If you are going to learn, learn from the best and there are few better teachers in the rally world than John Haugland.
The Norwegian, a multi-class winner for Skoda on the Circuit of Ireland in the distance past, runs a renowned winter rally school in his native country and it where Mark Donnelly has just spent the best part of a week as he prepares for the most important season of his burgeoning career.
Winning the Pirelli Star Driver shoot-out late last year earned him the biggest prize in UK rallying — a fully-sponsored drive in this year’s British championship on board a Citroen DS3 R3 prepared for him by Carryduff-based David Greer Motorsport.
Donnelly, who has been at pains on social media sites to point out that he is not the same Mark Donnelly, also from Omagh, who has been charged with a serious offence in the town on New Year’s Eve, is determined to make the most of the golden opportunity the Pirelli prize presents.
“Going to the Winter School in Norway was a great experience,” said the 21-year-old University of Ulster management and leadership student from Omagh.
“It was the first time I had been behind the wheel since I won the shoot-out so I was a bit rusty but it was really good to be back in a rally car and with John Haugland’s guidance it has given me more confidence for the year ahead.
“During the four days I was there I covered about 600 kilometres over frozen lakes and icy forest stages.
“It was unbelievable the amount of grip the studded tyres gave you even though when you got out of the car you could barely stand up!
“I think it was incredibly beneficial, allowing me to sharpen my skills on various techniques, for example, left foot breaking, but equally importantly it helped me better understand car set-up.”
Donnelly will get his first taste of his Pirelli-sponsored Citroen when he acts sweeper car on this weekend’s Spring Rally which is run by his Omagh Omagh Club and is based at Fivemiletown.
“I’m really looking forward to my first run in the DS3,” he said. “I had a tough time against the Citroens when I was driving my Renault Clio last season so it will be interesting to compare the two cars.”
In addition to the driver training session in Norway, Donnelly has also been working on his own body as well at the University of Ulster’s Sports Institute at Jordanstown where he has been undergoing intensive training sessions and dietary advice.
The opening round of the British championship, which includes the Ulster Rally in August, takes place in Wales in early April.