Flashback: Donal O'Donovan was the first local to win the West Cork Rally

Flashback: Donal O'Donovan was the first local to win the West Cork Rally
Donal O'Donovan (Ford Escort) on the West Cork Rally in 1990. His 1300cc Ford Escort passed all the eligibility checks, good results were down to his ability. Picture: Martin Walsh.

ACROSS all sporting spectrums, local success is a much-valued accomplishment. Away from the highs of national and international awards, the local aspect is personal.

For Dunmanway-born Donal O’Donovan, becoming the first local to win the West Cork Rally (1998) remains a moment to savour, the fact that he was co-driven by his school friend Pat Lordan and, that the rally was sponsored by Keohane Readymix brought further credence. In addition, O’Donovan won the Fastnet Rally — on two occasions — in 1993 with co-driver Tom Levis and in 1999 with Lordan calling the pacenotes.

As the crow flies, O’Donovan’s homestead is around two miles away from the birthplace of Sam Maguire, but apart from playing a few games at underage level, O’Donovan had no great interest in the big ball.

His motorsport debut came in the Fastnet Rally in 1988 in a 1300cc Ford Escort.

“There was no great history of motorsport in the family, but I had an interest in motorsport before I even went watching it. I remember cycling to see the 1978 Cork “20” and watching Ari Vatanen in the David Sutton Escort. I don’t really know how I got into it, but I suppose it went on from that.”

That debut event turned out much better than anticipated.

“I had just arrived home, at that time there were no mobile phones, no computers and I got a call from Pat (Lordan) about the result. He said, you better get back down here (to Glandore) we have finished ninth overall.”

Donal O'Donovan. Picture: Martin Walsh.
Donal O'Donovan. Picture: Martin Walsh.

The next event for O’Donovan/Lordan was the 1989 West Cork Rally, they were seeded at 124.

“I remember the event well, it was raining extremely heavy. We were just delighted to be competing and we weren’t really interested in our times. At one point near Ahiohill and close to the start of a stage, a few people were talking about the 1300cc class and Rosscarbery’s Jerry O’Mahony was the usual pacesetter and someone stated that it was another driver that was dominating the class.

“At the time we didn’t know that it was us, until the times were posted on the Saturday evening. We had a misfire (due to a filter issue) on the Sunday and slipped back to about fourth or fifth but we clawed our way back to second in class.”

Later that year, and still in the 1300cc Escort, O’Donovan was up to third overall before a gear selection issue put him out of the Circuit of Munster that was based in Bunratty with stages around the Silvermines. Not surprisingly, O’Donovan’s progress was noticed, not just by the spectators but also by officials and others, a subsequent eligibility check confirmed his car was legal.

While the check was brushed under the carpet in some respects by officialdom, there was no denying the West Cork driver had a special talent. In some respects, his style and indeed mannerisms were akin to those of Billy Coleman, he just did his driving on the stages and after events was more than happy to slip away home.

Acquiring a two litre Ford Escort that previously belonged to fellow Dunmanway driver Liam McCarthy saw O’Donovan finish a superb third overall in the 1991 Cork “20” with Fiona Hayes as his co-driver.

“That was beyond our wildest dreams really. In those days there was no segregation of homologated and modified cars.” One of the first drivers to hire from Kenny McKinstry, O’Donovan drove a Group N Sierra in the 1992 West Cork. “We were up to third but broke a propshaft.”

An ex-JJ Fleming/Enda Nolan Sierra Cosworth was next on the scene and while its reliability was erratic, it did however provide the Dunmanway man with his first outright win – the 1993 Fastnet Rally where Tom Levis was his co-driver. “It was unexpected as most of the top entry were in four-wheel drive cars.”

An ex-Bertie Fisher Opel Manta 400 came on the scene in 1995 and despite the wet conditions and a top-class entry, he was up to third overall in the Cork “20” but a puncture put him out — although he returned to win the traditional “Sunday Run”.

An outing on the Fastnet Rally a few weeks later came to an abrupt end, as did the car.

A four-wheel left hand drive Sierra Cosworth was next up and participation in the 1997 Circuit of Ireland was probably premature, given the lack of experience with the car. Eventually, the car finally delivered its true potential. Achievements in various events were all surpassed with that win on the 1998 West Cork Rally.

“There was major excitement, it was a big achievement for us given the low budget we had. It’s not easy to win it, it was great, as was the acknowledgement by the Clonakilty UDC with a civic reception.” 

The following year O’Donovan won the European Police Rally and the Fastnet Rally for a second time. While he subsequently progressed to a Toyota Celica ST185, O’Donovan regrets switching from the Sierra. “It was a mistake to sell the Sierra.”

A national rally championship bid in 2000 was undone by a lack of reliability. “In reality, we didn’t have the resources to run that car.”

Another ex-Liam McCarthy car, this time a Toyota Celica ST205 followed in late 2005 and at the 2006 West Cork (his final event) O’Donovan came home second. “We left that rally behind us as the car was in trouble all weekend.”

O’Donovan was unlucky insofar as he didn’t have the financial resources to match his ability. Were both on par, he would have won much more than the Fastnet, West Cork and European Police Rally. With a loyal team behind him and unlike the Lotto, he did have the right ticket — ability.

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