andy tarmac champ

Andy Davies with Michael Gilbey celebrate their championship victory with their crew (Andy Davies)

Andy Davies who with regular navigator Michael Gilbey recently managed to achieve one of their motorsport ambitions, by winning the Group N Irish tarmac rally championship as well as winning overall IRTC2 champions, an incredible achievement in their first year of tarmac rallying after a yearlong battle in the Irish lanes. Their story begins back in 2018 as they took a year out of stage rallying to try and achieve one of their other ambitions, which was to win the welsh road rally championship, an ambition that they did indeed achieve. However, during 2018 Andy and Michael decided to venture out to Ireland to spectate one of the most famous tarmac rallies out there, the Donegal international. At this point Andy had never competed on a tarmac stage rally, let alone an Irish one, when all of a sudden it was suggested that he take IDZ the road rally car out, and as Andy says “the rest is history!”

                So, Andy and Michael both took IDZ out for a one-off tarmac rally appearance, kitted out in a full “cuisine du France” livery in honour of Andrew Nesbitt’s Subaru, which was a previous winner of the event, they set about tackling their maiden tarmac rally. Despite breaking a number of driveshafts amongst other things, both Andy and Michael were hooked within the first day. They went on to finish the rally after experiencing what Andy describes as “a rush and level of enjoyment I hadn’t experienced when rallying before”. He adds “At the evening awards ceremony, with a crystal glass trophy full of Corona sat in front of me, somebody suggested, “let’s do the ITRC next year”. There’s a pattern emerging here… as you can probably tell!”

                So, with the decision made and with Andy’s Group N Subaru converted to tarmac specifications, the season kicked off in February on the Galway International that took place over the weekend of the 9th and 10th. With a new baby daughter and profound lack of sleep It was an excellent beginning to their campaign with a win in Group N and second in IRTC1 on the two-day event. With it being a tight, twisty and slippery affair making it a pretty pleasant transaction for a pair of welsh road rally lads!

The event consisted of a loop of three stages ran three times each giving competitors nine stages and totalling some 75 miles in length. They set very respectable times throughout the course of the event although Andy admitted that he had a lot to learn but “still we kept out of trouble, set a couple of very inspiring stage times and managed to stay ahead of the 6 other group N crews as we crossed the final stage finish. A fluke? The number of post event photographs emerging on full opposite lock through various junctions indeed suggested so”. They finished the opening round in a very respectable twenty-fifth overall, giving them an excellent start to their year.

                The ever-popular West Cork was the second round of the year. Taking place over the 16th and 17th of March and gave competitors some 140 miles of competition over the weekend and included some famous stages such as Ring and Sam’s Cross. It was to be an eventful rally for Andy and Michael as on stage seven they caught another competitor who had been off the road so lost some 30 seconds on the stage. On the first day’s final loop of stages the car was still fitted with wet tyres which weren’t the best suited to the roads which were now drying out so their times were not as quick as they would have liked, although they did hold onto the group N lead at the end of the day. For the second day their tyre sponsor Hankook had provided them with slick tyres to use on the now dry stages which they seemed to enjoy using. Stage 13 proved to be unlucky as they slid on some mud that lined the stage and put the Subaru into a ditch. This cost them some thirty seconds. Both Andy and Michael decoded to play it safe after this and decided to get the car to the finish of the event, even so they were second placed Group N competitor with a handful of points for their campaign. They ended up in a highly respectable forty-ninth overall and second IRTC2.

                The UAC Easter stages was the third round of the championship, taking place on the 19th and 20th of April this was another big test for Andy and Michael. It was a ten-stage affair with some 130 kilometres of competition to undertake. Andy noted “, I will always look back on this as the first event where I finished and felt equal to my rivals, feeling confident on our first all dry tarmac event using slick tyres.” They were lying second overnight after a cautious start, they decided to push hard on the second day, they manage to come within seconds of the Group N lead with many stage wins under their belt among very fierce competition. On the last section they decided to switch their tyre compound to a medium compound which resulted in a minor spin costing them a handful of seconds. They still went on to finish in a highly respectable second in class and twenty-fourth overall.

