Belfast Telegraph

Our 85 rally special years

Ahead of this year's event, starting on Thursday, Sammy Hamill looks back on the halcyon days of the iconic Circuit of Ireland Rally

Crawling home: The battered Rothmans Ford Escort of Ari Vatanen and David Richards heads towards the Belfast finish after going off the road on the final leg in 1980
Crawling home: The battered Rothmans Ford Escort of Ari Vatanen and David Richards heads towards the Belfast finish after going off the road on the final leg in 1980
Winner Jimmy McRae and co-driver Mike Nicholson are interviewed by the BBC's John Bennett at the City Hall finish

The Vatanen name on next week's Circuit of Ireland entry list has evoked memories of 1980 and perhaps the most famous duel in the rally's long history.

It was won by Jimmy McRae, the first of the great Scot's record-breaking seven victories, but to walk along Boucher Road where the surviving cars assembled early on that Easter Tuesday morning before the City Hall finish was to witness a succession of drained and red-eyed drivers.

None more so than Ari Vatanen. The Finn, soon to become World champion, had fought a titanic battle with McRae over four days, the two of them separated by just seconds, only to lose out when his Rothmans Ford Escort went off the road along the wild west coast stages on the final evening.

The thing is, McRae only just survived the same 'bumpy corner after crest' that claimed Vatanen, his Vauxhall Chevette teetering on the brink of disaster. He knew he had been lucky and he knew, too, that he wasn't going to make the finish if he didn't back off.

But as we waited at the stage end, watching for the white and blue Escort to appear, the minutes ticked away and there was no sign of Vatanen. Word came through he was off the road. "I knew immediately where it had happened," remembers McRae. "I was so lucky to get round and at the speed we were going I reckoned that was where Ari had been caught out.

"He wasn't to know, having survived that incident, I had decided to back off and concentrate on getting to the finish. I had already got away with rolling the Chevette over a hedge into a field on the first day and there are only so many lucky escapes you can get away with."

The legendary Vatanen will be back in Belfast next week, not to re-enact those momentous days of 36 years ago but to watch his 25-year-old son Max tackle the Circuit for the first time. It is a different rally now, just two days - three if you include the qualifying stage and ceremonial start - compared to the monster five days, 600 stage miles, 1500 road miles of yesteryear.

It was so tough in those days that another Finn and World champion, Markku Alen, complained he wouldn't come back unless Fiat paid him a World championship fee.

Others loved it, of course, none more so than McRae who surpassed Paddy Hopkirk's five victories to become the greatest Circuit driver of all time. His secret to success on Ireland's unforgiving roads?

"Taking care of the car," he told me as I interviewed him over breakfast in the Opel motorhome on the final morning in 1982. To emphasis the point he nodded towards the mechanics working outside, patching up the battered sister Ascona of another fantastic Finn, Henri Toivonen.

McRae was the Circuit master, winning in a Vauxhall Chevette, an Opel Ascona (twice), Opel Manta (twice) and a Ford Sierra Cosworth (twice). But nothing gave him more pride that watching his son Colin follow in his footsteps with his 1991 victory in a Subaru Legacy, cementing the McRae name forever in the Circuit history books.

Those record books tell the story of a rally which the Ulster Automobile Club began in 1931 as a weekend jaunt around Ulster for a small and privileged group of car owners but grew in distance and status to become one of the best known in Europe. From Jimmy McCafferty, the 1931 winner, to Craig Breen in 2015 it has brought many of the world's greatest drivers to Ireland, survived the Second World War, continued through the Ulster Troubles and has overcome everything from foot and mouth disease to storms, both financial and weather-borne.

One of the trickiest was 1979 when tanker drivers and telephonists were on strike in the Republic. The Irish tourist board told the organisers they would make sure petrol was available for the rally. But by Galway on the second morning the cars were running on empty and there was no petrol available in the city.

Then came news a petrol station at Ennis, 40 miles south, had fuel and would supply the rally entourage to allow it to carry on straight to Killarney where, we were assured, there was plenty of petrol.

When the rally resumed for the Sunday Run around the Ring of Kerry it was Pentti Airikkala who surged to the from in his DTV Vauxhall Chevette but for reporters like me, we were only able to relate the story to our media outlets thanks to persuading (bribing) the emergency operators in the local telephone exchange to put our calls through.

Though many, including World champions Alen, Hannu Mikkola and Juha Kankkunen, had tried, the taciturn Airikkala was the first Finn (the first from mainland Europe in fact) to conquer the Circuit and we had to wait more than 30 years for another to emulate him - and then came two in a row, Juho Hanninen (2012) and Esapekka Lappi (2014). The 2013 rally was cancelled because of the Easter blizzard.

The intervening years had seen British champions such as McRae and Russell Brookes dominate the rally along with homegrown stars like Billy Coleman, Austin MacHale, Frank Meagher, Stephen Finlay, Andrew Nesbitt, Eugene Donnelly, Derek McGarrity and, of course, Bertie Fisher.

It was at the end of the 1974 Circuit where I first encountered Fisher, a man who was to become such an iconic part of Irish rallying. I was filing my Belfast Telegraph report from a noisy Newcastle pub just across the road from the finish line in Donard Park, dictating the story of Cahal Curley's famous win in his Porsche Carrera, when a young man tapped me on the shoulder and said: "Don't forget to mention me."

I don't think I did that day but I was later to write thousands of words about Bertie Fisher and his record-breaking career which included three Circuit wins - wins he always maintained were more important than any other.

He once told me: "I've lost count of the times I've walked into a meeting or a function and someone has come up to me and said 'You're Bertie Fisher, the Circuit of Ireland winner'. I've won dozens of rallies but the Circuit is the one you are remembered for."

Those of us who have delved into its history know it produced winners like a 17-year-old Ronnie Adams, who was home on holiday from his English boarding school when he co-drove Basil Clarke's Austin 16 to victory in the first round Ireland version in 1936, and Christopher Lindsay, who drove and navigated his Ford Special to the only single-handed win in 1949.

And how many know that Artie Bell was a Circuit of Ireland winner before he ever rode a Norton to Ulster Grand Prix, Isle of Man TT and North West 200 victories?

But less than 10 years ago all that history meant little as financial and organisational problems brought the Circuit to its knees. Its current reincarnation and rise to European status can be directly attributed to one man, Bobby Willis, who stepped in to save the rally and has seen it through to its 85th anniversary next week.

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