The Top 5 Drivers Never to have won an Irish International Rally- with Art McCarrick
March 2, 2013 by Art McCarrick
Just for a bit of fun this weekend, Ditchslapped’s Art McCarrick counts down his top 5 drivers never to have won an Irish international rally. Some have rode their luck and claimed international victories (Gabriel Snow, James Leckey and Denis Cronin spring to mind) but some have competed for years at the highest level in Irish rallying without ever gaining that elusive international win. Videos are embedded in the text for each of the drivers.
5) Donie O’Sullivan
Coming in at number 5 on the list we have Donie O’Sullivan. Any man who rallies in Ireland and has the means to win, dreams of winning their home international. It might not be the most widely recognised achievement in rallying but you only have to think back to the emotional scenes when Vincent Bonner and James Cullen won in Donegal to see what it means to a driver. Looking back through the record books and the geographical spread of drivers, there has only ever been a select few who could ever have won their home international but Donie O’Sullivan was definitely one of them. Luck however, rarely seemed to be on his side. Donie shot to fame in his “silver bullet” Ford Escort when he finished fourth overall on the 1999 West Cork Rally with his brother Timmy (R.I.P) on the notes. Then, the following year in a hired Escort Cosworth he claimed fifth position on the Rally of the Lakes. After a year in a Group N Subaru in 2002 Donie began to challenge for outright wins, especially in Killarney. In 2003, he finished runner up to Eugene Donnelly after initially leading and in 2004 Donie took on the Tarmac Championship in a Ford Focus WRC. A finish outside the points in Galway was followed up with a win on the Circuit of Kerry and a podium finish on the Circuit of Ireland. Next came Killarney. Running in second place for the whole event, with two stages left Donie found himself over a minute behind leader Derek McGarrity. The only hope Donie had of victory was by pressuring McGarrity into a mistake. It was a plan that backfired. On the penultimate stage, Donie cut a right hander too tight, flipping the car into a tree on the other side of the road. The Focus was repaired but wasn’t seen out again until the Cork 20 in October where it also ended up on it’s roof, although this time in much less dramatic fashion. The year ended with a top 20 finish on the Spanish round of the WRC. After that dramatic 2004 season, Donie only made selected appearances. He led again in Killarney in 2006 only for the engine in his hired Subaru to expire and in 2008 he won in West Cork but crashed heavily again trying to win his home international. It appeared Donie’s dream was always just out of reach.
4) Liam O’Callaghan
Fouth slot on the list is occupied by another nearly man from Munster, Liam O’Callaghan. If there was one driver that looked likely to break the McHale, Fisher and Meagher dominance of the mid 1990′s, it was Liam O’Callaghan. Having plied his trade in a Daihatsu Charade and then a Group N Sierra the step up to Group A was made. A Sapphire Cosworth was replaced with an ST185 Celica in 1995 and the results soon followed. Third in Galway, seventh on the Circuit, second in Killarney and third on the Ulster showed speed and consistency. Surely a win wouldn’t be far away? 1996 saw the arrival of a new Celica, an ST205 model, which at the time was probably the closest thing we had to a world championship specification car competing in Ireland. The good form from 1995 continued with a debut third place finish in Galway for the new Celica and that result was repeated on the following round, the Circuit of Ireland. Before the Rally of the Lakes, O’Callaghan also claimed a victory on the West Cork Rally. Heading to Killarney, an international win seemed a definite possibility. He raced into an early lead, catching James Cullen and Bertie Fisher napping and not content with beating them on the stages, O’Callghan tried to beat them off the stages by introducing mind games into the equation. He told the media that there was a secret to Molls Gap (the most famous stage on the rally and Ireland for that matter) and that he knew it. “I always liked the gap, there’s a secret to it and I know the secret” he told the cameras. Leading overnight and clearly confident, O’Callaghan set off into Molls Gap the next morning. However it seemed it was Bertie Fisher who really knew the secret to Molls Gap. Bertie set a record time for time for the stage, the first man to break the ten minute barrier over the famous stretch of road. O’Callaghan eventually finished second but by Cork he was ready to win again. Leading his home international and seemingly crusing to victory, the state of the art Celica let him down. The suspension failed on a bump, firing the car off the road and out of the rally allowing Gabriel Snow to snatch his one and only international victory. The Celica was retained for 1997 but it didn’t finish Galway and fourth was all he could muster on the Circuit. With Fisher non-starting Killarney in 1997, O’Callaghan looked favourite for the win, especially after opening out a minutes lead on the first day. But a puncture on Sunday caused terminal suspension damage putting Liam out and the big Celica was never seen again. Liam then spent a few seasons in Formula 2 cars, a VW Golf first and then a Ford Escort Maxi and although he could never challange for outright victory in these cars he kept the big boys honest. A one off drive in a hired Subaru on the 2003 Killarney rally resulted in a third place finish and showed that Liam had lost none of his pace. If he’d held onto the Celica for just a few more events, a win would have been a certainty.
