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What a time it is to be involved in Irish rallying.

Craig Breen has re-established himself at the front of the World Rally Championship, William Creighton currently leads the Junior WRC and the nation’s domestic series has arguably never been stronger.

But perhaps the biggest sign of encouragement lies with Ireland’s pool of emerging talent, fostered through the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy.

And arguably none of them have made as immediate an impression as Aoife Raftery.

In just over 18 months, she’s already started over 25 rallies in seven different countries and is showing no signs of slowing down – on or off the stages.

“It’s great because we haven’t been rallying for long so how far we’ve got in that space of time, and the events we’ve done, the whole thing has progressed really well and I’m hoping it continues to go that way,” she tells DirtFish.

“We’ll keep running with it!”

Growing up in a family besotted with rallying, Raftery’s story is familiar. Experiencing the wonders of competition in her formative years, it was inevitable that she’d be bitten by the bug.

But getting behind the wheel herself wasn’t always the plan.

“I only started rally driving in 2021, so I started a few years later than probably a lot of people,” the 22-year-old says. “I was meant to start in 2020 but with COVID it got pushed out to 2021.

“I had navigated on a couple of rallies beforehand, but I knew that wasn’t for me and then I made the decision I wanted to pursue this and start driving myself.

“I didn’t know that I wanted to drive until I wanted to do it, and now there’s no stopping it.”

Making her debut on a round of the British Rally Championship, the Nicky Grist Stages, Raftery certainly “jumped in” at the deep end. Coming in at such a high level is far from the norm, but it’s indicative of Raftery’s desire to simply drive.

Looking back on her first event, she smiles: “You go to rallies and you watch it but when you’re driving it’s a lot different and you don’t know what to expect. So we got through the first stage and I just thought ‘this is absolutely amazing, I know this is what I want to do’.

“From there we just continued competing at events, and it’s progressed well and we’re developing. It’s all positive signs.

“You don’t get that feeling from anything else, I just knew that rallying was something I wanted to do and needed to do.”

Her next event was just two weeks after the Nicky Grist, and she followed the rest of the BRC calendar – meaning she took on a rally as big and famous as the Ulster as just her seventh-ever start.

Last year was where things really stepped up though as she took on 18 events on both surfaces, and made the switch from R2 to Rally4; Ford Fiesta to Peugeot 208.

She’s taken on a lot so early on, but that’s been a deliberate ploy.

“That’s what we’ve been working towards because in 2022 we did a lot of rallies, and that was just to try and catch up on seat time and experience in the car, and doing different things to improve car control and just the basics,” she says.

“But it’s starting to come together now. We are improving, definitely.

“We went over to Italy in October and we did a gravel rally over there and that was really good, and that was probably one of my favorite rallies to have done so far,” Raftery adds.

“It was the first time that we drove a Rally4 car so that was a step up for us as I had only driven the Fiesta R2 before that. It’s huge, I couldn’t believe the difference to be honest with you because when I drove it I was like ‘this isn’t the same class at all as the R2’.

“I really enjoyed that and I thought that was class, and then the conditions of the stages were just really good as well – the combination of the car, the stages, everything was just really good over there.”

As you’d imagine, Raftery has progressed massively since her first event in July 2021. She pinpoints the quality of her pacenotes as the main area of improvement “as well as driving techniques such as left-foot braking”, but “meeting people and making friends has proved a big help too”.

The Italian adventure was key. It brought Raftery close to Tamara Molinaro who offered some tuition, but also gave her a taste of different rallying cultures which has fed her desire for a diverse 2023 program.

So far this year Raftery’s taken on her home event, the Galway International, as well as the Killarney Forestry Rally, but she has designs on more rallies in mainland Europe.

Everyone knows what the MI Rally Academy is and what they do so it's great to have that profile and be related and working with them - Aoife Raftery

“Of course we’ll do some national events here in Ireland, but the plan this year is to compete in as many different European events as we can,” Raftery confirms.

“I’d like to ideally go to a few different countries in Europe just to build experience and to gain some knowledge out there. It really is the best for learning.”

Raftery’s grateful to the MI Rally Academy for helping her accelerate that process.

“I joined in 2022 and it’s a really good program for finding the young drivers and developing them, and for me it’s great because I was new to driving and to be selected for the program and what it’s known across the world for, it’s helped a lot.

“Everyone knows what the MI Rally Academy is and what they do so it’s great to have that profile and be related and working with them.

“They also come onboard with training and fitness with a sport enhancement performance coach, that’s really good as well. So we have a lot of access to these different elements that all help to improve our performance in rallying.”

But Raftery’s improvements are just as much down to her work ethic and desire to succeed. She admits she never initially saw rallying as a career path, but now the ambition is to keep climbing the ladder.

“I’m trying to be at anything I can be at in terms of motorsport, whether it’s events or testing or just getting out there, so I’ll do my best to give myself that opportunity to get to the top level.”

But above all, it’s her passion for driving that’s making all the difference. Raftery’s found her dream, she’s now living it and doing so at what feels like 1,000,000mph.

“That’s actually a good way to put it,” she laughs.

“It’s getting better and better and better, and I’d love to see results coming in in the future.

“Every rally driver wants to be quick, that’s the main goal is to be the quickest, but even getting there it’s been a great journey so far.

“Hopefully it keeps going that way.”

DirtFish Women’s Month aims to educate and inspire – telling the stories of women involved in all roles of motorsport and culminating in the Women in Motorsport Summit on March 11.

WORDS:Luke Barry



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