                Round four was the incredibly famous Killarney rally of the lakes that took place of the 4th and 5th of May. It was another 16-stage event with some 140 miles of competitive motoring provided for the competitors. Andy writes “We arrived at Killarney international rally of the Lakes a different team. More experienced than ever before. Confident and already in love with the stages that lay ahead of us. We bolted on a set of medium compound tyres for the first time and specifically targeted SS2, Ardgroom, a tough, long and technical stage along the wild Atlantic coast, full of crests, bumps, jumps and everything in-between. Search ‘Craig Breen Killarney 2019’ on YouTube. I promised you, you won’t be disappointed.” Whilst they did loose 3.6 seconds to their nearest rival on the opening stage, Molls Gap, they weren’t phased and headed into Ardgroom full of confidence and ready to attack. They managed to end the stage a massive 27 seconds faster than their nearest rival and never looked back. In fact, they went on to hold the lead for the rest of the rally, only pushing when they felt they had to and when they were comfortable to do so. Andy adds “Looking back, probably my favourite rally of the season. More importantly, the championship was back on.” By now they were tied for the lead in the championship.

                It was back to possibly the most famous event of them all for round five, the Donegal international. Sadly, tragedy stuck the event and as Andy says “the impact of what happened at Donegal was far greater than any stage time or effect on a championship. The tragic death of Manus Kelly left a huge hole in Letterkenny and in the hearts of every competitor or rally fan, far and wide. The king of the hills had been taken away and somehow, we all had to carry on.” The results up to stage 15 counted and Andy and Michael finished second Group N car and twenty-third overall.

                A break of almost two months went by before round six commenced, the Ulster. The Ulster is known for being a fast-paced event on some notoriously tricky lanes. This was Andy’s first single day event with no time for backing off. This was home territory for Andy and Michaels main rivals so they knew the competition would be fierce, Andy and Michael simply had to push from the word go! Their main rival managed the quickest time on the days opening two stages, so Andy and Michael both knew that they would have to take some chances if they wanted a result. They pushed very hard on stage three and managed to set the quickest time by some sixteen seconds, putting them back in the running. They seemed to struggle to find a good rhythm after the service halt but managed to stay in touch with their rivals. They entered the final stage fifteen seconds down, but it was a stage which they had won on both the two previous runs over it, so they both knew it could be done. They both knew if they couldn’t manage the win here then it would be very difficult to win the championship and they would require a lot of luck in Cork. Andy gave it everything in the final stage, and in fact set the seventh quickest overall time, but had it been enough? They then discovered that their nearest rival had come across some differential issues on the stage and lost some thirty seconds o the stage, and unfortunate end to their rally but it did mean that the championship would be going down to the wire over in Cork.

                Cork 20 was to be the final round in what had been a tight and close fought championship, this final event would be the decider. Taking place on the 28th and 29th of September it was an event with thirteen stages and nearly 130 miles, they both arrived as prepared as they could be, with all of Andy’s Subaru’s major components having had a rebuild to insure maximum reliability. They both completed a successful two-day recce of the stages and everyone in the team were ready for battle. They were dead level with Willie Mavitty on points in the championship so it was all to play for.

                The opening day of the rally bought some very changeable weather, with the last three rallies having taken place in the dry it was to play out slightly differently to previous events. The first stage of the rally was the tight and twisty gruelling affair of Killnamatra 1, was slightly damp on some sections, so Andy made the brave decision to run on medium compound dry tyres. However, when they arrived at the stage, the rain had fallen and now the majority of the stage was damp. They started the stage and immediately knew they were not on the correct tyres for the conditions, unable to get enough heat through them for them to work effectively. All they could do was push on as hard and as safely as possible and keep the car on the road. Unfortunately, they ended the stage some twenty-five seconds down on their main rival.

                Andy writes “All we could do was manage the situation and get the car back to service, however, there was one more stage to complete before we could do that, so we headed over to Lough Allua. We sat on the start line, looking at the damp road and decided that we were not here to come second and that we would take some risks wherever possible and hit the drying patches of road as hard as we could. Luckily there were enough high-speed corners and drying patches that we could find a great rhythm and After 16km we crossed the line 6.4 seconds faster than our rival.”

                They arrived at the service halt with rain falling, so opted for wet tyres for the next loop of stages. Andy noticed an immediate improvement and in fact they managed to catch their nearest rival on the stage. They went on to finish the stage some twenty-one seconds ahead of their nearest rival, catapulting them into the class lead by nearly three seconds. Andy and Michael went on to win the next two stages of the day, and finishing the first day over ten seconds ahead of their nearest rival and managing to set sixth quickest overall time in stage five in the process, a time only beaten by far more technically advanced R5 specification cars.

