At the end of eighteen tough, demanding stages over two hundred and thirty kilometres, it was Andrew Purcell, navigator by local man Andy Hayes who took a hard-earned victory on the fiftieth anniversary event. In the end, they had a 31.2 second gap over the Darrian T90 GTR of James Stafford and Tomas Scallan with the Skoda Fabia R5 of Daniel Barry and Lorcan Moore a further 53 seconds back in third. But that only tells the conclusion of two action packed days which saw one of the greatest events ever hosted in the county.
After the spectacular ceremonial start on Wexford Main Street on Friday evening and the introduction of the guest crews for the weekend in ex-works WRC ace Mikko Hirvonen partnered with Jarno Ottman in their 2.5 litre Ford Escort Mk2 and Cheltenham winning racing jockey Danny Mullins partnered with former Circuit of Ireland winning navigator Micheal Maher, it was Stafford and Scallan who led the field away from the Wexford Quay front start on Saturday morning to the first special stage near Ballycullane. The opening stage was in Stafford’s back yard and the opposition feared the Darrian would get the early jump on them. Still, a 16.2 second lead at the end of the stage had left everyone breathless at the top seeds blistering pace. Enda O’ Brien and John Butler were the closest challengers with Andrew Purcell and Andy Hayes a fraction of a second back in third. Stafford was fastest again on SS2, once again from O’ Brien’s Polo but by the end of the third stage the O’ Brien Concrete Polo R5 was out of the event, the crew getting caught out under breaking on a slippy Square Right and crashing out of the event.
This left Stafford and Scallan with a 33 second lead at first service with Daniel Barry and Lorcan Moore now up to second in their Skoda Fabia R5 and Andrew Purcell and Andy Hayes now third a further 2 seconds back after what they felt had been a lacklustre start by their own admission. Richard Moffett and Darragh Kelly were having a fantastic event to hold fourth overall in their spectacular Starlet with Gary Kiernan and Wexford’s John McGrath eight seconds back in fifth. A trio of Donegal drivers held sixth to eight places. In sixth was the Corolla of Kevin Eves and Chris Melly, seventh was the Toyota Starlet of Declan Gallagher and Eric Calnan and eight was the Millington powered Proton of Stuart Darcy and Liam McIntyre. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman lay ninth, Mikko’s confidence in the car compromised by boiling brakes, an issue he later realised was through his own making. He was still enjoying the stages and led another Donegal crew, Donegal’s Patrick McHugh and John Wallace who rounded out the top ten.
The second loop of three stages saw a repeat of the James Stafford Tomas Scallan Darrian T90 GTR domination, a run of three fastest times saw them increase their lead to 50 seconds. It was now Andrew Purcell and Andy Hayes who were up into second, the PM Autos Fabia R5 starting to come on song and Andrew was now up on Stafford’s pace. Richard Moffett and Darragh Kelly were now in a fantastic third and putting in one of the drives of the rally and ahead of the Skoda Fabia R5 of Daniel Barry and Lorcan Moore. The other Starlet of Declan Gallagher and Eric Calnan was not being outdone by any means, a third fastest overall time on SS6 helped them to fifth overall, ahead of Gary Kiernan and John McGrath with Kevin Eves and Chris Melly now back in seventh. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman lay eighth, Marty Toner and Ben Teggart were ninth in the BMW and John Bonner and Johnny Baird were yet another Donegal crew having a fine run to hold tenth. Gone on the middle loop were Stuart Darcy and Patrick McHugh, both side-lined with mechanical problems.
The fastest times kept coming for Stafford on the final loop of stages, but an issue had developed with the rear of the Darrian which in turn compromised the handling and braking. This led to an altercation with a chicane on the final stage of the day and after a day which had seen a text-book performance from the local crew, it had concluded with Andrew Purcell and Andy Hayes out-pacing the Darrian for the first time on the event and a damaged Darrian in over-night Parc Ferme. Furthermore, it was hard to believe that with a day ending in glorious sunshine, the talk was about the expected torrential showers that were forecasted for Sunday. Purcell and Hayes as said had stemmed the time loss on the final stage of the day and with the talk of heavy rain for Sunday, they, like Stafford and Scallan, knew this rally was far from over. Richard Moffett and Darragh Kelly rounded off the top 3, a brilliant drive topped off by a fastest overall time on the final stage of the day. Daniel Barry and Lorcan Moore lay fourth while Gary Kiernan and John McGrath were now up to fifth after the flying Milkman, Declan Gallagher and Eric Calnan damaged their steering on SS8, ending their rally. Kevin Eves and Chris Melly were now sixth and the scene was set for a battle royal between these three crews on the Sunday stages. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman were now seventh, the Finn’s happier with their performance on the final loop of stages but still amazed at the pace of their Irish rivals. John Bonner and Johnny Baird were now a fine eight and having a major battle with Marty Toner and Ben Teggart. However, only for the Toner BMW, the Donegal crew would have been out of the event after Marty firstly assisted the crew at the start of the stage when they had an alternator problem and then towed the rivals back to service. It had been once of a number of great sporting efforts that had been seen through the first day with crews putting Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan’s Escort up on its side to try and resolve opening stage gearbox issues and many including Hirvonen and Ottman push-starting Kevin Eves Corolla. Speaking of Hetherington, he and local navigator Gary Nolan were now up to tenth despite some early problems and a spin on SS7.
