By Ciaran O’Donnell
It’s mid afternoon at Uptown Cafe on Letterkenny’s Justice Walsh Road the Monday before the curtain goes up for the Donegal International Rally. All is well with the leading local crew of Manus Kelly and Donall Barrett as they sit for a late lunch in the back end of the eatery. The banter is light and the laughter is plenty as passing patrons wish them well. Team manager, Paul Crumlish and former Donegal International winner, James Cullen, talk of days past, glorious and otherwise, at the top of the table.
Messrs Kelly and Barrett, who will start umber one on the road on Friday in their Subaru WRC, are the pair the rest want to dethrone. And while there are no big statements forthcoming from either as they crouch forward for the latest question and answer session, one thing is crystal clear; whichever pairing finishes ahead of them when all 20 special stages are completed on Sunday evening, they will have done so the hard way.
This partnership has no intention of loosening their hold on the Jim Kennedy Perpetual Trophy.
Their rise to fame over the last three years has been quiet remarkable. They’re the defending Donegal International Rally champions, the first local crew to win the title back-to-back and the only duo to win the Donegal national and international crowns.
This weekend, they will attempt to equal the feat of the great Billy Coleman and Ronan Morgan and notch up a third successive Donegal International win. The legendary Cork man strung his hat-trick in 1985, 1986 and 1987. The hat-trick of Donegal rally successes has also been done by Cathal Curley in 1972. ’73 and ’74.
“It’s been some journey over the last three years. To win the national after ten years trying was massive for us. We were approached by Paul Crumlish who assembled a great team together and went after the ultimate crown. I suppose more to the point, we went after a car in our quest for the ultimate crown. But we never thought we’d be as competitive as we were the first year. To go back last year and do it again was amazing stuff,” Manus says.
The line from the Glenswilly driver is the same as it was last year, and the year before that, when it comes to looking ahead.
‘compete as well as we can’
“Our focus is to compete as well as we can stage by stage in the rally and see where that takes us. We believe if we compete as well as we are able to compete and things go our way, then we have a chance of winning the rally,” he adds.
Donall nods in agreement.
“Winning the first was amazing, winning the second was more special because the first was regarded as a soft one. Myself and Manus have met a lot and talked a lot this year and the three-in-a-row has never been mentioned. It’s been all about preparing as best we can. When you win two Donegals in a row, obviously people’s expectations are that we are going to be there or thereabouts,” the Milford co-driver comments.
“The big thing too in all of this is that the car has been sublime over the last few years. We’ve had no punctures or overshoots,” he adds.
In previous years, the fancied contenders might have opted to watch themselves in the early stages on the Friday before going gung-ho on day two. Given the quality of the field, holding back in any shape or form is not going to be an option this week.
“You need to be on it from the word go,” Manus says.
The pair’s win in the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney at the start of May has been crucial to their preparation for the weekend. They got quicker as the event progressed and that will give them an added edge.
The talk inevitably turns to the margins and the consensus from the pair is that their performance will hinge on the collective of so many small things.
“We have to treat his Donegal like we treated every other year and that’s the approach we are taking. We are preparing the exact same way. As regards time in the car, we had two full days in Killarney and we feel that has been a big boost to us. The physical prep and mental prep has all been the same, and we both a bit narrower too,” he quips.
“We’ll be happy if we can go out and compete as well as we can, stage by stage. If we give our best performance, the result won’t matter. If someone beats us, good luck to them. We’ll shake their hand.”
Securing Applegreen as a main sponsor has made life much more stress-free for Manus and Co this year.
“It’s a massive boost to have Applegreen on board this year. The hard work to securing the deal was put in by Paul Crumlish. Along with himself, Aidan Cannon and Odrean McGettigan who drove it hard from his local station in Lifford, Paul managed to get an opportunity to sit in front of one of the directors in Dublin. As you know yourself, you only get one chance to shine. Paul made a great impression and they decided to come on board,” Manus explains.
That Applegreen allowed the local team to keep their previous sponsors was also important.
“To have our loyal sponsors that have been with us for years is great. Great credit goes to them because they have kept us rallying and have stood behind us year after year. They are only small businesses and it’s very hard to secure the kind of budget to run a car of this calibre at the level we are competing at.”
Manus Kelly and Donall Barrett have come some distance since they first hooked up in London back in the nineties. The door they’d been knocking on for a decade and more finally opened in 2015. The rest has been well documented.
Curtain up. Enter stage left once more.
By Ciaran O’Donnell