From Wombourne to West Cork
By Martin Walsh
Steve Roberts has now reached the point in his life where he spent as much time in West Cork as in the UK.
The journey of life brought him from Wombourne near Birmingham to West Cork.
Although he first lived near Clonakilty, he and his family now reside in Ardgehane – a stone’s throw from a stopover on the West Cork Rally, his favorite event.
All his life he only joined Ford Escorts. It is therefore not surprising that his favorite driver is the former world rally champion Ari Vatanen who also favored escorts.
Steve remembers his early days in rallying: “I started rallying in 1984 and at that time it was mostly all road rallies in UK. I lived in the Midlands near Birmingham, Gwyndaf Evans was doing it (road rally) at the time and that’s where I first met Nicky Grist (world rally co-driver).
“My first car was an Mk. 1 Escort then around 1986 I bought a higher specification Mk. 2 Escort and my first stage rally was the Epynt Rally (Wales) in 1988. I really did a lot of events at one site, the rally in UK at that time was not a patch on what we have here was Epynt and the Mewla Rally which at the time was part of the Motoring News Rally Championship.
A business opportunity brought Steve to West Cork in 1992.
“A school friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in getting involved. I came and looked, I was just a young man at the time, so it was easy to get around. I came, put things in place and my partner Jane (Tudor) followed about two months later.
Some of his essential luggage included his rally car and his first rally here was the Keohane Readymix West Cork Rally 1993 where he was seeded at 89 and co-piloted by David Ryan of Clonakilty they were not among the 54 finalists .
To date, he has participated in twenty-two of the events based on Clonakilty.
“For the first few years here, I only did West Cork because I was focusing on business. An entry into the Fastnet Rally resulted in the demise of the Ford Escort which was replaced by an orange colored Escort G4.
There is no further applause for assuming West Cork is his favorite rally.
“It is, it really goes through the door so why not and the Ring scene is also my way home from work.”
However, there is a close second.
“I have learned to love the Rallye des Lacs, I have done it several times now. The stages in the Beara Peninsula are really superb. Cod’s Head, Ardgroom and the Healy Pass, if they are not particularly fast in terms of speed, they are very technical and very demanding, I really like this type of terrain and although it may seem strange, I do really not go fast. , I prefer curvy stuff.
Throughout his Irish rally he only used three cars, his list of co-drivers is a multiple, eighteen in fact.
“ I was about 22 when I started and was lucky enough to bring out an experienced chappie for the first time when it really mattered. I always have the attitude that co-pilots have to start somewhere and I really enjoyed taking someone with little or no experience and getting them started.
“ Sean Hayde (Enniskeane) sat down with me, he had done very little at the time, Kevin O’Driscoll, a close neighbor, made his rally debut with me. ”
His daughter Aoife accompanied Steve in the West Cork Rally 2015.
‘To be honest it gave me a lot of stress because if something had happened to her I should have come home and told Jane. ”
Steve’s last outing – at the 2018 Cork ’20’ International Rally, ended abruptly.
“It wasn’t at high speed but it was a very big accident. The steering arm broke and we got off the road, the car rolled three or four times. It was (the car) was a basket suitcase, but we have managed to fix it since.
Steve is a multiple Class 12 winner in the Southern 4 Rally Championship, but the West Cork Rally 2009 stands out as one of his greatest achievements.
“I had a great battle with Ger O’Connell from Dunmanway. Ger was really at the top of his game at the time and was doing a lot of rallying back then. We went there like a crazy pair from the first stop.
“I managed to get it past 8.7 seconds after two days of rallying. It was tough and intense, Ger was racing at a very high level and I matched him at the start, then he went ahead and I had to respond. On Sunday afternoon, we were both trying to fight.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a rally driver, he was super consistent and I struggled to beat him. He’s had the stroke of me for a long time, but in 2009 I thought, this is what you need to do.
Steve derives great satisfaction from the rise of West Cork Rally to its inclusion in the Irish Tarmac and British Rally Championships.
“When I did my first West Cork (1993) I noticed it was on another level. It was criminal that the rally had not been a serious matter until the last few years. I know it was part of the Motoring News Championship back then, but I can never understand why it wasn’t part of ITC earlier. It has always been a high level rally. ”
Steve sums up his passion for rallying in a roundabout way.
“In 1996 Jane gave birth to our oldest daughter (Megan) in the week leading up to West Cork. I dropped off Jane and Megan at the house on Friday, then went to put the car under control. Come to think of it, it was kind of ridiculous, but now we see the funny side.
Like so many others, Steve is impatiently awaiting the resumption of the rally. Much like the past few years, Jack Carroll (Megan’s boyfriend) will be calling the notes.
“My car is after a major rebuild and ready to go.