International rallying’s four month hiatus was loudly interrupted when the European Rally Championship season burst into life with July’s Rally di Roma.
Some three weeks later, the ERC was back again and had traded the serene mountain roads of Italy for the blisteringly quick gravel tracks of Rally Liepaja.
But try throwing in Rally di Alba between those, a rotating cast of five drivers between three Hyundai i20 R5s and an epic five-and-a-half weeks – or 39 days – on the road through 13 different countries and you’re beginning to understand what life has been like recently for Philip Case Rally Sport, commonly known as PCRS.
When DirtFish called team boss Philip Case, he was completing the final leg of that epic voyage; catching a ferry from the Netherlands to the UK before another from the UK back to the team’s base in Letterkenny, Ireland. It’s a truly herculean effort for any team to do three rallies abroad, essentially back-to-back, but it was particularly impressive for a privateer outfit to pull it off.
“Absolutely no doubt about it, this is the biggest trip and adventure we’ve ever had as a team,” Case tells DirtFish.
“And I would say there’s not too many other teams that have done a trip like this, certainly not privateers. We left on July 13 and I intend to be back on August 20 and one of the guys who was with us said we went through 13 countries along the way.”
But why did they do it?
The easy answer to this question would be simple: because Callum Devine’s ERC campaign this season is behind the wheel of a PCRS Hyundai. Naturally, that means the team had to be out there preparing and repairing his car.
But equally, Case and his team are never ones to shy away from a challenge and prosper when punching above their weight, so they weren’t afraid of taking on such a logistical challenge either. Some other teams might not have been so confident.
Case used to work for M-Sport in the early 2000s, working on cars driven by World Rally Champions Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz before leaving Cumbria and heading back home across the Irish Sea in 2003.
He set up his own team in 2005 and hasn’t looked back since – running his own cars in his native Ireland and in the UK before taking the squad abroad for the first time in 2015 for Rally Spain in the World Rally Championship.
Last year’s Rally GB was a particular highlight where British Rally Championship frontrunner Tom Cave finished less than 15 seconds behind 2003 WRC Champion Petter Solberg in a PCRS i20 R5, taking 11th overall. Just weeks later, the team was on the podium with Devine on Rally Hungary.
“The result in Rally GB, that’s what you do it for,” Case explains. “To finish just behind more famous drivers and bigger teams as a private team, that’s what you do it for.
“If you wanted the easy life you’d just hang it all up and go and work for these teams, but we enjoy it, that’s why we do it. But you take the good with the bad, you enjoy the good times so that you don’t over celebrate them the same way that you don’t overly dwell on the bad times.
“From the logistics side of it, what we’ve just done wasn’t new, it was just on a bigger scale.
“I think if it was new it would make the job an awful lot harder. I have a guy, our team engineer Cieran Hannigan, who also does the logistics and he gets the hard time of having to work out all of that and deal with all the organizers but he’s very good at it.
“He creates a very good itinerary and we all know where we have to be, you don’t ask questions, you just look at your itinerary and that’s where you should be at that point of time.”
That all started with Rally di Roma with Devine and Pauric Duffy – co-driven by Phil’s brother Jeff – competing for the squad. But not before a trip to Hyundai Motorsport headquarters in Alzenau, Germany.
“We left and we had to meet up in Alzenau at the Hyundai factory to collect a new car and also receive a new engine for the car that was going to Rome so we fitted a new engine in Germany, went on down to Rome to do that rally,” Case says.
“Unfortunately it didn’t go how we’d hoped. Callum was unfortunate in that there was a big rock on the line and whatever way it went over it, it just cracked the sump and the guard in one go and lost the oil. That just happens sometimes in rallying, you see lots of these things happen in your time in rallying.
“We obviously had the old engine that we took out of the car with us still so we slotted that engine into the car while we were still in Rome, as we needed to go testing for Alba on the Tuesday after Rome.
“So while the guys were still there they took the broken engine out and put the old engine back in – which was still a good engine, it wasn’t over its kilometers or anything – it was just nice to have a fresh engine.”
This was the first sign of PCRS’s resourcefulness which would come in handy over the weeks to come.
As already mentioned, Rally di Alba was up next the week after Rome. While this wasn’t an ERC round, PCRS would still be running two cars on the event – nicknamed the Adamo Grand Prix due to the scale of Hyundai’s presence – for Devine’s fellow Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy member Josh McErlean and Philip Allen. Devine was also there, but competing for Italian squad HMI.
Logistically this wasn’t too tough a challenge as it was still in Italy, but over 400 miles north. And without the luxury of its own workshop to return to, how was the team going to re-prep the cars for McErlean and Allen?
“Cieran had organized us a place to stay which worked out perfectly because it had a small little courtyard,” Case replies.
“The guy who owned it was really friendly and delighted to welcome people into his region and we re-prepped the cars in his courtyard after the test on Tuesday.
“Again we had another driver at that rally, Philip Allen – that was a bit of a last minute deal. My idea was we’re going out to these places, we have to bring the truck anyway, we’ll just take the two cars from the workshop, we have another one to collect in Germany and there’s no point leaving a car at home as we might need it if one is crashed or we might pick a driver up along the way.
