Amongst all the celebrations witnessed in Omagh at the conclusion of an incredible Bushwhacker Rally, none felt as significant as the crowning of a brand-new Sligo Pallets Forest Rally Champion, and the latest step in what is surely only the beginning of a march to great things for one of Irish Rallying’s brightest stars.
The route taken by Ryan Caldwell and Arthur Kierans this year to the title has been nothing short of remarkable given the lowly expectations many had when the Championship kicked off in February with the Killarney Forest Rally. In the event preview, the 4WD debut of Caldwell & Kierans was noted amongst the ‘other notable entrants’, but post event their performance was deemed ‘remarkable’.
Turns out, with hindsight, we shouldn’t have been surprised at all. On the opening stage, and remember this is a youngster competing in only his second season and making his debut in a Skoda Fabia R5, he would go 2nd quickest, and would return to Castleisland just 10.9 seconds behind his closest rival all season Mark Donnelly and Stephen O’Hanlon.
Donnelly would do the double by winning the next round of the 2023 series, the Tipperary Sean Conlon Forest Rally, while Caldwell & Kierans backed up their Killarney result with a fine 4th place. It would be after a few months of a break in the series though that things would ramp up significantly, with the opening Derreennaling stage of the Moonraker Forest Rally being the very first Stage Win of Caldwells career, and just a few hours later he would arrive back to Ballyvourney victorious.
While the accension to becoming the 2023 Sligo Pallets Forest Rally Champion may have appeared quick, anyone watching the series last year would have seen the meteoric rise of Caldwell, guided by Grace O’Brien, as he roared to Class 2 Victory in a Ford Fiesta Rally4. The pace and skill clear to see brought Ryan to the attention of the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy who came onboard to support his efforts this season.
Following success on Round 3, it would be a Southern double for Caldwell & Kierans as the Jim Walsh Cork Forest Rally title went their way following a dramatic finale. Leading by just 2.2 seconds over Jason Mitchell & Paddy McCrudden, the pair, aswell as Mark Donnelly & Sean Ferris, would leave everything on the line and beat the bogey meaning the march towards Championship supremacy would begin to fall Caldwells way.
For Arthur Kierans, claiming the 2023 Sligo Pallets Forest Rally Championship is a true highlight on what has been a remarkable career that has spanned nearly 30 years competing at all manner of levels of the sport right up to and including the World Rally Championship earlier this year and alongside some of Irelands brightest rallying talent.
While the last stage drama in Cork seemed to be a dramatic point in the Championship race, the second test on Round 6, the Lakeland Stages Rally, would prove the biggest drama point though as a slight error by Donnelly would see his Polo collide with a Bridge and break the rear suspension. Unable to continue, Caldwell and Kierans romped home to take a hugely significant maximum score for a third round in a row.
With a large advantage built, the 2023 Sligo Pallets Forest Rally Championship title was secured for Ryan Caldwell and Arthur Kierans before they turned a wheel on the Bushwhacker Rally, the 6th round, as their closest rivals, Mark Donnelly & Sean Ferris, elected to not score championship points and thus cede the opportunity to catch their rivals.
What’s next for Ryan and Arthur? We wait and see now, but what we do know for certain is claiming a National Title at 21 years of age must surely be the mark of a remarkably bright future ahead!
Words and photos: CIAN DONNELLAN/IFRC Press Officer
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