It began, like so many good ideas have in Donegal, over a Big 4 meal in the Four Lanterns.
Only this time, the hour wasn’t so late and the talk was serious.
Manus Kelly was introduced to Paul Crumlish, a native of Moville who was based in London and had a keen interest in motorsport, by Donall Barrett.
Crumlish had suffered a family tragedy, with the death of his brother, and wanted something to get involved in. Barrett had partnered Kelly to win the National side of the Donegal International Rally in 2015 in the cockpit of a MK2 Escort.
Their dream was to do Donegal in a WRC car. It had been a pipe dream until they became acquainted with Crumlish.
That evening in the Four Lanterns, Kelly spoke and Crumlish listened. Then, Crumlish spoke and Kelly’s ears perked. Between each bite, it was clear that the pair would become close.
Crumlish has been team manager of MK Rally since shortly after that 2016 rendezvous and Kelly and Barrett have just celebrated winning the Donegal International Rally for a third successive year.
“It was a massive job to pull a team together,” Kelly reflected.
“We decided on a car – that was a big one. We knew we could pull a team in a tight circle. We had to get a budget – and one sponsor said we were looking for Formula 1 money! – but that we did was all down to Paul.”
A WRC Impreza was hired from Melvyn Evans Motorsport in Wales – and hasn’t missed a beat over the last three years.
Kelly and Barrett stepped into the car for the first time two years ago in Carlow and won the Carlow Stages Rally. It would be the start of a beautiful relationship.
“Our first goal at the very beginning was to compete in the rally in a WRC car,” Kelly said.
“We have an incredible team that came together to make it possible. We were hoping for a place in the top five. Coming out of Carlow, out heads were up and people started to talk. We just wanted to get the best performance in a car we didn’t know or had time with.
“Every rally poses a different challenge and we’re just very proud of the way we competed. We needed different tactics and needed to approach things differently at times. It was great and we’re delighted.”
The remarkable and magical journey hasn’t been without its hiccups, though.
In 2016, in their first year in the international field, Manus Kelly and Barrett won a heart-stopping crown when they edged Keith Cronin by half a second.
On day two, they lost almost two minutes on the Garrygort stage when, caught under breaking on a 5-right, the Impreza ended up in a field. By the close of business on the Saturday, they had 30.4 seconds to make up.
But when they scorched back into the reckoning, they sensed glory.
On the second-last stage, Atlantic Drive, Barrett turned to Kelly on the start line just outside Downings: ‘We’re going for gold’.
They had 0.5 seconds – half-a-second – to spare on Keith Cronin when they came off the 20th stage, Fanad Head.
Barrett often plays down his own role, but Kelly is quick to note his influence.
He said: “Donall could sit with any World Rally driver. He plays down his role all the time, but that car is at break-neck speed. When Donall says it’s flat, then it’s flat.”
Milford man Barrett is the picture of modesty.
“I have a job to do and that’s it, really,” he says.
“There are a lot of very talented drivers in the national section. We were lucky to go on and get a chance in the world car. The way he has embraced the world car has been incredible.
“You get the buzz from doing 10/10ths in rallying and when you don’t have to do that it brings the buzz back a bit, but that brings a different challenge.”
Kelly and Barrett edged a dramatic and intense battle with Donagh Kelly in 2017 to prove that their maiden triumph had been no fluke.
And this year, they roared once more back to the step[s of the Mount Errigal Hotel to pop the champage.
A spin cost them 20 seconds on the opening day, but they kept their heads and their cool. One-by-one, the challengers fell. Donagh Kelly, Declan Boyle, Darren Gass and Garry Jennings all went out – but Kelly and Barrett became the first all-Donegal crew to win a three-in-a-row, having also won the Rally of the Lakes in May.
“I always felt they were very talented,” Crumlish says.
“I used to come back and watch the rally. I’m a bit of a petrol head and a motorcyclist. I would have stood on the ditches and admired them from afar.
“It has been brilliant to get involved with them. They have never uttered a negative word. These boys have really stepped it up.”
Both Kelly and Barrett have been coy about what’s next, though a sponsorship deal with Applegreen, revealed on the approach to the Donegal International this year, suggests that they’ll be back for sure.
Kelly says: “We’re trying to swallow up what’s happened this year and we haven’t really thought about next year.
“We weren’t focussed on three-in-a-row. We just wanted to get the game plan right and get the best out of ourselves and the car. We’ll enjoy the next couple of months, regroup and have a wee chat with the team.”
A defence won’t happen in the Impreza, however.
ST56 SRT has been sold by Melvyn Evans Motorsport since their win so a new machine will have to be sourced.
But Crumlish noted that ‘some discussions are ongoing for a fourth year’.
A ‘Big 4’ of a different kind will be on the menu soon.Tags: