The Joule Donegal International Rally ended in tragic circumstances when Manus Kelly, who won the event for the last three years, lost his life after his Hyundai i20 R5 crashed and left the road on Stage 15, Fanad Head.
His co-driver Donall Barrett was injured and is being treated at Letterkenny General Hospital. Kelly (41), is survived by his wife Bernie and their five children.
The tragedy occurred about midway in the Fanad Head stage at a place called Baile na Brocar a relatively short distance from a hairpin right. The section of road was relatively straight but has a series of bumps that was described by an experienced co-driver as “choppy.”
Following one of the bumps the car got out of line and caught the grass before crashing through a hedge into a field and was propelled after it hit a small clay bank before it landed back on its four wheels.
The crash happened at 12.30pm on Super Stage 15 on the Fanad Head Loop.
The emergency services were quickly deployed in response to the competitors that were next on the scene while a tracking system and an outside emergency call were also involved in alerting the services. The area was subsequently sealed off for a technical investigation.
Meanwhile, the rally organisers brought all the competitors back to the service park in Milford and cancelled the remaining five stages of the rally.
Speaking shortly before this weekend's event, Cllr Kelly wished everyone a safe and enjoyable weekend's racing. He thanked the rally sponsors and the members of Donegal Motor Club, who run the event.
An extremely popular competitor on the Irish rallying scene, Manus lived in Glenswilly close to Gartan, where a stage of the rally was run on Saturday and was regarded as his home stage. Manus was recently elected to Donegal County Council where he won a seat for the Fianna Fáil party.
At the time of the incident, he and co-driver Milford man Donall Barrett were lying sixth overall and third in the R5 category. The Kelly/Barrett partnership were the first crew to win the event in three successive years, each time in the same car, a Subaru WRC.
Their first victory in 2016 saw Kelly beat the Citroen DS3 R5 of Cork driver Keith Cronin by half a second to claim the spoils on the final stage of the rally, ironically, Fanad Head, a stage that he recently claimed was his favourite stage of the Donegal International Rally.
At the beginning of the season, he was one of three Donegal drivers that switched from a World Car to an R5 variant, choosing an Hyundai i20. Rules of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship state that only drivers of R5 and such like cars can win the series, World Cars are not eligible for championship points but can take event wins.
While two other former winners of the Donegal International, Donagh Kelly and Declan Boyle reverted to WRC’s for this weekend’s event, Manus stayed with his R5 car that is very recognisable in its Applegreen livery.
Clerk of the Course Eamonn McGee, who is a personal friend, said, “ We are devastated, Manus was a great ambassador for the Donegal International Rally, a good clubman and was a great family man as well. He loved this rally even when he drove a Mk 2 Ford Escort, he was such a bubbly lovable person.
"I really can’t put into words what I feel right now.” At the time of the accident, Monaghan’s Sam Moffett led the similar Ford Fiesta WRC of Waterford’s Craig Breen by 13.4 seconds with Derry’s Callum Devine (Ford Fiesta R5) 27.5 seconds further behind in third.
Motorsport Ireland said in a statement: "It is with regret that Motorsport Ireland and Donegal Motor Club announce that a fatality has occurred during the final day of the 2019 Donegal International Rally on Sunday June 23.
"The three day annual event takes place in June each year and attracts large numbers of spectactors and in excess of 200 competitors took part in this years' event.
"The relevant authorities have begun a full investigation into the incident and will be assisted by Motorsport Ireland and Donegal Motor Club.
"Motorsport Ireland and its affiliated clubs are recognised internationally for operating to the highest standards of motorsport safety for competitors and spectators in line with the best practice of the FIA.
"The entire motorsport community extends its fullest sympathy to the family of the bereaved."
Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin offered his condolences and those of the Fianna Fáil party to Manus’s wife Bernie, his five young children, his parents Jacqueline and Donal, and to each of his eight siblings:
“Manus had just embarked on a promising career in local politics having recently been elected to Donegal County Council representing the Fianna Fáil party. It was obvious throughout his recent election campaign that he was passionate and entirely committed to serving the people of the Letterkenny electoral area which he cherished.
"Manus made a huge contribution to his community. As a self-employed businessman, he employed 60 people in Letterkenny. He was an active fundraiser and advocate for the Letterkenny University Hospital. He had great commitment to the GAA and managed his local club, Glenswilly to Junior B success in 2016.
“He will be sorely missed by his family, friends and all those closest to him. My thoughts this evening also remain with Manus’s co-driver and loyal colleague, Donal Barrett. Manus's death is an immeasurable loss to us all.
“Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dhílis.”
In a statement, Donegal Motor Club said: "Donegal Motor Club want to confirm that an incident occurred during the running of the Donegal international rally at approximately 12.30pm. The matter is currently being dealt with."