Dust. Stones. Mud. Rain. Sunshine. Elation. Excitement. Despair. Victory.
A rally season can conjure up a real contrast of experiences and emotions, and looking back now, the 2022 Irish Forest Rally Championship had it all.
In a country where tarmac rallying rules supreme, a season in the forest feels much closer and tight-knit.
Spanning five events, the 2022 season was a return not without major challenge and adversity, yet in the end it resulted in some of the closest battles in the championship’s history. I was there at the heart of it all, documenting both the highs and the lows.
Covering an event for Speedhunters is generally quite straightforward: You arrange the necessary access or accreditation, make a plan, take plenty of shots and afterwards tell the story. This time around though, stepping into the role of championship photographer meant shooting the events was just one aspect of a much bigger workload.
I was exposed to the world of news media and its stringent publishing deadlines, and communications, which called for numerous pre- and post-event press releases plus everything else in between.
Truthfully, some bits slipped – that was always going to happen with so many wheels spinning at once – but overall, the year will hopefully be looked back on as fondly as I’ll remember it.
Promoting a championship is made slightly easier when the action provides so many interesting dynamics, from high-profile entries, breakout stars and battles decided within near sight of the finish line. Thankfully, the 2022 Irish Forest Rally Championship had all these things too.
The Year That Was
Although it was originally penciled in for seven rounds, the season ultimately played out over five high-speed rallies, each bringing a different element. From the lightning-quick flowing gravel of a hilltop wind farm through to the bumps and muddy jumps of forest lanes, a season of gravel rallying has such incredible variety.
Full rain gear in April to suncream and face coverings in the dust of August.
Anyone looking in at the 2022 season would see the headlines being grabbed by Patrick and Stephen O’Brien. The brothers were the standout story of the 2022 championship, bringing their Škoda Fabia R5 home to victory twice and ultimately to championship glory. But so much more played a part in the tale.
Two stars of the sport made one-off appearances. Keith Cronin (four-time British champion) appeared on The Moonraker (Round 3) in a VW Polo GTI R5, and WRC driver Craig Breen tackled the Jim Walsh Cork Forest (Round 4) in a Ford Focus WRC. Both had incredible battles with the O’Briens and other championship regulars.
While the O’Briens’ R317 Motorsport-prepared Fabia took outright victories on the Willie Loughman Carrick Forest Rally (Round 2) and then on the Bushwhacker Rally (Round 5) – the brothers didn’t have things easy.
Jordan Hone and Patrick O’Brien spent all year battling it out for what would have been a true breakout title for the pair of young stars. It was heartwarming to see Hone being among the first to congratulate O’Brien at the end of the final stage of the Bushwhacker.
Having secured the title for himself, a navigator title for his brother Stephen, and surrounded by his father and their home-run team of mechanics, it was understandable that the scenes would be joyous for Patrick.
The final stage duel for victory in Omagh, with O’Brien starting dead level with McCourt, wouldn’t be the only last gasp drama seen in the 2022 Irish Forest Rally Championship. The whole outcome of the J1000 series was decided within the closing miles of the season’s final test.
Designed for drivers from 14-18 years of age, this series is the ultimate first step into the sport of rallying.
No one could have written a script that would see Jack Brennan claim the title on the very last stage of the championship.
For the young Kilkenny star and his navigator John McGrath, it looked like all their incredible driving this campaign would be in vain. At the start of the second run of Mount Hilary – the closing stage of the Jim Walsh Cork Forest Rally – the pair sat in second place, with an 11-second disadvantage to Jack Harris and Aaron O’Regan.
But disaster struck for Harris and O’Regan during the stage. They ended up losing 18.7-seconds and coughed up the victory to Brennan, but the time loss wasn’t significant enough to promote Mossie Costello and Tom Murphy beyond their third place. The late shift in positions would see Brennan pip Costello to the crown by nature of a count-back.
The 2WD title ended up going to Mickey Conlon, the Cavan stalwart and one of the most dedicated competitors we have in Irish forest rallying. As per the frantic nature of the season though, the win wasn’t without a sting in its tail.
Heading to the final round in Omagh – the Bushwhacker – Conlon knew that he had to outscore his great rival and friend John Gordon if he wanted to claim the crown. An early retirement for Gordon looked to have sealed the deal with Conlon having enough of an advantage over Adrian Hetherington and David Condell in the points standings.
With the sights set on victory, it all went bad on SS4 when Conlon’s Escort began suffering a mechanical issue. With the prospect of a season’s work being lost knowing retirement would hand Gordon the title, a frantic effort by the service team saw the MC Blinds car emerge for the later loops and get to the finish, claiming the single point needed to win the MIFRC 2WD Championship.
While a lot more could be said about a remarkable year, it would be remiss not to remember for a moment Eoin McCarthy, a young West Cork competitor who lost his life in an accident on the Killarney Forest Rally. Massive thanks must go to the competitors, officials and frontline services that battled hard to save Eoin on the February afternoon. Ireland’s rallying community is sure never to forget the future star lost that day.