Has Down become NI’s hidden gem rally?

The Down Rally brings motorsport’s thrills and spills to some of Northern Ireland’s best driving roads this weekend.

The eight-stage event organised by the combined efforts of Ballynahinch and Rathfriland Motor Clubs plays host to this year’s Northern Ireland Rally Championship title decider.

Down has run in various guises over the years with crews tackling gravel and asphalt stages across the mountainous county. A reinvigorated effort four years ago brought with it the Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship and a new sense of interest surrounding the event.

With former Circuit of Ireland Clerk of the Course Andy Gilmore at the helm, Down Rally has offered competitors and fans alike stages that were made for rallying.

Hamilton’s Folly and Buck’s Head were showcased to the world during the Circuit of Ireland’s European Rally Championship days.

The former will be the main attraction for many but as number one seed and reigning NI Rally Champion Jonny Greer explains, there is much more to the closed-road event than that famous jump straddling the Mournes.

“Lough Erne and Drumaknocken were first used in 2018,” explained Greer. “They are two very good stages that the clubs have found and invented.

“It gives the rally a good mixture. Hamilton’s Folly is a classic one and to do that on a Northern Ireland Championship round is quite a big pull.

“The first two stages are a bit more what I would call an Irish road stage. They are narrow, twisty, and bumpy – a bit like the old Circuit stages and old Ulster stages.

“Buck’s Head is a mixture of the two but is a little wider with a higher average speed than the others.

“Hamilton’s Folly has the jumps and picturesque scenery whereas the others are perhaps purely driving stages.

“There is a lot of work that goes into them which gives you a nice mix of twisty, high-speed, bumps and jumps.”

Another interesting facet of the Down Rally is its format of four stages completed twice with a single service in between. While Greer explains what that means from a driver’s perspective, it is nice knowing that the Down Rally offers competitive action right across the county with a service area in the heart of Northern Ireland’s third largest city, Lisburn.

“Four stages make the loops a bit longer which means it is more of an endurance,” described the 2018 winner. “Tyre calls and decisions in service will be more difficult because of the amount of time you are away on a loop of stages.

“The bonus is that the rally day is shorter and you are maximising the mileage. That is something I have always wanted rallies to do – cut down on the driving back up and down to service.

“It gets a good middle ground between the road sections and competitive mileage.

“You are getting four good stages rather than doing three stages which are chosen based on how close they are to service.”

At 80 competitive kilometres, the Down Rally may fall a little short of the single-day benchmark set by its cross-border compatriots but it certainly leads the way for Motorsport UK standards.

An influx of competitors from Scotland, England, and Wales give the rally an added dimension which is a just reward for the organisers’ efforts in recent years.

The combination creates an event that is a leading example for Northern Ireland and certainly a hidden gem for national competitors across the UK and Ireland.

Let’s hope 2022 is another successful chapter in the Down Rally story. While Greer will be hoping a smooth day behind the wheel of his Citroen C3 Rally2 gives him a third NI Championship title, he’ll also wish everyone the best as they tackle a rally close to his heart.

The 33-year-old made his debut on a loose-surface Down Rally in 2005 and has been at hand to witness the rally’s evolution over the years.

“It is good to see the work that goes on behind the scenes ahead of a rally. It gives you a huge amount of respect for what they do.

“The time and effort that they put in – it is all driven by a pure love of the sport. It is a credit to anybody who puts their hand up to help run a rally.”

It is excellent to have positivity running through the veins of a rally. Down has seemed to have found an appropriate balance between professionalism and head-to-the-ground thinking. That approach has worked so far and long may it continue.

2022 Down Rally entry list (top 10):

1 Jonny Greer – Dai Roberts (Citroen C3 Rally2)
3 Mark Kelly – Neil Colman (Ford Fiesta R5)

4 Freddie Milne – Patrick Walsh (Fiesta R5)
5 Derek McGarrity – Graham Henderson (Volkswagen Polo R5)

6 Peadar Hurson – Damien Connolly (Fiesta WRC)
7 Joseph McGonigle – Ciaran Geaney (Fiesta Rally2)

8 Neil Roskell – Andrew Roughead (Fiesta R5)
9 Darren Gass – Barry McNulty (C3 Rally2)

10 John Stone – Laura Connell (Polo R5)
11 Stephen Simpson – Will Atkins (Fiesta Rally2)

*Late entries include Cathan McCourt (C3), Frank Kelly (Ford Escort Mk2), Marty Toner (BMW 1M), and David Moffett (Ford Escort).

2022 Down Rally itinerary:

SS1 Lough Erne 1 (9.00 km) – 09:43
SS2 Buck’s Head 1 (14.00 km) – 10:31

SS3 Hamilton’s Folly 1 (9.07 km) – 11:19
SS4 Drumaknocken 1 (8.16 km) – 11:57

Service (Lagan Valley Centre, Lisburn) – 12:37

SS5 Lough Erne 2 (9.00 km) – 13:30
SS6 Buck’s Head 2 (14.00 km) – 14:18

SS7 Hamilton’s Folly 2 (9.07 km) – 15:06
SS8 Drumaknocken 2 (8.16 km) – 15:44

Photos by Kevin Glendinning and Adam Hall