic events that had unfolded the week before, feelings when crossing the finish-line were mixed.
“There was an overcoming of emotion there because there were a lot of Irish people at the end of the stage and just seeing their reactions, we all felt that together in a positive way and I felt like I’d done them all proud.
“It was more emotion and happiness because of that, not because we had won for ourselves – we more cared for everyone as a group than myself and Conor as individuals.
“Last year we were always winning because we were dominating or always pushing and having a good battle, coming out on top, and that’s how you want to win rallies. That’s where the feeling is of saying ‘yeah I deserve this’ but I never thought I’d ever win a JWRC round, so to be in that position is quite special.
“Such a mix of emotions, and you could probably hear it in my voice when I was talking [at the stage end] it wasn’t so much raw celebration it was just a mix of emotions.
“I wasn’t going to be jumping on any roofs or anything like that. Definitely didn’t expect to be there, I don’t think anyone did, but it just unfolded the way it did.
There was an overcoming of emotion there because there were a lot of Irish people at the end of the stage and just seeing their reactions, we all felt that together in a positive way and I felt like I'd done them all proud.Eamonn Kelly
“I just keep telling myself it was more or less the stars aligning for the week that had happened leading up to it.
“The one thing I kept reminding myself of throughout the weekend too was that in 2019 when Manus [Kelly] died in Donegal the weekend after I remember Craig did, and he won, Ypres,” Kelly adds.
“It was such an amazing tribute because I remember everyone going over to Ypres and it was a very, very somber mood but Craig going over and winning the rally was such an amazing tribute to have for Manus.
“I always kept that in the back of my mind all weekend. It was definitely a source of motivation.”
Fittingly, Kelly went and achieved exactly the same thing for Ireland last weekend.
Was it fate or was it a plan? It was both.