By Paul Evans
Andy Davies, the 2018 Welsh Road Rally Champion, has added the prestigious Irish Tarmac Group N Championship title to his growing trophy cabinet.
Co-driven by Michael Gilbey in a GAP Solutions-backed Subaru Impreza, the Cribyn driver clinched both the Group N and overall ITRC2 awards on the final round of the series, the Cork 20 International Rally.
It’s an incredible achievement, which sees Davies win titles on gravel, Tarmac and in road rallying. As he prepares to tackle this weekend’s Tour of Mull, and thus tick another classic rally off his bucket list, Davies reflects on a magnificent 2019 season in Ireland.
This incredible year goes right back to 2018 where we took a year out of stage rallying in order to fulfil a dream of becoming Welsh road rally champions, which we managed to achieve!
During 2018, we had a trip planned to watch one of the most iconic rallies in the world, the Donegal International Rally – and having never done a Tarmac stage rally before, let alone one in Ireland, somebody, I can’t quite remember who, suggested ‘you might as well take a rally car’. The rest as they say, is history!
We took our road rally car, liveried up for this one-off appearance in full cuisine de France glory, in honour of Andrew Nesbitt, previous winner in an albeit very different but similarly white, 2 door Subaru.
We broke multiple drives-hafts, a member of our service crew, amongst other things, but we finished!
The finish was great, the result irrelevant. On day one I was hooked. This was a rush and level of enjoyment I hadn’t experienced when rallying before and we never looked back.
At the evening awards ceremony, with a crystal glass trophy full of Corona sat in front of me, somebody suggested, ‘let’s do the ITRC next year’. There’s a pattern emerging here… as you can probably tell!
Cut to mid-February, a new baby daughter, a profound lack of sleep and round one, the Galway International Rally. A slippy, tough and technical event making for a smooth transition for two Welsh road rally lads!
After a few stages it became apparent that I had a lot to learn, still we kept out of trouble, set a couple of very inspiring stage times and managed to stay ahead of the six other Group N crews as we crossed the final stage finish. A fluke? The number of post event photographs emerging on full opposite lock through various junctions indeed suggested so.
West Cork soon ticked round, our biggest test yet. And the first-time I’d get to use a slick Tarmac tyre. This took some getting used to!
A confident start in the wet, hindered only by a few mechanical issues meant we led at first service, but a lack of experience moving to a slick coupled with not one but two fairly substantial excursions into a ditch meant we were to settle for second.
Next up was the UAC Easter Stages. I will always look back on this as the first event where I finished and felt equal to my rivals, feeling confident on our first all dry Tarmac event using slick tyres.
Lying second overnight after a cautious start we attacked hard on day two, piling on the pressure and came within seconds of regaining the lead with many stage wins. The competition was fierce but a lack of confidence to move up to the medium compound tyre and a spin denied us of the win, and we finished second.
We arrived at the Killarney International Rally of the Lakes a different team; more experienced than ever before and confident and already in love with the stages that lay ahead of us.
We bolted on a set of medium compound tyres for the first time and specifically targeted SS2, Ardgroom, a tough, long and technical stage along the wild Atlantic coast, full of crests, bumps, jumps and everything in-between.
After having lost 3.6 seconds to our rivals on SS1 Molls Gap, we were not phased at all and headed confidently down the cost. We emerged from the Ardgroom stage a massive twenty-seven seconds faster than our rivals and we never looked back. We held onto the lead over the remaining two days, managing it where necessary and pushing where we felt confident.
Looking back, probably my favourite rally of the season. More importantly, the championship was back on. Dead level on points.
And then the Donegal International Rally. The impact of what happened at Donegal was far greater than any stage time or affect on a championship. The tragic death of Manus Kelly left a huge hole in Letterkenny and in the hearts of every competitor or rally fan, far and wide. The king of the hills had been taken away and somehow, we all had to carry on.
After a thankful break of almost two months, we were all back on the start line on the Ulster Rally. Heads down, work to do. My first one day rally. No time to re-evaluate overnight. We had to be on it from the word go.
This was our main rival’s home event. We knew he would be fiercely fast, and we were not wrong. Two fastest times from him on SS1 and 2 meant we had to take chances. A huge push on SS3 saw a stage win by sixteen seconds, putting us right back in the fight.
We struggled to find the rhythm after service to answer our rival’s pace but managed another stage win in the second loop to keep us within touching distance at least.
We headed into the final stage fifteen seconds down. This was the last running of the stage that we had won on both previous uses. The first of which was by sixteen seconds. So, this was do-able. We knew if we did not win, our championship was out of our grasp and we would need a lot of luck in Cork.
We gave it everything we had; this was enough for a time seventh fastest overall. We were on the finish line, in limbo, had we done enough?
It was then we heard that our rival had, had differential problems through the stage and was losing time. He crossed the line thirty seconds slower.
I guess we’ll never know what would have happened, but we know we did our best and we also know that is rallying, having worn the boot on our foot, on many occasions before. All that mattered was, this championship was going down to the wire.
After a season long battle, it was all to come down to the final round, the International Cork 20 Rally. We arrived as prepared as we could be, the cars major components had all been serviced and rebuilt in order to maintain its one hundred per cent reliability record, we had completed a successful two day recce and the team were ready to fight for the title which was currently held by reigning champion Willie Mavitty who we were dead level on points with, going into this final round. It was all to play for.
Saturday morning came and brought with it some very changeable weather. After three dry rallies in a row, this was to play out slightly differently with a rain cloud on its way overhead but roads generally dry.
