The last eighteen months have been quite a whirlwind of success for Irish rally driver Daniel McKenna, who has firmly established himself as one of the brightest talents competing in UK rallying.
The 26 year old headed into the 2013 MSA British Rally Championship as the reigning Billy Coleman Award winner, the highest accolade for a rally driver in Ireland, the €50,000 prize fund for which ensured his return to the BRC for the first time since a part-campaign in 2010.
With Arthur Kierans in the co-driver seat, McKenna stormed to four class wins in six events to claim the BRC RallyTwo class title, and with it free entry onto their first ever world rally, the 2013 Wales Rally GB.
Alongside the R2 crown, they also picked up the Fiesta SportTrophy title and the BRCLive Media Trophy, securing prize tests in a Ford Fiesta R5 and a Prodrive Mini JCW S2000 respectively.
The season then reached new heights when McKenna emerged from the annual Pirelli Star Driver Award shootout as the latest winner of a fully-funded season in the BRC, with the upcoming campaign seeing him compete in a DGM Motorsport-prepared Citroen DS3 R3T.
The Checkered Flag sat down with McKenna at the Autosport International Show in January to chat about his remarkable 2013, his Pirelli Star Driver success and his hopes for 2014 and beyond.
TCF: Looking back at 2013, you must be delighted with how the season went?
DM: “We couldn’t envisage the championship going as well as it did. In six rounds, we had four wins, a second and a third in the R2 championship, which picked us up a Pirelli Star Driver nomination.
“That was our main goal for the year, to get into the Pirelli Star Driver shootout, and we knew that if we could do well in the championship and possibly win it, that would put us in a stronger position for the Pirelli Star Driver. Winning that, it’s an amazing prize, and we couldn’t have imagined it all going as well as it did.”
TCF: What do you feel were the key ingredients to your successes?
DM: “One big advantage was that I competed in selected BRC rounds in 2010 in an Evo 9. I did two rounds, and managed to get a Pirelli nomination from the Ulster. In the shootout, I was against very stiff opposition, the likes of Elfyn Evans and Craig Breen, so I knew I didn’t have a chance of winning, but I got a lot of experience from it.
“That all gave me the experience of what it required to be competitive in the BRC. So along with that, this season, it was just a lot of hard work and preparation, we put our all into the car preparation, pacenote making and everything, there was nothing left to chance. That kind of success doesn’t happen by accident, it’s the level of dedication you have to put in at this level.”
TCF: What are your goals for 2014?
DM: “We’re probably not going to get too many opportunities like this, to have a car capable of winning the championship, with all expenses paid. The secret of it is going to be getting seat time in the car, and we’ve got a test programme planned over the next few months.
“We’re hoping to try and use the same ingredients that we had last year for winning the R2 championship, to win the overall title. That’s definitely the main goal, to try and be top contenders, but we’ll have to bed ourselves in, get some solid results as I learn the car, and then try to be in the hunt for the title at the end of the year. We’ll see how it goes.”
TCF: Looking a little further ahead, where do you hope to be come 2015 and beyond?
DM: “The plan in the off-season of the BRC this year is to use our own budget and do selected rounds of the ERC including the Circuit of Ireland. We want to get some more experience and see what the pace is like, to see what work we have to do to be on the pace.
“We hope to put a two-wheel campaign together for the ERC or the junior WRC in 2015, and we’re already speaking with sponsors about it, as that’s how far ahead you’ve got to think in this game. That’s definitely where we’re looking for the future.”
TCF: As a driver, do you feel the current BRC, two-wheel format is providing you the platform required to progress in the sport?
DM: “There’s no point learning how to run before you can walk, you need to learn your trade and that’s what the BRC does with the two-wheel drive format. It’s an accessible route up the ladder for young drivers from all over Europe.
“It’s good that there’s a lot of guys from my generation, lIke Elfyn Evans, Keith Cronin, Alistair Fisher, Robert Barrable, Craig Breen, that have come out of the BRC and gone into the WRC categories. That’s why we selected the championship, we had other options, but it’s been show that if you can win in the BRC, you can move on and win on the international stage.”
TCF: How key was winning the Pirelli Star Driver to you and your career?
“It’s a massive opportunity. The budget that’s been put towards it is well documented, seven rounds of the BRC all expenses paid, in a car that’s capable of winning the championship. For us, as a privateer team, to get a budget together to be in a similar position would have been very, very hard.
“That’s one side of it, but the other side of it is the publicity and exposure. I can now go to sponsors as the Pirelli Star Driver, and that means something, as if I was just going as Daniel McKenna, it would be a lot harder to get people on board.
“Overall it’s hugely important for me, winning the Pirelli Star Driver was the only way I could see, with the budget I have, that I could get on in the sport and attempt to make a career in motorsport.”
TCF: How important do you feel the Pirelli Star Driver scheme is for UK rallying?
DM: “Everywhere in the world knows about the Pirelli Star Driver scheme in the UK, that’s why guys from Europe are coming over to compete in the BRC, for the chance to compete for the prestige of the Pirelli award. People who have won it before, like Keith Cronin and Elfyn Evans, are going on to bigger and better things, and I’m sure if they hadn’t have won, it would have been harder for them to reach that position.
“That’s what Pirelli are trying to do with the BRC, they’re trying to help the grassroots of the sport and the upcoming young drivers. They’re doing a fantastic job, providing some great opportunities, and I’m sure they’re reaping the rewards from it too.”
*McKenna’s 2014 season kicks off with the opening round of 2014 MSA British Rally Championship, the Rally North Wales, on 4/5 April*