Belfast Telegraph

Hope remains of a WRC circus coming to Belfast, but the Circuit of Ireland's halcyon days will never be repeated

Once upon a time, rallying's biggest names battled for glory over Easter weekend... now businessman aims to reawaken the giant

Then and now: Pentti Airikkala in action at the Circuit of Ireland
Then and now: Pentti Airikkala in action at the Circuit of Ireland
Esapekka Lappi celebrates his 2014 success
Glory days: Cahal Curley
Ari Vatanen
Colin McRae

By Sammy Hamill

There was a time when Easter meant only one thing, the Circuit of Ireland Rally and a marathon weekend on the road.

Five days in the car and 1,000 miles or more from Belfast or Ballymena, from Portrush or Enniskillen, to Killarney and back, trailing in the wake of some of the greatest drivers the rally world has known.

Hannu Mikkola, Ari Vatanen, Roger Clark, Ove Andersson, Henri Toivonen, Stig Blomqvist, Markku Alen, Colin McRae, Michele Mouton, Pentti Airikkala, our own Paddy Hopkirk and, of course, the great Scot Jimmy McRae, Colin's dad. They all came to an event that was a landmark in the rally calendar and one which, more often than not, proved a road too far for even the very best.

From its origins back in 1936, the Circuit rose to become one of the great motorsport challenges, the back roads and boreens of Ireland providing an experience unlike anywhere else in the world.

The fact that it stretched from Good Friday until Easter Tuesday, encompassing a 1,500-mile route around the island, was tough enough but throw in as many as 600 miles of competitive special stages and it was the ultimate rally test.

It was so tough that even a world champion like Alen was heard to say he wouldn't come back - not unless he got paid World Championship rates.

And even when his fellow Finns ruled the rally world they couldn't master the Circuit until a grumpy Airikkala finally ended their drought in 1979.

That was the year of the infamous tanker driver/telephone operator strike in the Republic which so nearly brought the rally to a premature halt in Galway.

It looked like we would go no further until a promise of fuel in a station 40 miles down the road in Nenagh and assurances there wouldn't be a problem in Killarney that clerk of the course Donald Grieve was persuaded to give the go ahead to proceed, although all special stages en route would be cancelled.

When we eventually made it round Kerry and back to Newcastle, Airikkala was the winner in his Dealer Team Vauxhall Chevette but such was his unco-operative attitude during the rally that most of the press corps boycotted the media conference afterwards.

It was to be more than 30 years before another Finnish name, Juha Hanninen, was to be added to the winners' list but by then the Circuit of Ireland had changed beyond recognition.

Gone was the round Ireland format, the great adventure killed off by soaring costs and a realisation that a more compact format was required to meet modern demands like pacenote preparation, centralised servicing and television coverage.

But there are many who still lament the passing of a rally which started out as a grand touring event, interspersed with tests of speed and skill, and graduated to a flat-out marathon in which the fastest man over the timed special stages was the winner.

Hopkirk was the original master, winning five times until his reign was ended by the introduction of the Ford Escort and the arrival in Ireland of Roger Clark, who recorded the first hat-trick of victories to see out the Sixties. Adrian Boyd, who had been the youngest winner back in 1960, joined the Escort club to win again in 1971 and there was another Ulster winner two years later when Cahal Curley powered home in a Porsche Carrera.

At that time the Circuit was part of the British Championship and for two decades was a Mecca for official factory teams who sent drivers of the calibre of Mikkola, Vatanen, Alen, Blomqvist, Toivonen and so many more to try to win a rally which had gathered worldwide fame.

But all of them failed and instead it was a Scot, Jimmy McRae, who became the King of the Circuit, winning a record seven times during the Eighties when the rally was still an endurance as well as speed test.

He will tell you the most memorable of all his victories was the first, in 1980, and I remember walking along Boucher Road where the surviving cars assembled early on that Easter Tuesday morning before the City Hall finish, witnessing a succession of drained and red-eyed drivers.

None more so than 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 he 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," recalls 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."

Perhaps it was that experience which gave McRae such an affinity with Ireland, and the Circuit in particular, for although others such as Russell Brookes, David Llewellin and, of course, Jimmy's son Colin, would become British winners, no one could match the record of the popular Scot.

With the exception of Billy Coleman, Irish drivers were overshadowed by the professionals until the link with the British Championship ended in the early Nineties and names like Bertie Fisher, Austin MacHale, Frank Meagher, Andrew Nesbitt, Stephen Finlay, Derek McGarrity and Eugene Donnelly seized the opportunity to join the list of Circuit winners.

But the rally was in decline, shortened to just a fraction of the mileage it had once enjoyed, and with dwindling entry lists, it was in danger of dropping off the calendar completely until rally-mad businessman and former co-driver Bobby Willis took control from the Ulster Automobile Club and set about rebuilding it.

"Re-awakening the sleeping giant" was his mission he said.

He raised it to Intercontinental Challenge status and secured a place in the European Championship, bringing factory-supported teams back along with budding stars like Hanninen, Andreas Mikkelsen, Esapekka Lappi, who became the third Finnish winner, and Ireland's Craig Breen, all destined for World Championship careers.

And it was the World Championship Willis had his sights on only for his ambitions to be stymied by the demise of Stormont and the absence of local politicians who could make crucial funding decisions.

An eternal optimist, he still thinks it is possible we could see the WRC circus setting up camp in Belfast one day but even then the halcyon days of trekking to Killarney will never be repeated. They will remain glorious but distant memories.

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