Galway expatriate Frank Cunningham along with Donegal Co-Driver Gary McElhinney finished a superb 11th overall and 3rd European Historic Championship crew in the Rally Costa Brava in Spain.
Frank is no stranger to this rally or indeed the championship, twice finishing runner-up in the standings. Previous experience came at the wheel of a Ford Escort RS1800 with his nephew Ross Forde navigating, but for 2017 it was all change. Gone was the Escort, replaced by a fully fledged historic specification BMW M3 built by Vink Motorsport in Holland and run by C-Sport in Galway.
Prior to travelling to Spain Frank competed on his home Irish International Rally, the Galway International Rally. One would imagine that a wet Galway Rally in February would be a world away from sunny Spain, but seat time was vital prior to the start of the championship. Galway is renowned for being one of the toughest rallies in the country, possibly not the perfect place to learn a new car. It was a baptism of fire for Frank and navigator Arron Forde as the BMW proved a handful in the wet and greasy conditions. Some teething issues and an off-road exclusion put them firmly on the back foot, but they persevered finishing the event and gaining valuable miles in the car.
Following Galway, C-Sport set about re-preparing the car for the historic Rally Costa Brava. They loaded the now re-fettled BMW into a trailer, filled the vans with all the tyres and spare parts required to service the car in Spain and set off on a 2200km road trip!
Frank and Gary faced stiff competition on the event not having competed on it since 2013. The first man to cross the start ramp was World Rally Championship star and ex-works Peugeot driver Francois Delacour in a 4WD Lancia Delta indicating the level of competition in the rally. It was unrealistic for Frank to be comparing times with Delecour and the leading 4WD cars as Frank BMW was RWD it was instantly at a major disadvantage.
Little did they think the test at the Galway International Rally would be so beneficial as fog and rain blanketed the opening nights stages! The BMW was the 17th car on the road and it started well for the Irish pair, 12th fastest on the opening test. This was followed by another top 15 fastest time on stage 3 after stage 2 was cancelled, this cemented Franks place just outside the top 10.
“The opening night was some of the toughest conditions I have ever rallied in. The fog was immense, but Gary did an excellent job on the notes and we got through it with no damage, which was a relief!”
8 stages lay in wait on Saturday and the sun began to peer through the clouds. This allowed the roads to gradually begin to dry out giving Frank the ability to push the BMW like never before. A string of top 12 times kept him in contention with the European Championship regulars over the opening loop. “Saturday morning was still very wet, but we felt far more comfortable in the car and we were closing on the ERC regulars. I haven’t competed at this level since 2013 so this was very encouraging going forward!”
With the sun fully out and the roads dry Frank went on a mission over the final loop. He racked up a number of top times in his class, but on the penultimate stage it almost all came to an end! A sudden rain shower caught the team out on dry tyres and they haemorrhaged time to there rivals dropping them too 12th overall. It was just a case of bringing the car home after this and collecting championship points, which is what they did.
The C-Sport car crossed the finish line in 11th overall and bagged 3rd place points in the European Historic Championship. “It was great to be back competing on the European stages. It is really a dream come true to do it behind the wheel of the legendary BMW M3 and to get third place championship points was the icing on the cake!”
Next up for the team is the Historic Vltava Rally in the Czech Republic on the 21st & 22nd of April. Longtime navigator Ross Forde will be in the navigator’s seat in the hopes they can claim more points in their quest for the championship title. In the meantime, C-Sport will prepare the car and gear up for another mammoth road trip across Europe!