WHATEVER this sporting season holds and amid the expectations that the 2020 version of the Cork '20' International Rally may deliver a special event given the '20' significance, few rallying events can match the standards set at the event in 2007 as then reigning World Rally champion Sebastien Loeb thrilled thousands of spectators en-route to a comfortable victory.
As Irish rallying prepared for Rally Ireland’s debut in the 2007 World Rally Championship, several of the WRC’s stars got first hand experience of the Irish terrain on events such as the Galway and Donegal Internationals, that like the Cork '20' fitted into their schedule without disrupting their WR programme. Finland’s Marcus Gronholm (Ford Focus WRC) won in Galway and Loeb won in Donegal where Andreas Mikkelsen (Ford Focus WRC) was also on Rally Ireland shakedown.
Loeb admitted that, while he won in Donegal, he wasn’t happy with the suspension settings of the Citroen C4 WRC. However, his engineer worked on the settings and differentials and before arrival in Cork, improvements were made.
The French ace was also looking for rain in Cork, but that didn’t transpire.
A shakedown stage near Watergrasshill proved positive and an upbeat Loeb made his way to the ceremonial start at the Grand Parade on the eve of the rally.
The Cork '20' entry surpassed that of both Galway and Donegal with Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena as top seeds in their Citroen C4 WRC followed by Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen in a Ford Focus WRC and Spaniards Dani Sordo/Marc Marti in a Citroen Xsara WRC.
Dubliner Gareth McHale (Ford Focus WRC), British driver Mark Higgins (Subaru WRC), who won the 2006 Cork '20', Derry’s Eugene Donnelly, Meath’s Tim McNulty and Wexford’s Eamonn Boland, all in Subaru’s followed off the start line.
Gliding high over the crests of the opening stage, Cobbler’s Cross near Kilmurry, Loeb was 12.3 seconds ahead of his Citroen teammate, Dani Sordo with Hirvonen 11.6 seconds further behind.
Donnelly (Subaru) led the Irish challenge but was 30.6 seconds off the lead. Only 11 cars got through the stage as Cavan’s Patrick Elliott crashed his Subaru WRC.
On the second stage Hirvonen was forced to stop and change a punctured wheel and lost over four minutes.
Midway through the day Loeb, who continued to try various suspension settings, led Sordo by 42.3 seconds.
Donnelly was third but his Subaru suffered brake problems, a puncture demoted Higgins to fourth albeit a fraction of a second behind.
The afternoon stages were two runs over Cill na Martra and South Lake Road (Lough Allua).
Crowds thronged into the village where a well positioned hoist gave the RPM television crew a superb overview of proceedings as Loeb entered and departed the village at a speed unmatched by anyone else.
Indeed, he was the only driver to break the nine-minute barrier for the stage that earned him a chess set from the local Toy Soldier Factory.
He ended the day with a lead of one minute and 29.3 seconds and jokingly remarked to M-Sport supremo Malcolm Wilson: “I wasn’t even pushing.”
Sordo remained in second with Higgins regaining third at the expense of Donnelly. Eamonn Boland (fifth) was followed by Hirvonen.
The Sunday stages were based in north Cork with the service park at the Cork Racecourse in Mallow, Loeb continued to revel through the County Cork terrain with his style finding favour with the fans that were in awe of his skills.
Down through the years many of these fans were brought up with a high fibre diet of rallying — with the likes of Coleman, Buckley, McRae, MacHale, Fisher, Meagher and even Ari Vatanen — as Loeb, a multi World champion captured their hearts. The fact that he took time out to greet the same fans at the various service halts further increased his stature.
Loeb went on to take victory finishing two minutes and 21.5 seconds ahead of teammates, Dani Sordo/Mark Marti (Citroen Xsara).
Mark Higgins and co-driver Rory Kennedy (Subaru) were two minutes and 31.9 seconds further behind in third, their performance improved after the Subaru was re-mapped.
Donnelly, who was co-driven by Paul Kiely took fourth and clinched a fourth successive Irish Tarmac title.
Mikko Hirvonen was fastest on the last stage and took fifth ahead of Subaru aces Eamonn Boland and Tim McNulty, the latter was very lucky to survive an altercation with a bank on the day’s opening stage at Buttevant.
The Ford Focus trio of Aaron MacHale, Michael Barrable and Gareth MacHale completed the top 10 of a rally that will be etched in history.
Clonakilty brothers Kevin and Martin Kelleher (Mitsubishi) were the top County Cork crew, they finished 13th overall and second in Group N.
Barryroe’s Damien McCarthy and his Ownahincha co-driver Eamonn Hayes (Honda Civic) won the Junior category.
A few weeks later Loeb returned and won Rally Ireland and went on to clinch yet another WRC title and added five more World titles up to 2012.
Few, if any, will disagree that the 2007 Murphy Construction Cork '20' International Rally was the best, clerk of the course, Frank O’Mahony and his team at the Munster Car Club did a superb job and while negotiations to have Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg also on the entry list just fell short, Loeb’s presence left an abiding memory with those that were lucky enough to see the French ace conquer the roads of County Cork.
The rally attracted a massive entry of 201 crews across the all categories, afterward Loeb described the stage at Cill na Martra as one of the best he had ever driven — some compliment indeed.