Ireland is proving to be the land of the comeback this year.
A World Rally Championship return beckons, so long as the money can be found. But as the WRC prepares to return, some aspects of Irish rallying refuse to be influenced by foreign shores.
You’d think it would be apt for the Emerald Isle to be awash in a sea of green. But Škoda Fabias, which dominate Rally2 at the international level, are a rarity here. You want to win the coveted Irish Tarmac title? Forget the Fabia, forget a Ford Fiesta; get yourself a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5. Or maybe a Hyundai i20, like 2022 champion Josh Moffett. That was the conventional wisdom.
But the man who changed history once is turning the tide yet again. Keith Cronin, the first driver to win the Irish Tarmac title in an R5 car, has changed the thinking once more.
Reigning champion Callum Devine was going to be the benchmark in his Polo. And he’s still very much a title protagonist after his Galway performance: second place is a solid way to start defending his crown.
It was slippery out there last weekend, with plenty of muck on the stages. A shiny surface with gravel littering the roads in places led to junction overshoots and half spins aplenty.
That, on paper, should have caught out the unprepared. And on paper, Cronin was rusty: he’d only managed two rallies during all of 2023 and the last one had been in May. And he was in a car he’d not driven since 2021, the Ford Fiesta.
Two reminders were delivered in Galway: Cronin is still the same title-winning force he’s always been. And so too is the Fiesta Rally2.
Faced with Devine’s Polo and an army of Citroën C3s – including Moffett, who’d switched from his i20 R5 – Cronin didn’t just win, he dominated.
Cronin topped the very first stage and didn’t look back; meanwhile the regulars were all struggling. Moffett’s new ride kept bottoming out and Devine couldn’t hear his navigator Noel O’Sullivan calling pace notes over the intercom early doors.
Matt Edwards was supposed to be the wildcard: with all the coaching and development work he does away from competitive stages, he appeared better positioned of the Fiesta drivers to make waves. But the three-time British champion crashed out on stage two, clipping a rock and breaking the Fiesta’s steering.
Sam Moffett, Josh’s older brother, was also in the wars: he slid into a wall when his i20 N Rally2 stalled under braking.
Throughout it all, the ever-reliable combination of Devine and the Polo still couldn’t be shaken. Day one ended with the reigning champion only 15.6s adrift of Cronin.
As it transpired, day one was just Cronin getting back up to speed. On a wet Sunday morning, Cronin reminded Ireland why he’d won the Tarmac crown in 2016 by winning all three morning stages, as Devine tried to figure out the wet tires fitted to his Polo. Job done.
Devine had slipped back towards the clutches of the younger Moffett but had enough in hand to hold second place. Moffett had perhaps been especially motivated to push on by fellow Citroën runner Desi Henry threatening to take his podium place away – but that ended with Henry sliding wide into a stone wall and dropping a minute and a half.
Cronin had downplayed his odds for Galway – but after that performance, he’s surely a title favorite. He switched to the Fiesta specifically because of development: M-Sport had delivered improvements to the Fiesta, while the Polo’s development is run and will only age further out of relevance.
Three comebacks are now on the cards in Ireland. The WRC isn’t quite there yet. Cronin’s is complete – the title is his goal but winning Galway after so long out shows he’s not messing about. And then there’s Ford.
The proliferation of Escort MkIIs meant the blue oval never left. But seeing a Fiesta crossing the finish ramp first – it’s a comeback that feels like something of a homecoming after years of the continental machinery scooping the top prizes.