Shifting up a gear for life in the fast lane

Sitting in his little1.4-litre Ford, Eamonn McCafferty watched the high-powered rally cars hurtling away from the start line in an almost deafening roar.

“Wait till you feel the power in those boys,” he told me in softly-spoken reverential tones.

“OK Stephen, here we go;” and with that I was pinned against my seat, gripping the roll-bar beside me for dear life and trying to focus on a road barely wide enough for a car which was, without a shadow of doubt, the fastest I had ever been in in my entire life...up to that point.

Eamonn’s Ford Puma might only have a 1.4-litre engine, but with a dose of technical wizardry one would normally find in a Formula One garage, it had been transformed into a snarling beast.

Cocooned amid a shell of metal tubing and with a fire extinguisher just inches from the leg of my borrowed fire-retardant race suit, Eamonn took me on a two-mile circuit of — what I am assured at low speed is — beautiful Donegal countryside.

On the weekend of June 17, that same countryside will reverberate to the deep roars of more than 150 cars taking part in the 41st Topaz Donegal International Rally.

In advance, a posse of reporters had been invited up to experience the sheer terror and speed first hand. !

His hands a blur, Eamonn hurtled up to and around tight corners and man-made barriers at speeds mere mortals would normally reserve for motorways. It was pretty clear car and man had not fluked their way to a host of Category 5 titles during their years together.

After the first lap — and a courtesy check to make sure I hadn’t passed out from fear — he showed me what the car could do if he put the foot down a bit...

“Right, are you the next victim?” asked Citroen driver Adrian McElhinney, as I crawled Bambi-legged from the Ford.

As I caught sight of his little C2 I thought “sure, this should be a bit more sedate”. A few seconds later I was studying his rally gear-shift while digesting the news that this small hatchback had a not-insignificant 1.6-litre engine.

As he fired up the engine, the space where the car’s traditional dials would have been lit up with a display, feeding Adrian with a host of race telemetry. One figure was all I watched though — the rapidly rising speedometer.

It shot up to 140km/h in a matter of seconds. “0.2 of a litre makes a big difference then,” I barely croaked after we crossed the finish.

As we came back towards the start line, I wondered why the other cars were backed up. It emerged one of the other reporters being driven in a Renault Clio had smashed through a hedge at high speed.

While man and reporter were unharmed — she shook herself off and was in the next car within minutes — it brought into focus the lengths the drivers have to go to to support their passion.

The front of the Clio, which he had only just bought, was badly smashed in and would not be cheap to replace.

While Adrian’s rally gear-shift sat inches from his hand and did not require him to lift his foot off the accelerator at all, the stick in my next car, Trevor Busteed’s Mitsubishi, was in the traditional position. The physical gap to the gear shift seemed huge a few minutes later. Whereas the movement of Adrian’s hand to the stick was barely perceptible, Trevor had to shoot his out to the left and back to the steering wheel in a more violent gesture. What didn’t help the nerves of the bumbling wreck beside him was that he was also steering a 2-litre car travelling at upwards of 160km/h (that’s 100m/h!) around the twisting route.

Next up was a 2-litre Honda Civic driven by Toni Kelly, presenter of the RPM motoring programme. I had been told the more hi-tech rally gearshift had the potential to make seconds of a difference over the course of a stage and it did seem as if there was no interruption in the powerful Civic’s acceleration as Toni tapped up each time.

I managed to save the best trip for last in what is considered to be one of the fastest rally cars in the world, the Mini WRC (World Rally Championship). It is hard to believe a car with a 1.6-litre engine can cost upwards of €300,000. But owner Derek McGeehan explained it is a league apart from most of its competition.

Every time there was a pause between circuits, reporters, drivers and technicians would watch as the Mini powered off from the start. Other drivers even jumped in for circuits with Derek whenever the opportunity arose. When it was my turn for a lap in it, I found myself sitting several inches below Derek, barely able to see the road.

As soon as it took off from the start, it felt completely different to all the other cars I had been in. As I had progressed through the trips in the previous cars my confidence had grown ever so slightly. It meant that I could appreciate even more the ferocity of the Mini’s acceleration, the speed at which it could take corners and the way it seemed to hold the road in a vice-like grip.

It was an amazing way to end an amazing day.

Tens of thousands will flock to Donegal next month because it is such a spectacle to witness the cars being tested to the very limits. Many may not realise the sheer skill and bravery of the drivers behind the wheel.

The short circuit I experienced exhibited driving ability mindless boy-racers could never hope to comprehend, never mind match. What also sets these men and women apart is their dedication to their art. Many maintain their cars through their own engineering ability and, at huge expense.

They don’t just pay top dollar to make their cars faster. They also pay out to make them safer with state-of-the-art equipment.

Rally stats

* The 41st Topaz Donegal International Rally runs from June 17-19.

The event is expected to attract 150 crews. Typically a crew will have a driver, co-driver, 3-4 member service team as well as family members.

The race is made possible by 500-600 volunteers and race marshalls, and 50,000-70,000 visitors are expected.

There is no prize money. The competitors are racing for the glory of winning their category.

Cars range in value from €20,000 up to €400,000.

Topaz has been sponsoring the rally since it came into existence five years ago in 2008. The current two-year deal will bring the partnership up to next year.


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