Class leaders at the end of day one included John Warren and Ruthann O’ Connor (Class 13), Tomas O’ Rourke and William Treacy (Class 4), Justin Smyth and James McEneaney (Class 12), Corey Eves and Pascal McCarney (Class 11R) and Paul Cloke and Liam Howlett (Class 3).
Sunday dawned to damp conditions and cloudy skies. As the crews headed to Enniscorthy for the early morning service, there were major efforts being made to Stafford team to keep their men in the rally. Keep him in they did and with the Darrian restored to full health, the question was how much the two-wheel drive Darrian could hold off the advances of the four-wheel drive Skoda Fabia R5 of Purcell and Hayes. However, Purcell knew this was his opportunity. Unlike the similar battle in 2019, the conditions were now in his favour, and he dealt a devastating blow on the opening Ferns test, stopping the clocks a full 13 seconds quicker than the Darrian. The gap was cut by a further 11 seconds on SS11 but a courageous effort by Stafford and Scallan on the treacherous SS12 say them limit the damage to their lead to another 3 seconds. However, the overnight lead had been almost halved and with the forecast torrential rain arriving as promised, the fight for victory was very much the talk of the event. Daniel Barry and Lorcan Moore had moved up to third overall, setting very competitive times in the wet conditions against the leading duo. Richard Moffett and Darragh Kelly had dropped to fourth, the Starlet struggling in the wet conditions, and they now had Kevin Eves and Chris Melly breathing down their necks, Donegal man Eves very much relishing the wet conditions and moving to within 12 seconds of his Toyota rival. However, gone from the battle were Gary Kiernan and John McGrath who clipped the back of their Escort off a rock, breaking the rear linkage in the process and ending a fantastic drive. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman were now sixth, the Finn’s really enjoying the wet conditions. John Bonner and Johnny Baird were now a fine seventh, this including an impressive fourth fastest time on SS12. Marty Toner and Ben Teggart were eight in the BMW and in a major battle with Bonner and Baird. Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan were ninth but had dropped time following a wrong tyre choice while Eddie Doherty and Tom Murphy now rounded out the top ten in their RLA hired Mk2.
The roads were resembling rivers on the second loop in some of the worst conditions ever seen on the event. Stafford and Scallan were putting in a valiant effort to hold onto their lead but with the conditions worsening, there was little they could do to stop the Purcell / Hayes charge and indeed by the next service, the rally had a new leader. Andrew Purcell and keep the push on in the treacherous conditions and he and Andy Hayes had moved into a 14.7 second lead. Further major changes on the middle loop saw Kevin Eves and Chris Melly leapfrog Richard Moffett and Darragh Kelly into fourth overall, the black Starlet dropping a lot of time in SS15 with spins and an overshoot. Gone off the leader board were John Bonnar and Johnny Baird, their fine run ending at the end of SS14 with ECU failure.
Andrew Purcell and Andy Hayes made no mistake on the final loop to record victory on the 50th anniversary of the Wexford stages rally. In the worsening conditions, they ended up with a 31.2 second victory over the Darrian of James Stafford and Tomas Scallan. Daniel Barry and Lorcan Moore took a very creditable third overall, Daniel rebuilding his confidence after a major off in France earlier in the year. Kevin Eves and Chris Melly took an impressive fourth on their first visit to Wexford while Richard Moffett and Darragh Kelly finished fifth, their scintillating pace on the Saturday stages one of the main talking points of the weekend. Mikko Hirvonen and Jarno Ottman thrilled the crowds with some fantastic driving all weekend and sixth was their reward in the end. It was fantastic to have Mikko and Jarno on the Wexford stages, they were fantastic visitors who brought the rally alive for the 50thanniversary and we hope that they will return once again in the future. Rumour has it that discussions were already underway at the prizegiving! Marty Toner and Ben Teggart took a fine seventh in the BMW, Marty and Ben very much many people’s stand out Spirit of the Rally crew after they efforts they were to keep so many of their rivals in the battle all weekend. Adrian Hetherington and Gary Nolan took eight overall with the Moore brothers closing out the top ten, Richie Moore ninth with Stephen Joyce on the notes and Richie’s brother Conor, partnered by Leo Tector taking tenth in their R5 debut on their home event.
Class winners included John Warren and Ruthann O’ Connor (Class 13), Tomas O’ Rourke and William Treacy (Class 4), Justin Smyth and James McEneaney (Class 12), Ben McIntyre and Conor Lappin (Class 11R), Cian Caldwell and Domhnall Lennon (Class 2), Ollie McPhillips and Billy Collins (Class 20), Brian and Elaine Kirwan (Class 9), Eamonn Bates and James Sinnott (Class 3), Paul Cullen and Brian Rowan (Class 10) and jockey-turned-rally driver Danny Mullins, partnered by Micheal Maher, impressed everyone on Danny’s rally debut to take class 1 honours.
But the weekend belonged to Andrew Purcell and Andy Hayes. For both men, a long-time ambition had been realised. Wexford was always an event Andrew wanted to win and for last year’s winner Andy, he now has the winner’s trophy for the full two-day traditional event. A massive thank you to the residents who greeted the event so openly, the crews who put in the entries in these challenging times to support the event that was moulded around what competitors wanted and last but very definitely not least, all the marshals, timekeepers and anyone who helped in anyway over the crazy weekend to help stage one of the best Wexford stages rally ever seen. We hope to do it all again, even bigger and better, in 2023.