Galway’s Aoife Raftery is among a record-breaking entry list for female rally drivers in the next round of the FIA European Rally Championship.
The Craughwell native is contesting this year’s FIA Junior European Rally Championship – the first Irish woman to commit to an international series since Rosemary Smith in the 1960s and 1970s.
This weekend’s Barum Czech Rally Zlín is the fifth round of the championship and Raftery is one of six female drivers from all over Europe to place an entry for the rally.
Last time out, in July, driving a PCRS Rallysport-prepared Peugeot 208 Rally4, she finished second in the Coppa Femminile section of the Rally di Roma Capitale in Italy.
That women’s event was won by Italian driver Rachele Somaschini who was driving a four-wheel drive Citroen C3 Rally2, but the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy driver was the top female driver in a two-wheel drive car.
The top three female drivers Rally di Roma Capitale in July were Sara Cerra (third), Rachele Somaschini (first) and Aoife Raftery (second) Raftery’s competition has more than doubled for this weekend’s Barum Czech Rally Zlín. Photo: Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy
On that occasion, she finished ahead of multiple Italian regional female champion Sara Cerra, who was driving a similar Peugeot 208 Rally4, but faces an even more daunting task in the Czech Republic this weekend.
A total of six female drivers – a record for the 2023 season – have entered the iconic event.
While Somaschini is likely to have the upper hand, given she is driving a far more powerful car than Raftery’s, all eyes will be on the two-wheel drive contest.
Rivals will include Adrienn Vogel who is an event category winner in her home country of Hungary and in Austria. She is driving an identical Peugeot to Raftery’s example.
The Galwegian will also face Romanian front-runner Cristiana Oprea who crashed out in Rome and Bulgarian Ekaterina Stratieva has several European Rally Championship ladies’ awards to her name.
Both drivers are entered in Opel Corsa Rally4 cars that are similar in design and power to Raftery’s Peugeot.
Local Czech driver Eliška Slavíková is contesting the national section of the event in her Skoda Fabia.
“We are really looking forward to returning to the European Rally Championship with the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy and with PCRS Rallysport running the car,” she said.
“It's going to be a really good challenge and it's great to be able to do these events on these kinds of roads that have very specialised characteristics.”
“It is great to see the level of female participation in this event especially when you look at the [quality] of drivers that are taking part.”
“There are six female drivers across the entry so that alone is brilliant and great to see so many women doing these events.”
“It's going to be great for myself [because] there's a good few of us [women] in my class so it will be a nice competition between us all.”
“The event is supposed to be brilliant in itself, so we are really looking forward to it.”
All six drivers have been invited to attend the official fan meet-and-greet autograph session in Zlín on Wednesday night.
It is the first time this year that this will happen during a round of the FIA European Rally Championship.
Fellow Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy member Ronan Comeford will co-drive for the second time.
He made his European Rally Championship debut alongside Raftery in Rome in July.
“Barum will be interesting. I’m very much looking forward to another European Rally Championship challenge. I will carry all the knowledge and learning I experienced from Rome forward to Barum,” said the County Armagh man.
“It is not going to be easy but, for sure, a lot better in that I understand what to fully expect. Thanks to Aoife and the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy team for trusting me to do it again.”
Also on the entry list is Monaghan’s Mac Kierans. He is on co-driving duty for Australian Max McRae in another Peugeot 208 Rally4.
Barum Czech Rally Zlín ran for the first time in 1971 and is described as a tarmac test like no other due to the bumpy and sometimes broken nature of the road surface.
Several stages feature high-speed blasts through forests and intermittent showers are always possible. Huge numbers of fans follow the action, especially on the opening night-time Zlín superspecial street stage.
This event has been part of the European Rally Championship for more than 50 years and features a permanent service park hosted by event sponsor Continental Barum at their giant tyre factory and distribution centre in nearby Otrokovice.
The rally officially gets underway on Friday evening with an opening super special stage in the streets of Zlín. Saturday’s schedule comprises six stages, three stages repeated in the morning and in the afternoon.
Another six stages take place on Sunday, making a total of 13 stages and 200km of competition.
Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy members William Creighton, Aoife Raftery, Eamonn Kelly and Ronan Comeford at the Carole Nash Historic Motorsport Festival at Mondello Park on Sunday. Photo: Paddy Darcy
Meanwhile, four members of the Rally Academy were guests at the Carole Nash Historic Motorsport Festival at Mondello Park on Sunday.
Raftery and Comerford were joined by Junior World Rally Championship contenders William Creighton and Eamonn Kelly.
Aoife Raftery Rallying is supported by O'Neill O'Malley Architects and Project Managers / Loughrea Auto Parts Ltd / Craughwell Tyre Centre / Sean Fleming Motors / Aertec Vacuum and Ventilation / Des Lyons Plant / Quinn’s Hardware.
Text by Sean Moriarty