2023 has been a tough year for Ireland’s rally community. The high of Craig Breen and James Fulton’s fabulous runner-up finish on Rally Sweden brought much excitement for the Hyundai pairing’s Rally1 future. That excitement turned to anguish in the most heartbreaking of ways when Craig passed away in a testing accident ahead of April’s Croatia Rally.
Breen had been Ireland’s star in the World Rally Championship since his move to Hyundai in 2019. We all rode the rallying rollercoaster with the passionate bobble-hatter, knowing that his maiden World Rally victory was getting ever closer. As a nation mourned the passing of their sporting hero, Irish rallying fans had to come to terms with the fact they would no longer have Craig to cheer on at the front of world championship events. Ireland lost its leader on the world stage.
But through that devastating darkness, we must be grateful to have the presence of the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy in the World Rally Championship. Its ever-growing line-up of passionate and skilful rally drivers is thriving in the opportunity to shine against international competition. What started as Ireland’s undercard WRC entries are now the country’s primary focus. In the wake of Croatia’s tragedy, the MI Rally Academy project has never felt so crucial to creating happier moments in WRC.
While the attention naturally veers towards the academy’s leading members like WRC2 regular Josh McErlean and Junior WRC leader William Creighton, there is so much more to the academy project than supporting international efforts. And it is this all-around, pyramid-shaped approach that is something to get very excited about.
Founded in 2019 by Sean McHugh and John Coyne, the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy has built on the foundation of the Billy Coleman Award.
“We have a good base organisation in place to put approximately six drivers and six co-drivers through a tailored development program,” explained patron Coyne.
“Fitness, mental strength, nutrition, PR and sponsor engagement, navigation, pacenotes, event preparation, car set-up, in-car coaching, and data analysis are all key skills the academy focuses on. Developing these are critical for success beyond clubman level.”
It is clear that once a driver or co-driver qualifies for academy selection, they’ll soon benefit from a level of training never seen before in rallying. Of course, that support also extends to an expanded rally program. You only need to look at the carefully selected events current academy members like Eamonn Kelly, Aoife Raftery, or Kyle McBride are doing. It's a properly managed, well-processed, and professional approach to choosing events which will profit academy members the most.
From Jack Brennan in a Renault Clio Rally5 to Dylan Eves in a Ford Fiesta Rally4; Kyle McBride in Junior BRC; William Creighton and Eamonn Kelly doing Junior WRC in Rally3 cars to Josh McErlean and Patrick O’Brien in Rally2 - the MI Rally Academy is placing these young talents into the most suitable cars and championships to boost their rally careers.
The academy’s influence has also been passed on beyond its carefully selected line-up. The rapid growth of Motorsport Ireland’s Junior 1000 series is the ideal grassroots proving ground to gauge who has the potential for great things in rallying. With 20 J1000 drivers, under 19 years of age, taking on the recent Tipperary Forest Rally - not only will it showcase the most talented but it will increase competitiveness and encourage all the aspects the MI Rally Academy strives for.
The Motorsport Ireland Junior Rally Series is another introduction that brings rallying’s ladder of opportunity closer to grassroots. The dual surface championship, with classes catering for J1000, J1600, Rally5, and Rally4 crews, is incentivised to ensure as many budding prospects get a chance to compete for future academy opportunities.
Four years in and the MI Rally Academy is gathering a head of steam. Its drivers and co-drivers are featuring in the WRC, ERC, across European national events, America, and the Middle East. The development path is becoming more defined by lessons learned and the opportunity at grassroots is ever-growing.
With this constant growth, it would be easy to forget the achievements fulfilled already. Two Junior WRC event wins for William Creighton and Eamonn Kelly in Sweden and Croatia have given them a dream start to 2023 while Josh McErlean continues to shine in WRC2, sealing second in Rally Portugal in his WRC2 Challenger campaign. Indeed, McErlean has accrued a nice record in Portugal - his equal-best WRC finish of 12th overall last month comes a year after claiming his first overall WRC stage win. Junior BRC wins have almost become the norm for academy members with four drivers’ champions in five seasons. On the opposite side of the rally car, the progression of James Fulton’s co-driving career is great validation for the academy’s process.
The MI Rally Academy’s close relationship with Philip Case Rally Sport provides another excellent opportunity for real-life, hands-on learning. Two Rally2 entries in WRC create a near-factory team feeling with unbelievable access for younger members to get a taste of what it's like inside the WRC’s service area. Co-drivers, Ronan Comerford and Eoin Treacy are examples of this in that while they aren’t competing have been able to attend world rallies and soak up everything that goes on. These deep-dive visits are money-can’t-buy opportunities.
A pre-season testing and development week in Spain was another incredible chance for members to sample PCRS’s Rally2 Hyundais on gravel and asphalt. It gave them the chance to work with engineers and receive mentoring from leading Hyundai driver Teemu Suninen.
One gets the feeling that this positive momentum is having a snowball effect. As one chance gets picked up another one becomes available and before you know it there are Irish drivers and co-drivers leading the way in championships across the world. The MI Rally Academy is providing more support for those who have earned an opportunity and it is providing more opportunities to those who deserve it.
Not only do the academy's top drivers in Rally2 campaigns gain more experience, and improve their speed and results, but those at grassroots level are seeing these golden ticket chances that they can aim towards. This alone automatically widens the pool of potential champions that can go on to represent Ireland.
At the end of the day that is the aim: to identify and develop young Irish rally talent to create a world champion within the decade.
Josh McErlean - WRC2 and ERC
William Creighton - Junior WRC and WRC2
Eamonn Kelly - Junior WRC and WRC2
Patrick O’Brien - WRC2 and ERC
Aoife Raftery - ERC Junior
Jack Brennan - MIJRS
Kyle McBride - Junior BRC
Ryan Caldwell - Irish Forest Championship
Dylan Eves - ITRC4 and MIJRS
Joe Browne - National Rally Championship
Article by Adam Hall www.rallyinsight.com
This Article was first published in the Donegal International Rally 2023 programme.