Top Ten Rally Drivers 2017- with Aaron McElroy
It is time once again for another retrospective look at the year that was in Irish rallying, to collate and review the competitors and order them into an indisputable and never controversial Top 10 of the year. As with Leo’s Top 10 racing drivers….
2017 was an interesting year in Irish rallying, with Sam Moffett winning everything left, right and centre, so where you would normally have three championship winners to consider, you only have one. But aside from the dominance of the Monaghan man, a lot of drivers had mixed fortune during the year, and some ended with more bad luck than good. As always it has been very difficult to define which drivers make the list and on what merit do they deserve a place over others, and anyone who saw my Snapchats will know that my longlist was extremely lengthy which made it even more difficult to narrow it down to just ten. Where you could argue the exemption of a certain driver, it is hard to knock any of the finalists, and I should know because the line-up was drafted in many editions before settling on a definitive result.
- Sam Moffett
No one can argue there was a driver that had a better 2017 than Sam Moffett. Becoming the first driver to lift the three major Irish rally titles is a feat that most could only dream of, and similarly one that might not be repeated for some time. Sam showed great speed throughout the year, and consistently performed at the highest level at every event. It cannot be said that it was a walk in the park for the Monaghan man, as despite the results; there were always competitive drivers and cars chasing behind, ready to pounce. 2017 was the year that Sam’s ever present competitive spirit shone brightest, as he revelled in the fights as much as he did the victories.
- Keith Cronin
There are two sides to Keith Cronin’s 2017. Taking it at face value, he won the British Rally Championship once again; but this was the same man who almost didn’t go to the Isle of Man because he chances of winning were stacked so high against him. After taking a year to win the ITRC in 2016, Cronin returned to the British Rally Championship and pitted himself against a competitive entry of R5 machines. Through a series of unlucky events, it looked as if 2017 would be a year to forget for the Cork man, but performances and luck in the latter part of the season meant he took the Championship from Fredrik Ahlin by the slimmest of margins in what must have been his hardest fought championship victories. The Cork man is 4 now times BRC Champion. Only Jimmy McRae has more Titles, with 5.
- Craig Breen
Citroen had a baptism of fire when thye returned to the WRC after a year out to develop the new C3 WRC. They were expected to be top of the class given their pedigree but it was anything but. The car was uncompetitive on the loose, and a handful for the drivers to handle at speed. Out of the line-up, Waterford’s Craig Breen was the most reliable and consistent. A steady run of fifth place finishes didn’t shake up the championship leaderboard in any way, but given the difficulties of the car, missing a few events, and having to drive an older spec DS3 on the Monte, he impressed. While he will be sitting out the events that Loeb undertakes next year, it must still be a reward for his efforts that he can say shares a car with a nine-time world champion. Oh and he also came third on the Ravens Rock in a MKII Escort while having a laugh with Patrick Croke sitting along for the ride!
- Callum Devine
Like Cronin in the main BRC field, Callum Devine had a good run on paper but more than a few struggles deeper down. From switching to a Fiesta R2T to learn driving on gravel, to then switching back to the Opel Adam because of reliability issues; to having the alternator pack up on the Ulster and think his championship was over, the Derry driver showed maturity beyond his years when he was able to put his head down and get the result necessary to lift the title from William Creighton. Add to that, a mixed performance in Ypres that saw him swap times with Chris Ingram and the works team, as well as taking a standard R5 Fiesta to Wales Rally GB and putting in times much quicker than he ought to be, Callum Devine showed that when an opportunity knocks that he doesn’t have to think twice about making the most of it. He was also a popular winner of the Motorsport Ireland Billy Coleman Award at the end of the year, and the €50,000 fund that comes with it.
- Kevin Eves
After winning the Modified section of the West Cork Rally, I spoke to Kevin Eves at the finish ramp and he admitted that all he wanted was to be on the pace of the leading modified drivers by the time the Donegal International comes around. The ITRC was never on his agenda; it just happened that they were the events he chose to get himself ready for the one weekend in the Northwest. It was this readiness that made his big crash on Knockalla even more distressing. After leading the event after the first day, his Corolla Twin Cam had a coming together with a concrete post which put an abrupt end to his hopes of taking a victory. Nevertheless he was back out in the car two months later for the Ulster Rally where he took a steady approach to secure the ITRC Modified title – a pretty good consolation prize for missing out on a Donegal victory. There are rumours that there could be a Pettigo registered R5 in the ITRC next year, and if these are true, have no doubt there will be a very determined driver behind the wheel.
