Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy founder and patron John Coyne made history at the weekend by becoming the oldest Irish rally driver to enter a round of the World Rally Championship.
The 73-year-old made his Rally Finland debut over the weekend at the wheel of a PCRS Rallysport-prepared Hyundai i20 Rally 2 car.
Coyne started rallying when he was 18 in the family run-around, a Volkswagen Beetle. With his parents’ approval, he was allowed to compete in the car from Friday evening under the condition that it would return, parked on the driveway, ready for family use, come 8 am on Monday morning.
After 55 years of competition and almost 800 events – including winning the 1982 Irish Tarmac Rally Championship outright – last weekend he made his second WRC appearance of the year having already finished 24th overall in Mexico in March.
Coyne, who celebrated his birthday in June, is the oldest Motorsport Ireland-licenced driver to compete at World Rally Championship level. However, co-driver MJ Morrisey holds the Irish record, the Waterford man will be 75 when he starts the Acropolis Rally in Greece next month.
As well as ticking off another bucket list achievement, Coyne’s main focus for entering Rally Finland, the ninth round of the World Rally Championship, was to give members of the Rally Academy a chance to learn about competing at the highest level.
“I am delighted to tick off another bucket list item by finishing WRC Secto Rally Finland 2023 38th overall and 23rd RC2 at age 73,” said Coyne. “It is some experience trusting your notes over Finland’s many crests, jumps and turns while carrying big speed on some of the world championship’s highest speed stages. A great learning challenge for Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy co-driver Eoin Treacy who did an excellent job all weekend on his second ever world championship rally. Thanks to the PCRS crew for a Hyundai i20N Rally2 which ran flawlessly throughout. Finally a word of thanks to the many many Irish rally fans who made the trip to cheer us on. The sea of Irish flags on the stages was a huge motivation.”
Treacy previously partnered with Coyne in Mexico and as part of his development programme within the Academy, he was given a second opportunity in Finland at the weekend.
“It was a great event, everything went well,” said the Cork-based co-driver. “Fantastic stages with a great atmosphere. Brilliant Irish support throughout the weekend was great to see. Great experience for me to get thanks to the Academy and John. Great drive by John all weekend. The car ran perfect over the weekend, a top job by PCRS.”
Coyne and Tracey were two of 12 Irish licence holders to tackle the legendary event often referred to as the Gravel Grand Prix. Tyrone co-driver Aaron Johnston recorded a career best equalling third place overall alongside Takamoto Katsuta. The Toyota Gazoo Racing crew scored their third WRC podium together after a strong and confident performance on the roads around Jyväskylä.
They won Friday’s first forest stage and were soon fighting for a podium place on pace, even as others were caught out by the slippery conditions that dominated the event. An excellent drive on wet roads to win Saturday’s final stage also allowed them to regain the advantage in his fight for third with Teemu Suninen (Hyundai). They stretched that advantage with a further fastest time on stage 20 on Sunday before setting the fourth-best time in the Power Stage to secure third overall.
Johnston described the result as a “dream come true” but was also very thankful to supporters who have guided him through some difficult times since the passing of Craig Breen. Johnston is now the sole Irish representative at the sport’s top level – something is very aware of – and he dedicated his first podium finish of the 2023 season to Craig’s memory.
“A podium finish in Finland, the best and the most prestigious rally on the calendar and to achieve a podium here with Taka is honestly a dream come true. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. It was a faultless weekend from start to finish and I hope everyone at home enjoyed it as much as we did in the car. It has been a difficult year for us and for everyone at home, with the loss of Craig and the two lads in Sligo so to represent everyone at home and bringing the Irish flag back to the podium at the top-level sport means a lot. Thanks to everybody for the support, it really is appreciated, and I can’t thank everyone enough.”
Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy members Josh McErlean and James Fulton continued their WRC 2 Challenger campaign in Finland.
Driving a second PCRS Rallysport-run Hyundai i20 Rally 2, they were setting top-five times within the WRC 2 challenger category throughout Friday and Saturday. However, disaster struck late on Saturday when they suffered a low-speed roll and ended up stuck in one of Finland’s notorious ditches. Aided by several Finish rally fans, they re-joined the road, but the considerable time loss dented any hope of a top result. They recovered well on Sunday morning and set the fifth fastest time on the event’s Power Stage – an indication of what could have been – but McErlean put his hands up and took responsibility for the incident. Nevertheless, the Derry/Cavan pairing finished 19th overall.
“We pushed hard on the Power stage and showed the speed is there to fight towards the front with a top five times. We are very happy with this. The Irish support out here has been savage all weekend, so hats off to all of them people,” he said. “And to everyone that has backed us, thank you. I’m sorry to the whole team for my mistake on Saturday afternoon as we got stuck in a ditch while holding a result well in the top of WRC2. We came here to show speed, we did that, now to get the whole package together,”
Billy Coleman award winner Eamon Kelly and his co-driver Conor Mohan were also driving a Hyundai i20 Rally 2 car. Their second WRC event in a Rally 2 car came about as a result of them winning the Junior element of the British Rally Championship last season. Their prize drive was managed by the Red Grey World Rally team, and they finished a respectable 23rd.
Kelly described his Rally Finland debut as a “boyhood dream come true’ and has vowed to go back there again. Their run to the finish was not without incident, a slow start on Saturday, attributed to a confidence-building exercise following their Rally Estonia crash in a Rally 3 car was compounded by an off-road excursion on Saturday. They had brake issues for much of Sunday too.
“I really enjoyed it. I was happy with our drive considering the experience of the guys around us. It’s as positive and I know there’s so much more left and if we went back to Finland in the future, we can build on this and hopefully be a good bit faster,” said the Donegal driver. “We know what to expect and improve pace notes and stuff like that. I definitely think the whole weekend as a whole served us served u swell. It is great learning and such a challenge. It makes you learn a lot and it did that. It was just it was a fantastic experience”
As well as the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy members, Rally Finland attracted three privateer entries from Irish drivers.
Brendan Cumiskey and Martin Connolly were the best of the three, claiming 35th overall and sixth in the Rally 3 class in their Ford Fiesta. Cumiskey contested the recent Rally Estonia, finishing tenth in the class but Monaghan-based Connolly made his World Rally Championship debut in Finland.
New York-based Irish drivers Enda McCormack and Paul Rowley competed in a Hyundai i20 N Rally2 and a Ford Fiesta Rally 2 respectively. McCormack had his son Liam, who is using an American licence, on the pace notes, and both were delighted to make the finish retiring from the same event this time last year. Rowley teamed up with Sligo-based co-driver Darragh Mullen and while the crew has contested several American rallies together this was Mullen’s first World Rally Championship outing. An off-road excursion on Saturday meant they had to rely on SuperRally rules to get to the end.