BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THE Topaz Donegal International Rally officially gets underway this evening when Finnish rallying legend Markku Alén flags off the top competitors at 8pm at The Market Square in Letterkenny around 8pm.
Alén will be joined by Formula 1 commentator Tony Jardine for the first ceremonial start to the rally, in this the special 40th occasion of the gemstone of Irish Tarmac Rallying.
A scintillating 150 plus car entry has been confirmed and the Clerk of the Course Danny Gormley has said that challenge of the very first Donegal Rally has been replicated with a radical route change and alteration of the weekend schedule.
One thing remains constant – the basic legendary ingredient that is the Donegal Magic, the fascination and the aura of excitement.
It is a formula that has built up and been finely honed for over 40 years. It is no less an attraction today than it was when the infant rally was based in Kerrykeel and rapidly then became the Rally of the Rosses.
As ever, the Donegal Rally has thrown up an extra equation and this year it is Mikko Hirvonen’s Monte Carlo winning works Fiesta Super 2000, to be driven by 22 year old Alastair Fisher and co-driven by three times Donegal winning co-driver Rory Kennedy.
However it will be Tim McNulty and his co-driver Paul Kiely in their Subaru Impreza WRC who will head the rally cavalcade away from Letterkenny’s An Grianan Theatre start at 10am tomorrow morning, Friday.
Three days of high speed action will culminate in the fabulous spectator stages at Buncrana just after 4 o’clock on the Sunday afternoon, before the victory celebration ramp at Letterkenny’s Mount Errigal Hotel at 6pm.
McNulty has had a successful rally year so far, winning the opening Tarmac Championship round in Galway and also chalking up a string of National Championship victories. There have been some disappointments as well for Meath man McNulty and he will be seeking to get his Tarmac Championship back on course on this 4th round here in Donegal.
Indeed, 2nd and 3rd seeds Derek McGarrity and Daragh O’Riordan have also won one round of this year’s Tarmac series, so it is all to play for here. None of the three has ever won in Donegal, and as well as Tarmac points, a Donegal victory is one every driver would love to have on his rally CV.
Derek McGarrity starts at No.2 in his Circuit of Ireland winning Impreza WRC S11. Derek, who has a holiday home on the famous Atlantic Drive, recognises that the S12 models of McNulty and O’Riordan may have a fraction of extra speed compared to the S11.
The third element of the top trio is Cork man Daragh O’Riordan. It took Daragh a while to settle in to his Impreza S12, but then he really came good on the Killarney Rally of the Lakes, and sailed through to a very dominant win. This puts Daragh right in the Tarmac Championship frame. 29 year old Daragh was into the Donegal top ten on last year’s rally and is looking forward to doing even better this time. The Midleton man opined however. “I think the rally will be very long, very tough.”
Alastair Fisher has competed four times in Donegal, twice in a Fiesta and twice in a Lancer. He was leading GpN last year and was 5th o/a when the rally sadly had to be stopped. He said of his deal to drive the Fiesta Super 2000 this year: “I really want to do Donegal in something special. I think it will be constructive for the future to do it in this type of car, and anything we achieve will be a bonus.”
Co-driver Rory Kennedy, who co-drove Alastair’s late uncle Bertie Fisher to three of his four Donegal victories, said. “I’ve co-driven for Alastair several times, and he is very good. Indeed, I think the best has yet to come, he has the Fisher steel in him!”
Clerk of the Course Danny Gormley commented: “We decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the rally by recreating the challenge of the first one. That had 38 stages, a huge stage mileage and little service time. While we can’t stretch to that, there are big changes for 2011, brand new stages, and a competitive distance of almost 320 Kms. There will be a sense of adventure and we might even see the return of some tactical driving. Mind you, going on past experience, the chances of that are slim!
“As ever, we are looking forward to a safe weekend for our competitors and also for all the visitors to the County. This year in particular we are asking rally supporters attending the Topaz Donegal International Rally to join with Donegal Motor Club’s campaign, in conjunction with the Road Safety Authority, to “Keep the Race in its Place”.
Friday’s stages are at Fanad Head, Atlantic Drive and Glen, each of the three stages done twice.