- Jonny Treanor
This space could easily have been filled by Michael Boyle or Brian Brady, as the three Civic drivers have been on a different level of pace to their Junior competitors. Aside from being a Billy Coleman finalist, what set Treanor apart was his pace compared to the main field. On the Clare Stages for example, he would have been 6th overall and kept a lot of bigger competitors honest, had the rally finished after the first six stages that the juniors ran. On the Donegal International, before putting himself out, he was setting times equal to that of the R2 drivers. Accepting that the Junior Civics are being developed at a rapid pace, there is still little doubt that if he was homologated machinery that he would be a formidable opponent.
- Rob Duggan
Rob Duggan left the island of Ireland with the aspirations of tackling the Junior World Rally Championship in 2017, and having proved his capabilities in similar machines in the years previous, there was a quiet confidence that he could go far. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be for Duggan and his JWRC hopes ended with a mixture of quick times but unlucky results. It was however to be a better year on his selected Irish events, at the wheel of a MKII Escort. Issues in the Killarney International meant that an overall result wasn’t on the cards but when he had the 1600cc Escort singing he could match the pace of the bigger modified cars, and when he got a “big” Escort for Imokilly and the Killarney Historics, he was able to show his ability with a 2nd and a 1st respectively. From the jaws of a fruitless season, Duggan was able to snatch a significant performance when it counted.
- Gary Keirnan
After the first round of the ITRC it looked as if Gary Keirnan could be walking away with the Modified trophy for the year, blistering pace in the ice on the Sunday morning put distance between himself and the pack to be first Escort home. Luck was not to be on Kiernan’s side in West Cork, Monaghan, Killarney or Donegal International as four of his next five events would end early. Things improved in Cavan, Imokilly, Galway Summer Rally, Wexford and Banna as the Cavan man was back on song with victories, and he ended the year a hard earned second to Rob Duggan in the Killarney Historics. When on full chat and avoiding any mechanical dramas, Keirnan was probably one of the quickest Escort pilots in the country.
- Frank Kelly
I don’t know if anyone in Irish rallying asked for a designated tourism ambassador for the country, but Frank Kelly answered that call and brought Baby Blue on a globetrotting adventure that saw the team travel to Australia, New Zealand, Lithuania and Italy as well as fitting in a few rounds in Ireland as well. With Lauren and the rest of the family handling the media duties, Frank took the internet by storm on the other side of the world and he became an overnight sensation after years of plying his trade on this island. Kelly’s year could be seen as much as an exhibition of action moreso than raw pace, although at times it can be a very blurred line as he racked up results with a smile on his face. Ireland has a proud following of the sport and if there was to be a foreign trade mission looking for overseas competitors to visit our lanes and forests, a screaming Millington coming at you sideways with a half-wise driver behind the wheel just about sums up what we have to offer and why we stand in the fields and ditches!
- Joe McGonigle
Having upgraded from S2000 to R5 for 2017, Joe McGonigle was lining up to be in equal machinery as the likes of the Moffett brothers Sam and Josh, Alastair Fisher and Stephen Wright who he was locked in battle with for most of the year. With Ciaran Geaney alongside him, he had a consistent run of results during the year and by the end of the season, an improvement in his pace was obvious to be seen. Outside of the ITRC Joe had success in National and regional events which kept him sharp and on the pace, and in his MINI WRC debut in the Turkey Run he showed a level of adaptability to the McGeehan machine and with talk of an attempt of the National series in the same car, he would be looking to ride this wave of performance into the 2018 season.
On the back of his Billy Coleman success in 2016, Josh had a partial season in the ERC where he had a great podium in the Azores. Unfortunately an off in Monaghan as well as a few mechanical issues in the ERC meant we didn’t get to see Josh’s full potential in 2017, but he was able to build his confidence back to end the year on a high with impressive results and performances.
Apart from the gentle reminder of florescent pink on the bonnet, Jenna McCann proved that all is fair and equal behind the wheel. A consistent string of results and steady performances on the ITRC saw Jenna take the Irish Tarmac Junior and J2 class win in the series. There were many battles throughout the year for class positions and overalls, and she ended the year on a high taking the overall Junior win in dramatic fashion to take the series.
You can have your R5 Hyundai, or WRC Focus; keep your MKII Escort and R2 Fiesta, because a certain GiveBlood Civic captured the hearts of the sport in 2017 when Art McCarrick and John McCay tackled the ITRC. From the social media before during and after, to the “Ropey Bastard” in-car moments, they captured the spirit of rallying from a clubman level and projected the enjoyment that competitors get from rallying. A class win in the series and the archive of footage online means that their efforts are forever ingrained in history.
Until the next time