The Long Term Plan for Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy

Pictured at the Autosport International Show in January 2020. Back Row (L-R:) Angela Henehan, Motorsport Ireland Rallies Commission; Leo Hassett, Motorsport Ireland CEO; Joe Corcoran, Irish Motorsport Federation; John Naylor, Motorsport Ireland President. Front Row (L-R:) Josh McErlean, Callum Devine and James Wilson

The Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy gives some of the country’s brightest motorsporting talents the opportunity to develop their skills and take their career to the next level. Born out of the Billy Coleman Young Rally Driver of the Year Award and the passion of a few individuals to provide a more rounded support network, the Academy is now being recognised on the world stage – despite still being in its infancy.

The late Rory Galligan was the inaugural Billy Coleman Award winner in 2000, and every year since then, there has been a roll of honour that isn’t lacking in quality. In 2018, long term supporter of the Award, Sean McHugh, took on the role of co-ordinator to oversee the competition and continue its upward trajectory. 

“I’m a volunteer the same as anyone else; I’ve been a COC for rallies, club chairman, all that carry on. I’ve been involved in the Billy Coleman Award since the beginning before coming on board as the Award Co-ordinator. My job was to keep an eye on things and liaise with the winner. I was given a brief to try and run the award but also to try and expand it.”

“My first thought was all about the money. There was the prize there of €50,000, which is a lot of money if you were to try gather it up – but it’s small in rallying terms. The likes of Oliver Solberg could be spending €500,000, so when you arrive with your €50,000 you’ll not go far against them. I put in the proposal to expand the award, but finance was an issue.”

At around this time, Team Ireland was being established by the late John Campion. It was a programme that saw a select few rally and race drivers given additional supports in fitness and training to continue their growth. This would later lead to the successful CJJ Motorsports. Sean McHugh was looking for a benefactor to support a similar initiative more directly tied to the Billy Coleman Award and came across John Coyne. A now-retired Irish-American businessman, Coyne is no stranger to success having won both the Irish National Rally Championship and the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

They met at the ITRC 40th Anniversary dinner when it was discovered that the pair shared a mutual desire to support up-and-coming Irish rally drivers. Ideas bounced back and forth and soon the foundation for the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy was put into motion. It was agreed that the premise would look at giving longer-term support, rather than the usual one year of the Billy Coleman Award.

John Coyne is one of the backers of the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy. A former Tarmac Champion, he is pictured here in action on the 2017 Donegal International Rally

Alongside the most recent Billy Coleman Award winners, the runners-up would also be taken under the wing and given similar chances and supports so that they too could improve – without having to wait in the hope of winning the exclusive top prize.

Callum Devine was the first Award winner that Sean worked with in his role as co-ordinator. It was during the Derry driver’s attempt at the JWRC that he realised there needed to be more financial backing over a number of years to allow drivers reach their potential. He said Devine’s speed in R5 during the 2019 ITRC campaign showed there were positives to going abroad, even if he didn’t return with a championship.

“The benefit was to be seen last year. He’s come on in leaps and bounds from the Opel Adam to sitting in a Fiesta and chasing the likes of Craig Breen and Ali Fisher. That told me that you’ve got to get out there and experience a world event and develop yourself. At an international level you compete against the best in the world so you lift your game, and that worked for him.”

“I proposed to John that we make a clear pathway from the J1000 category in the forests, to J1600 and then as far as the ERC and WRC with R2 and R5 – into the Craig Breen division. Covid put a spanner in the works but we’ve already seen the creation of the Junior 1600 series which Brian Brady won. That was the first attempt to have a middle step, with the prize being a drive in an R2.”

Brady made his R2 debut at this year’s Cambrian Rally in a new Fiesta R2T. He was matching the times of the British Rally Championship regulars on the first two stages, before a minor roll side-lined him. Sean says it was later discovered that the corner he went out on was known for catching those less familiar with the roads, again showing the importance of experience. Nevertheless he impressed on his first go at driving a homologated machine.

Brian Brady won the Junior 1600 Series and received a prize drive on the Cambrian Rally

The support at R2 level was also on show this year when William Creighton scored a class win on the Welsh event, and when he joined Callum Devine on the entry list of Rally de Roma Capitale. It’s a continuation of the ethos within the Academy that the right supports and opportunities need to be there at every part of the journey.

William Creighton has been receiving support from the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy

Development days are a big part of the Rally Academy. It’s when the members get driver tuition, as well as other aspect of being a sportsperson – such as working with the media, fitness, social media and sim-racing with Digital Motorsports. It’s hoped all those elements together can help the drivers improve themselves as more rounded individuals.

The Academy also works closely with Philip Case and PCRS, who provide the vehicles for the development days and for when the drivers are competing. Case runs a number of Hyundai i20 R5 cars, which led to building a relationship with Andrew Johns and Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing. This again provides a solid support and contribution. Sean tells me he’s criticised by some for pushing towards these homologated cars, but says it’s all part of the bigger picture.

“I’m the number one supporter of the MKII Escort; they are spectacular and the quality of vehicles in the country is phenomenal. But no manufacturer is getting professional drivers to drive MKIIs; you have to be in an R2 or R5 when you’re between 20 and 25 years of age. I’m not trying to stop anyone from driving a modified car, but you’ll not get noticed by the manufacturers.”

“By all means start in a modified car, but if you want to be seen by the like of Hyundai  - they want to know how quick you are in an R5 or what you’ve done in an R2 and what your record is. Look at Brian Brady, David Kelly and Derek Mackarel, they made their name in modified cars but could sit right into an R2 which is completely different, and be fast.”

Another string to the bow in the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy’s plan for world domination is the inclusion of young co-drivers in a similar initiative. Often the forgotten side-kick in the operation, there is now a raft of experience being drawn on to ensure that both people in the car are ably equipped to compete.

“We expanded to that with the help of Greg Shinnors –a former BRC champion – who is mentoring and anchoring the project which is still in its early stages. The seven selected are also working with Paul Nagle, Killian Duffy, Rory Kennedy, James O’Brien, Paul McLoughlin and others. They’ve had development days too; both on their own and with the drivers to get them interacting with each other. The idea is, that when a phone call is made and someone is looking a co-driver for a programme, I’ll be fit to vouch for a co-driver and highly recommend them.”

Through it all, Sean is modest about his involvement or influencoce. He has no greater ambition than to see a clear path made so that drivers and co-drivers can take up the sport at a young age and realise that if they meet what’s required of them, they can go all the way to the top.

You get a sense of pride from him too. Whether it’s seeing Callum Devine and Josh McErlean competing in the ERC, or talking about the 2018 Billy Coleman Award winner James Wilson and his ambitions to take the Irish Forestry Championship by storm, he wants to see it happen.

“I’m not making it up out of thin air; I want to mirror what’s done in France or Finland. We’re not inventing the wheel, but in Ireland we’ve never went down this road of bringing so many people along with us. Hopefully we get to see the next Craig Breen, and not having to wait another 30 years like we did since Billy Coleman. That’s what I’m trying to do. We’re at a very early stage, but I have a long term plan."

This article was written by Aaron McElroy and published in the December 2020 edition of CarSport Magazine. 

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