Cork duo bridged a 30-year gap to secure prestigious Irish motorsport title

Cork duo bridged a 30-year gap to secure prestigious Irish motorsport title
NATIONAL CHAMPIONS: The 2019/2020 Motorsport Ireland National Navigation Trial champions Mallow's Derek Butler and Drinagh's Denis O'Donovan. Picture: Martin Walsh.

NEWLY-CROWNED Motorsport Ireland National Navigation Trial champions Mallow’s Derek Butler and his Drinagh navigator Denis O’Donovan bridged a 30-year gap since the last and indeed first ever Cork crew, Glounthaune’s Luke McCarthy and Dromtarriffe’s James O’Brien, won the national title.

Results of the 2019/2020 series were finalised last week. Down through the years Ballintemple’s Michael ‘Bones’ O’Connor partnered Dubliner Paul Phelan to seven national titles, Phelan himself won a remarkable 16 titles in that era and three when the series was part of the National Rally Championship from 1965 to 1977 when it split and became two separate championships.

Glounthaune's Luke McCarthy and Dromtarriffe's James O'Brien were the first Cork crew to win the National Navigation Rally Championship. They won the title in 1989/1990 and are pictured with the late Peter Jenkins, RIAC. 
Glounthaune's Luke McCarthy and Dromtarriffe's James O'Brien were the first Cork crew to win the National Navigation Rally Championship. They won the title in 1989/1990 and are pictured with the late Peter Jenkins, RIAC. 

In more recent times Togher’s Muireann Hayes won the series as navigator to Monaghan’s Derek Mackarel, the duo winning back-to-back titles in 2017/2018 and 2018/2019. Indeed, Hayes is the first and only female to have won the series.

Back in 1988 a problem with Luke McCarthy’s entry for the Rally of the Lakes led to a last minute entry for the Cork 1000 Shakes Navigation Rally with James O’Brien reading the maps in the Ford Escort XR3. The pair took a fine win and that was the catalyst for an assault on the ‘89/’90 National Navigation Championship.

The Escort XR3 gave way to a 1600cc Sunbeam that was driven to all the championship events up and down the country. Aside from one notable exception the car performed impeccably.

On the first round in Galway the pair emerged victorious. However, Sean Keenan/Joe Hurley (Golf GTi) took the laurels in Monaghan and multi champions David Yates/Paul Phelan (Opel Kadett) swooped to win the third round, ironically for McCarthy/O’Brien, it was in Cork.

The local duo were in trouble even before the event as the previously reliable Sunbeam wasn’t running properly. A replacement car failed to pass scrutiny and they were listed as non-starters — a blow to their title ambitions as they were hoping for a strong result on home ground.

However, the disappointment was short lived and they bounced back with wins on the Munster and ALMC events. A second place in the Skibbereen 100 Isles and a set of fourth place finishes in Monaghan and Kildare brought them right hot on the heels of their rivals. Two events remained including the notorious Cavan event on terrain located on the infamous Ordnance Survey Map 8.

On a glorious chapter for Cork motorsport McCarthy/O’Brien took victory — the first crew from Leeside to annex the national title. The fact that they beat ‘88/’89 champions Ronnie Hawe/George Hamilton, who were on their home ground, made it even more sweet.

With the title in the bag Luke competed on the final round, the ALMC Jumbo Rally with Paul Phelan alongside. The same weekend O’Brien and Kanturk’s Liam O’Callaghan were on reconnaissance for the following week’s Circuit of Ireland. Who would have thought that it would be all of thirty years before another Cork crew would repeat the feat.

The 2019/2020 season began with the Cork Startrek Navigation Trial and it set the scene for a great Cork battle between Butler/O’Donovan and the Mogeely/Ballincollig duo of James Fitzgerald/Ken Carmody. They were virtually inseparable on the Inchigeelagh based event with Fitzgerald/Carmody getting the verdict on a tie-break.

Having been denied the national title by a whisker the previous season, it looked good for Fitzgerald/Carmody, who went on to win the Monaghan event where Butler/O’Donovan had a disastrous night and finished down in 18th place.

After just two rounds Fitzgerald/Carmody were 11 points clear of Ovens driver Owen Murphy and Togher’s Daire Hayes — Butler/O’Donovan were 13 points off the lead. A purple patch that began in late November with the Midland Navigation Trial saw the Mallow/Drinagh duo take four consecutive sets of maximum points. In round four near Clonakilty O’Donovan navigated his way to a fifth victory on the Carbery Navigation Trial.

The remaining wins came during last January with a win on the Cork 1000 Shakes Trial that also saw them clinch the Munster Navigation Trial. In terms of the championship it was an all Cork top three with Fitzgerald/Carmody on 75 points — two ahead of Butler/O’Donovan as Murphy/Hayes occupied third on 68 points.

From competing to organising, they claimed top points for running the Skibbereen 100 Isles Trial that was headquartered in Caheragh.

With two events remaining and based on dropped scores, Butler/O’Donovan were certainly in the driving seat. However, they had a disastrous outing in Cavan, that was meant to be the penultimate round. O’Donovan admitted he put too much pressure on himself. Fitzgerald/Carmody were also out of the major points and at the time, all seemed set to be decided on the Monaghan Trial in late March with Butler/O’Donovan still firm favourites for championship victory.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic that event didn’t go ahead and the championship was decided on the best five from seven events with Butler/O’Donovan finishing on 94 points and Fitzgerald/Carmody amassing a total of 84 points, both including the customary additional five bonus points. The results were finalised last week. O’Donovan is the first West Cork competitor to win the series.

Indeed, it’s also been a successful season for several other Cork crews. Ovens driver Owen Murphy and his Togher navigator Daire Hayes won the Expert category — they lost out by just two points in taking third overall that would have completed an all Cork top three in overall standings.

Mayfield’s Trevor O’Callaghan and Donoughmore’s Patrick O’Leary were second in the Expert category. Crookstown’s Chris Brady and Bandon’s David Beamish won the Novice category and Ballincollig’s Brian Duggan and Killeagh’s Eoin Treacy were the top Beginners.

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