THE idiom ‘It’s never over till it’s over’ has a particular resonance in motorsport.
The fickleness of the sport and in particular rallying, has witnessed many unexpected twists and turns. Since its inception in 1982 the Fastnet Rally that has been based in Skibbereen (two terms), Glandore and Bantry has provided plenty of drama. Nothing is ever guaranteed in rallying as anything can and often does happen.
In 1990 Dubliner Michael Barrable (Opel Manta 400) and Belfast’s Richard Smyth (Sierra Cosworth) were battling to win the AIBC National Rally Championship in Glandore. Barrable set a cracking pace and took an 18 second lead from the opening stage.
By the time it came to repeat the same stage (Quaker’s Cross) he led by 40 seconds— his title prospects further increasing when Smyth’s Sierra punctured. But on the same stage Barrable’s Opel Manta ground to a halt with a broken driveshaft and even at that point, Smyth, who recovered and went on to win the rally, was declared national champion.
Although the national rally championship title proved elusive for Barrable, he returned to win the Fastnet in 2003. That victory was unexpected as he trailed 2002 Fastnet winner Kenny McKinstry for all of the day’s previous eight stages.
In wet conditions, McKinstry (Subaru WRC), who had also won the Fastnet in 1984, set the early pace leading Welshman Melvyn Evans (Subaru WRC) by eight seconds with Barrable 13 seconds off top spot in third. By the end of the opening loop and although Barrable was up to second, he was 24 seconds adrift of McKinstry.
On the Mizen Head stage Barrable cut the deficit to 12 seconds as McKinstry grew concerned about a drop in oil pressure. His worst fears were realised when the engine blew on the final stage with Barrable taking the spoils.
In 2007 Barrable, this time in a Ford Focus WRC, enjoyed another slice of fortune, but this time it was on the West Cork Rally. Meath’s Tim McNulty (Subaru WRC) held the advantage and despite a major overshoot he led at the overnight halt by 21 seconds. Going into the final quartet of stages McNulty’s lead was 35 seconds.
But then his Subaru punctured and he lost over a minute as Barrable went 34 seconds ahead. McNulty made a brave bid and only lost by 10.4 seconds, but that puncture cost him his first taste of success in Clonakilty, however, he made amends in 2010.
While that may have balanced the books, McNulty suffered disappointment when he was denied back-to-back wins on the Cartell.ie Rally of the Lakes in 2010. McNulty’s early challenger Gareth MacHale retried his Ford Focus WRC on the second stage with oil pressure woes. At the Killarney overnight halt the Meath man led Ballylickey’s Denis Cronin (Subaru WRC) by a minute and 45 seconds.
McNulty drove well within his limits and maintained most of that lead after two of the final day’s stages. But it all went wrong on S.S. 11 at Shanera where gearbox problems sidelined his Subaru leaving Cronin to take his first International rally win.
Cronin was also involved in late drama in the Fastnet Rally in 2005 and 2009. In the former, he led the Waterford’s Ray Breen (Ford Focus WRC) by 27 seconds with just two stages remaining in the Glandore based event.
Cronin decided to pace himself allowing Breen cut the deficit to 13 seconds. On the final stage he lost more time and Breen won by three seconds. Ironically, Cronin was onboard an ex-Ray Breen Subaru WRC.
But four year later (2009) Cronin won the rally by eleven seconds from Welshman Mel Evans, who punctured on the fifth stage. A year later Evans became the only overseas driver to win the Dunlop National Rally Championship finishing with a win in Skibbereen.
Carrigaline’s Frank O’Mahony (Subaru WRC) will look back on the 1997 and 1998 Marine Hotel Fastnet events with mixed emotions. Entering the final stage of the ’97 event just a second separated Banbridge’s Kenny McKinstry from Belfast’s John Gilleece with O’Mahony (Subaru Legacy) and his Douglas co-driver Hugh McPhillips a further 17 seconds adrift.
McKinstry crashed his Formula 2 Escort out and Gilleece’s Ford Escort Cosworth suffered fuel starvation and was overtaken by O’Mahony (who had also won in 1996) who claimed back-to-back wins in unusual circumstances.
There was another dramatic finish in 1998 when rally leader Bob Fowden retired prior to the final stage leaving Down driver David Greer (Toyota Celica) take the laurels - finishing just four seconds ahead of O’Mahony, who could have secured a hat-trick only to misjudge his pace. Meanwhile, Gilleece did enough to win the Red Mills National Rally Championship that was decided on a tie-break with Monaghan’s Niall Maguire, who suffered a blown turbo early in the rally.
The 1996 Cork 20 International Rally seemed set to provide Kanturk’s Liam O’Callaghan with his first International victory. He held a lead of some three minutes as he departed the final service at Mourneabbey. Although he was aware of suspension problems, it appeared he had enough of a buffer to nurse the car to victory.
But the bumpy nature of the north-Cork terrain took its toll and he retired his Toyota Celica ST205 with a broken suspension.
Ballylickey’s Denis Cronin (BMW M3) took up the mantle only to fall ill and had to settle for second as Tyrone’s Gabriel Snow (Escort Cosworth) triumphed and took his only International victory. Certainly, a case of — It’s never over till it’s over.