                Sunday morning arrived and with no rain forecast Andy opted for a soft damp tyre for the day’s opening stages. This was perhaps not the ideal tyre for the conditions as the roads did not dry out as fast as competitors hoped, and so Andy and Michael were not able to push as hard as they would have liked, and they also lost some five seconds overshooting a corner on stage seven, Mushera. “The feeling in the car was great, and the Hankook tyres were working superbly so we felt really confident heading into the second loop of the day which promised to be completely dry, however our rivals ran into a problem costing them around 30 seconds which meant we were able to change plan and focus on managing our lead and focus on getting to the finish” writes Andy, but with their rivals managing to repair the cars in the service halt, and promising to push hard over the final stages of the day, Andy and Michael both knew they too would have to push hard if they wanted to take the win. They managed to take the quickest time in class on stage nine, Mullaghanish to extend their lead.

                They backed off a little for stages ten and eleven, opting to save their tyres until the last service halt of the event, where a new set was fitted for the last run through Mushera, which gave them another stage victory. “As we sat on the start line of Butter road, we discussed how much we both enjoyed the stage and how much we would love to have a real big push on it, however, common sense prevailed and looking back on a long season and how much work the team had put in, we just had to get it to the end. Those were the tensest 13.6km I can recall, and the pressure was on Mike, not just to keep us on the road but to do his job whilst keeping me calm and keeping our risks to an absolute minimum. At those speeds it’s all too easy to make a small mistake due to a momentary lapse in concentration. Crossing the finish line of SS13 was one of the most overwhelming moments of my career, and one I’ll struggle to ever recreate. A sheer mix of elation and relief from both sides of the car.”

                Andy and Michael managed to finish the event 31.6 seconds ahead, thus giving them the Group N championship crown, as well as IRTC2 in the International Irish Tarmac Championship! Andy wanted to give thanks to some people at the end of a very successful year:

“I’d like to once again thank my whole team; I could not have done this without them. The support and commitment needed from everybody over a season of two- and three-day international rally’s especially when overseas is huge, and everybody played their part through some very demanding times.  My sponsors, especially Hankook tyres who took their chances and supported a gravel/road rally driver with limited tarmac experience on not only our first time in Ireland, but our first season on Tarmac! I’m so happy I could reward you with this win in exchange for a winning tyre combination which have proven themselves on every possible variation of the surface!”

“I’d Like to thank Mike, for joining us on each and every round this year and putting everything he has into guiding us to success. The work that he puts in, in the weeks leading up to the events, through recce and into the competition itself is second to none. This is testimony to our results and lack of mishaps this year! I could not have done this without him.”

“I’d like to thank my other half Delun, who has supported me through my rally career from day one, with this year no different, not only made has she made it out to support us on every round she could, but she has managed to do so whilst juggling it in-between our busy lifestyle and temporarily covering both parental roles in bringing up our 9-month-old baby Daughter! Thank you for everything.”

“Lastly, thanks to everybody who has joined us along the way on various rounds this year and to everybody’s support us from all angles including social media through another year of rallying. Your support is very much appreciated.”

“So, where does this take us? The truth is, I’m not sure. We have always set out and achieved everything we possibly can, with the machinery we have. We have now taken wins on championships in all forms of the sport, on gravel, tarmac and road rally. From BTRDA N4, the Pirelli welsh national forest championship, the welsh road rally championship and now the International Irish tarmac rally championship. All of the premier single surface UK championships. We will continue to push forward and in the coming weeks we will sit down and properly look at our options. We feel we have achieved everything we can, in the car we have and will therefore be looking for the support and backing to use an R5 specification car for select rounds of a topflight championship in 2020. For now, though, we cannot rest as we look to tick a real bucket list rally off next weekend on the island of Mull before heading back to Letterkenny to celebrate properly at the ITRC awards!

"I'd liike to extend a thanks to everybody involved insuring the GAP solutions backed Subaru maintined a 100% finish record through the entire championship, namely Graham Sweet of GT motorsports, John Roberts transmissions, Gary of GM suspension technology and Melvyn Evans Motorsport."

Thanks once again, for all of your support.”


                Needless to say we all wish Andy the best of luck with whatever happens next and congratulate him and Michael Gilbey for their incredible success.