We had information that the first stage, a gruelling and technical Killnamatre was ten per cent damp so we opted for a brave tyre choice taking our medium compound dry tyre.
We arrived at stage start to the news that a passing shower in the early hours had caught the stage and that it was now seventy per cent damp.
We started the stage and it was immediately apparent that we were on the wrong tyre. We couldn’t get the heat into it and it was all we could do to just to maintain focus and keep the car on the road, knowing that we were losing time. Our main rival had gone for a soft damp tyre and after twenty frustrating kilometres we crossed the line almost twenty-five seconds slower than him.
All we could do was manage the situation and get the car back to service, however, there was one more stage to complete before we could do that, so we headed over to Lough Allua.
We sat on the start line, looking at the damp road and decided that we were not here to come second and that we would take some risks wherever possible and hit the drying patches of road as hard as we could. Luckily there were enough high-speed corners and drying patches that we could find a great rhythm and after sixteen kilometres we crossed the line 6.4 seconds faster than our rival.
We were into service and with rain falling, it was a simple choice, we took the wet tyre and headed back out to repeat the same two stages.
The car instantly felt incredible and as we headed into the final two kilometres we saw the taillights of our rival. We had caught him in the stage as we completed our run through thirty seconds faster than our previous run through and more crucially twenty-one seconds ahead of our rival, catapulting us into the lead by 2.9 seconds.
From here, we never looked back and won the next two stages of the day, extending our overnight lead to 10.6 seconds taking four or five stage wins and setting a sixth overall fastest time through SS5, beaten only by R5 specification cars.
Sunday morning was soon upon us and with an early start but minimal to no rain forecast we opted for a soft damp tyre. Again, this was not the best choice as it became apparent the stages weren’t drying as quickly as we’d hoped.
We were not able to push hard but we were able to manage our lead with minimal time loss despite a fairly spectacular overshoot in SS7 Mushera costing us around five seconds.
The feeling in the car was great and the Hankook tyres were working superbly so we felt really confident heading into the second loop of the day which promised to be completely dry, however our rivals ran into a problem costing them around thirty seconds which meant we were able to change plan and focus on managing our lead and focus on getting to the finish.
With their car repaired, they were more determined than ever, and Willie and Martin vowed to give it all they had over the final five stages.
This meant that we just couldn’t afford to risk relaxing and decided to push on hard, taking another win in SS9 Mullaghanish and extending our lead.
We slacked off a little in SS10 and 11, opting to save our tyres until last service where we fitted a new set for the last run through Mushera, rewarding us with another fastest time.
As we sat on the start line of Butter Road, we discussed how much we both enjoyed the stage and how much we would love to have a real big push on it, however, common sense prevailed and looking back on a long season and how much work the team had put in, we just had to get it to the end.
Those were the most tense 13.6kms I can recall, and the pressure was on Mike, not just to keep us on the road but to do his job whilst keeping me calm and keeping our risks to an absolute minimum. At those speeds it’s all too easy to make a small mistake due to a momentary lapse in concentration.
Crossing the finish line of SS13 was one of the most overwhelming moments of my career, a sheer mix of elation and relief from both sides of the car. We crossed the line 31.6 seconds ahead, thus making us International Irish Tarmac ITRC2 and Group N champions.
I’d like to once again thank my whole team; I could not have done this without them. The support and commitment needed from everybody over a season of two and three day international rally’s especially when overseas is huge, and everybody played their part through some very demanding times.
My sponsors, especially Hankook tyres, who took its chances and supported a gravel/road rally driver with limited Tarmac experience on not only our first time in Ireland, but our first season on Tarmac!
I’m so happy I could reward you with this win in exchange for a winning tyre combination that has proven itself on every possible variation of the surface. I’d like to thank Mike for joining us on each and every round this year and putting everything he has into guiding us to success.
The work that he puts in, in the weeks leading up to the events, through recce and into the competition itself is second to none. This is testimony to our results and lack of mishaps this year! I could not have done this without him.
I’d like to thank my other half Delun, who has supported me through my rally career from day one, with this year no different. Not only has she made it out to support us on every round she could, but she has managed to do so whilst juggling it in-between our busy lifestyle and temporarily covering both parental roles in bringing up our nine-month old baby daughter! Thank you for everything.
Thanks too to everybody involved in ensuring the GAP Solutions-backed Subaru maintained a one hundred per cent finishing record through the entire championship, namely Graham Sweet of GT Motorsports, John Roberts Transmissions, Gary of GM Suspension Technology and Melvyn Evans Motorsport.
Lastly, thanks to everybody who has joined us along the way on various rounds this year and to everybody’s support us from all angles including social media through another year of rallying. Your support is very much appreciated.
So, where does this take us? The truth is I’m not sure. We have always set out and achieved everything we possibly can, with the machinery we have.
We have now taken wins on championships in all forms of the sport, on gravel, Tarmac and road rally. From BTRDA N4, the Pirelli Welsh Forest Championship, the Welsh Road Rally Championship and now the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. All of the premier single surface UK championships.
We will continue to push forward and in the coming weeks we will sit down and properly look at our options.
We feel we have achieved everything we can, in the car we have and will therefore be looking for the support and backing to use an R5 specification car for select rounds of a top-flight championship in 2020.
For now though, we cannot rest as we look to tick a real bucket list rally off this weekend on the Isle of Mull before heading back to Letterkenny to celebrate properly at the ITRC awards!