3) Daniel Doherty
Out of all the men on this list, Daniel Doherty probably came the closest to winning a round of the Irish Tarmac Championship. The irony is however, that he came closest to victory on an event which didn’t have that much to do with tarmac at all, the Summit 2000 rally. With the Galway, Circuit of Ireland and Ulster rallies all in difficulty and not running, the 2000 championship was looking sparce to say the least. But an unlikely saviour came in the guise of the then wealthiest man in Ireland, Séan Quinn. The event ran in the mountains in the Cavan/Fermanagh border using roads that had been built by the cement tycoon and was quite unlike anything we’ve seen in Irish rallying before or since. Held in late May, conditions were terrible but driving brilliantly through the mix of concrete, gravel and fog, Doherty took the lead. Doherty had first came to peoples attention in the mid ’90s in a Mark Two Escort before starting to become a national championship front runner in Group A Subarus. His pace on Slieve Rushden that day however, showed that he could mix it with the best of them. He was eventually overhauled by Andrew Nesbitt and Austin McHale in the closing stages but with a podium finish against such high class opposition and in such tricky conditions, many marked Doherty out to become the next new face to win an international. It never happened. A fourth place on the next round in Donegal was followed by a good start on the Manx Trophy rally where they initially led but it ended in tears and the raw pace that was evident throughout that 2000 season seemed to fade away. The Group A Impreza that brought them so close to victory was traded for a WRC example but foot and mouth disease outbreak stopped them building on any momentum from the previous year and by 2002 a newer Impreza had been purchased, a P2000 model. But the results never came. Third on the Ulster in 2002 was the best Daniel could offer and in his rare outings since then he focused on his home international in Donegal where he managed fourth in 2009. The Impreza has now been replaced with a Mark Two Escort as Doherty returns to his roots and an international victory seems as far away as ever.
2) Kevin Lynch
Kevin Lynch began rallying in 2002 and finished in 2009. In that short space of time he racked up a heap of wins but an international victory always remained just out of reach for the Dungiven man. Kevin started rallying in order to help boost the profile of his KPL Utilities company and after a few quiet outings in a Group N Subaru in 2002, a WRC Impreza appeared for 2003. Lynch is unique on this list in that he was as fast on gravel as he was on tar and a maiden win in 2003 on the gravel Dogleap rally showed that the pace was increasing. What a lot of people didn’t realise though, was just how quick that pace would get. In a serious statement of intent, in 2004 Kevin ordered two brand new S9 Subaru Impreza WRCs and it was in these machines that he really came into his own. He won the Northern Ireland championship twice, the southern forestry championship once and in 2004 began a remarkable series of wins on the Lurgan Park rally. He was to win this notoriously tricky rally five times in a row. With his gravel and single venue pace at a high level, Lynch began to raise his speed on tarmac. He took several national championship wins and by 2005 Lynch was most definitely on an international pace. He led the field in Galway before gearbox difficulties eventually put him out and retirements were a common feature in his early attempts at internationals. 2006 was a comparatively quiet year for Kevin but he did cause a stir in Donegal when his rally ended in spectacular fashion. A Ford Focus WRC arrived in 2007 and Kevin again featured in Donegal battling with Eugene Donnelly behind Mark Higgins and Sébastian Loeb before yet another retirement but the following year, Lynch was to get very close to the big prize. In his last drive in the Focus he finished second in Donegal and that result was matched on the Ulster in another brand new Impreza WRC. A massive accident on the Donegal Harvest Rally ended the 2008 season and Lynch only had one more crack at winning an international in Galway in 2009 where he retired while lying third. And with that Kevin Lynch stopped rallying as quickly as he started. He went back to running his business but rally fans all over Ireland will forever remember three letters, KPL.
1) Peadar Hurson
Before I go any further, Peadar Hurson did actually win an international rally, but it wasn’t a round of the Irish Tarmac Championship and his achievement never got the recognition it deserved. The championship didn’t run in 2001 because of foot and mouth disease and as a result some Irish drivers ventured onto the continent in search of action (most notably, Ian Greer) but some stayed closer to home. Hurson was one of those and brought his Toyota Celica over to Scotland where he duly won the Jim Clark Memorial Rally, a rally that became a fixture on the Irish Tarmac Championship the following season. Putting that win aside, Peadar was desperately unlucky in his attempts to win an international in Ireland. He won the Irish National Championship in 1992 in a Nissan powered Opel Ascona, probably the last time a “clubman” car won the title and he soon upgraded to a Metro 6R4. The Metro was a difficult beast to tame and reliability was an issue but Hurson brought the car to third place on the 1995 Rally of the Lakes. An ex Eamon Boland Escort Cosworth followed in 1996. It was a car which Hurson often starred in but rarely finished although he did take another third place, this time in Donegal in 1997. A few lean years followed but the Cosworth was back in action in 2000 despite the fact it was a much outdated car by this time. Even still, Hurson finished second on the Challenge 2000 Rally (running instead of the Ulster) and featured on the Dunlop Rally of Ireland which was aiming to become a round of the European Championship at the time but in 2001 an ST205 Toyota Celica arrived. Despite the foot and mouth outbreak he claimed three wins that year, adding Monaghan and Wexford to his Jim Clark triumph. In 2002, he often had to overdrive the ageing Celica to try and keep up with the influx of WRC machinery but he came desperately close to breaking his Irish international duck on the final event of the season. With the 2002 championship already decided, the all conquering Andrew Nesbitt didn’t enter the West International Rally, which was an attempt at re-branding the Galway International that hadn’t run since 1999. Hurson sensed a win. He bolted into the lead, holding it up to the half way point, heading 5 time champion Austin McHale and a hard charging Eugene Donnelly having his first run in a World Rally Car. On the sixth stage though, Hurson slipped off. The damage was only cosmetic but a minute had been lost and the lead with it. While he eventually battled back to second it was Donnelly who claimed his maiden international win. Donnelly has since amassed a haul of 18 international wins, Hurson remains stuck on that solitary non championship Jim Clark success. A Subaru Impreza WRC was purchased for 2003 and while Peadar set a number of fast times in this car, a win continued to elude him. He did finish third in Galway in 2006 before taking another break returning in 2008 with an S10 Impreza WRC. He won on his debut in the car on the Tour of the Sperrins and in 2009 he finished on the podium in Galway again but a retirement on the Circuit of Ireland was to be his final international appearance. A man who fought for so long in out of date machinery, Peadar’s talents undoubtedly deserved an Irish international win.