Galway International Rally Review- with Art McCarrick
February 5, 2013 by Art McCarrick
What a difference a few years make. The last time Keith Cronin took on the Galway International Rally, in 2010, he was reigning British champion. Seeded at number 3 and full of confidence and youthful exuberance, Cronin set off into a frosty and foggy stage 1 in his Group N Lancer and emerged as the leader having been quicker than 5 WRC cars. This kid was the real deal. Then on stage 2, Cronin missed his braking point in the fog, slid wide on a left hand bend and clattered a tree stump. It was game over. There is always a suspicion among some fans in Irish rallying of drivers who can win abroad but can’t win at home. Perhaps that’s why Keith was pushing so hard that morning. It was the kind of daring bravado that young men often fall victim to.
Fast forward to Galway in 2013. Some things were still the same, Keith was once again seeded at number 3 and once again arrived in Galway as reigning British champion. But some things were different. There is big difference between a 23 year old and a 26 year old. In those 3 years Keith netted 2 more British championship titles and took a year long sabbatical from rallying in 2011. Many criticised Cronin for taking that year out and it may well yet damage his chance to really progress in the sport but you must remember that rallying is expensive. Keith is the eldest of 10 children and is also a qualified accountant. Without sponsorship, it was a simple equation for him to solve but a mature decision for him to make.
So when Keith lined up at the start of stage 1 in Galway on Sunday morning, nobody really knew what to expect. In an 8 year old World Rally Car he would be slightly behind in the technology stakes against many of his rivals and with little testing in this type of car even Keith himself was downplaying his chances. After stage 1, where he spun, he found himself in fourth place and 19 seconds off the lead. That lead, was held by 5 times Irish champion Eugene Donnelly in a Mini WRC who had already opened a 12 second gap to Declan Boyle who was only 0.1 of a second up on Derek McGarrity in third. Donnelly, traditionally a slow starter, had sent out an early warning to his opponents and one of those opponents departed the fray early on. Last years champion, Darren Gass, slithered his Subaru off the road and into retirement within sight of the finish of stage 1. Garry Jennings, who many had predicted to challenge for the lead, was suffering from gear selection problems and was passed by Donnelly in that first stage. At first service, Jennings and co-driver Neil Doherty, found themselves a minute off the pace.
Coming into that first service halt too, was Cronin, having netted a fastest time on a very muddy stage 2. Cronin was beginning to spark into life. Leaving service he was 14.3 seconds off the lead in third, behind Donnelly and McGarrity. By the next service Cronin would close the gap to the front to 0.1 of a second. He set quickest time again on stage 3 but Donnelly responded on the fourth test where Declan Boyle actually took fastest time. Heading into stage 5 the gap between Donnelly and Cronin was 11.7 seconds. By the end of the stage that was all but gone, only a blink of an eye seperated the leading duo heading into the final loop. And it was in this final loop where we saw Cronins class and maturity. In tricky conditions and with second hand tyres on the Subaru, Cronin charged into the lead with a time nearly 13 seconds quicker than Donnelly before pulling out another 6 seconds on the penultimate stage. It was a devasting performance. A 19 second gap after the first stage had now become an 18.5 second lead heading into the last.
Donnelly seemed to have no answer and needed a miracle entering the final stage near Mountbellew. The miracle never came. Donnelly focused all his energy into a last stage assault but deep down he knew only a mistake from Cronin would hand him victory. Donnelly was indeed quickest through that final stage but Cronin and co-driver Marshall Clarke took no chances and cruised to his first Irish international win by 13.8 seconds. Behind the top two, Declan Boyle and Derek McGarrity had a day long battle for the final step on the podium in their Subarus. Boyle, still a four wheel drive novice, took command of the position on stage 7 and successfully fended off an attack from McGarrity on the final test. It was a great performance from Boyle (he was the only driver other than Cronin or Donnelly to set a fastest time) and it wouldn’t surprise me if he takes an international win before the year is out. The pace is definitely there and it is increasing with each event. Donagh Kelly held fifth position in his Airticity backed S11 Impreza WRC for the whole day. Driving a steady rally, he finished with a comfortable margin over Garry Jennings in sixth. Garry had a miserable day, suffering with differential problems and gear selection issues but we can expect much better things from the Fermanagh man for the remainder of the season. Behind Jennings, local man J.J Fleming brought home his immaculate WRC Focus in seventh place while Thomas Fitzmaurice retired on the final stage with differential failure.
Some will still question Keith Cronin and they will rightly ask if driving in Ireland is really the best way to progress. Well it probably isn’t. But I suspect Keith already knows that. What he also knows is that after winning the British championship three times, in three different cars, with three different co-drivers, he has nothing more to prove there. He has however, started to venture onto the continent to compete against the best Europe has to offer and with continued backing from Micheal O’Brien hopefully we’ll see more of those outings but the chance to drive a WRC and prove to his doubters that he could win an Irish international was too good to turn down.
Group N and National Rally
Mitsubishi Lancers dominated in the Group N category with Alan Ring running out the winner by just over 20 seconds from Josh Moffett who pipped brother Sam by 0.7 of a second. It was an unfortunate final stage for Sam who had closed to within 2 seconds of Ring only to run into engine difficulties on the final stage even though Sam had the engine in his Evo 9 rebuilt just before the rally. The national rally provided a brilliant battle and heading into the last stage only 10 seconds seperated a quartet of Mark Two Escorts, all with a chance of victory. Up until stage 6 it was Tom Flaherty who held the lead but he was reeled in by Paddy Kiernan as the day progressed. On a massive charge all day after a dramatic, high speed overshoot on the opening stage was Chris Armstrong with Martin Brady sitting alongside. 40 seconds down after stage 1 they hauled themselves into contention with a spirited drive, getting to within 7 seconds of the lead entering the final test. Fergus O’Meara was poised in fourth. The final stage shootout proved a stage too far for Armstrong who spun and then clipped a concrete post damaging a wheel forcing him into retirement. Knowing Flaherty was close behind, Kiernan put the hammer down and sealed victory in emphatic style with a fastest time. Runner up in the nationals last year, Flaherty went all out for the win but a small mistake cost him time and O’Meara sneaked into second position by 1.2 seconds. The historic category was won by James O’Mahony/Kerrie Barry in their Volvo 144s and the victor in the junior rally was Richard Moore who took over the lead after Darren O’Brien retired with gearbox problems. It was unfortunate for O’Brien who had been setting times that would have had him in second place in the national rally.