“So Philip came out, we got the two cars ready and he had an eventful first stage where he broke the suspension and Josh had a great rally.”
McErlean had flown out to Italy to join PCRS at Rally di Roma before his Tuesday test and the rally on the weekend. He flew home on the Monday after the event.
“Our relationship is continually building with PCRS, we are still relatively new to each other,” McErlean tells DirtFish. “We try to leave no stone unturn ed in preparation for events, Keaton [Williams, co-driver] works very hard with the team to make sure everyone is on the same page heading into an event.
“It’s working very well at the moment, and there is a whole lot more to show!”
McErlean was also impressed by how the team dealt with a fuel tank issue he battled with on the second loop: “We came into the second service of Rally di Alba with a technical issue that would have put most teams out of an event – it was a big job!
“But 45 minutes later I was reversing out of the tent with a car that was ready to rally. It was a complete credit to everyone in the team to get it fixed. It’s not just a job for these lads, it’s a passion.”
That passion was made evident after Rally di Roma, because while Devine flew back home to Ireland before joining up with the team again one week later in Latvia for Rally Liepaja, PCRS stayed out there and had the task of first getting there, then finding space to re-prep the cars again and switch them from a gravel to an asphalt set-up.
Devine says: “The team’s travelling across countries to be in the European championship and it’s obviously a lot harder for them rather than some of the main European teams that can probably shoot back, get some spares gathered up and go again.
“Philip can’t do that, he has to take a lot of spares out and has to fly a lot of men out which has to be organized. There’s a lot of stuff behind it so it’s not that easy for Philip which a lot of people probably don’t see. He’s got some good guys there.
“They do try their best for you, they’re there for you. Those wee things help. And obviously the bad luck that’s been happening with us the last wee while, it’s probably a wee bit easier with them [Irish] guys who probably understand it a bit better than maybe a foreign team.”
Case picks up the story: “We had to be careful of our journey because Latvia had strict rules on countries that you could transit through. So for instance we couldn’t transit through Czech or Austria, so we had to go across northern Italy, Slovenia and up that way and pick our route quite carefully.
“So we did that and then I contacted some of my friends in motorsport as it’s a small group, you know a lot of people around, and I said ‘do you know anywhere in Lithuania that we could use a workshop for a weekend or even just the yard’ because we’re self-contained with our own motorhome too.
“He said ‘give me a few minutes’, called me back and said there’s some guys who would give us the workshop all weekend and then we leave on Monday. Perfect! We arrived on Friday and they couldn’t have been more welcoming ‘you’re our guests, here’s our workshop, there’s the keys, lock yourself in.’”
With the cars ready to roll, the team headed out to the organizer’s test with Devine back with the squad with 2019 Irish Forestry Champion Cathan McCourt joining them too.
Devine’s rally was another disaster as he rolled out of contention, writing off the shell in the process. But McCourt “shone” according to Case, sitting inside the top 15 before he clipped a rock that was pulled out into the racing line and broke the TCA on his i20.
“It was only something small,” Case says. “He actually had the parts in the car to fix it but it was in such a way that he couldn’t get the car lifted off the ground enough to get it fixed within the time of the stage but he did drive it out.
“As for Callum, this was always penned as one of the more difficult rallies for him to do just with his experience and the speed that’s needed, it’s very unique. He was just starting to get into it when he had his roll but it’s a place that’s caught out people before. I’m just thankful that the car stood up to it and Callum and Brian [Hoy, co-driver] are both OK.”
Last weekend was busy for PCRS back home too, with local driver Jason Mitchell winning the Omagh Time Trial. This week the team was testing ahead of the M-Sport Stages on Saturday, with Mitchell and Alan Carmichael competing for the team. And BRC star Tom Cave was also out testing too.
“It is very busy and I’m thankful that it’s very busy and I have to say a lot of thanks goes to the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy as that’s one of the reasons that we are busy. To be part of that program is great and Andrew Johns of Hyundai Customer Racing is an incredible support for us and what we are doing, a lot of thanks must go to him,” Case adds.
The next European adventure will be in the Azores in a month’s time. PCRS and Devine are hoping to make it but there are currently some obstacles in their path.
“We can only speak about things as they are now as everything changes daily with COVID-19, look at Ypres changing dates for the second time for example, then you can imagine it’s not easy,” Case says.
“Going out there so much isn’t the problem – you take your COVID test 72 hours before and if it’s a negative result you go to Azores – but at the moment on return, we would need to quarantine for two weeks.
“There are ways around that while still following the rules though, not everybody from Ireland needs to go, myself and somebody else could go over and not shut down the whole workshop for two weeks. It’s certainly something that needs to be looked at but we are talking about Azores. Callum was actually messaging me about set-up for the rally yesterday.”
While any trip to Azores wouldn’t be the same mammoth adventure the last month has been, it would be just reward for the team to make it and for Devine to score some good points. If anybody deserves that, it’s PCRS after their commitment over the last five weeks.