1977 Donegal International

This report is reproduced from RallySport Magazine – August 1977

Billy gives The Flag their second win.

FOR Graham Warner and his Chequered Flag team, the 1977 Donegal International was a dream come true. Warner’s second Lancia Stratos scored its first win, Billy Coleman won the only one of the Irish Internationals which had previously eluded him and former Clerk of the Course Austin Frazer, competing in the rally for the first time, also joined the elite band of those who have achieved a clean sweep of the Circuit, Galway, and Donegal.

For last year’s winners, Brian Nelson and Malcolm Neill, there was heartbreak when the Tuca Tiles Carrera jammed in second gear during the second day, but at least they had the satisfaction of proving that they were the fastest crew in the rally, building up a lead of over two minutes on the first day, losing three when their throttle linkage came asunder, yet making this back and retiring from the lead during Saturday afternoon.

Brian Nelson and Malcolm Neil would be out of luck this year and a repeat of last year’s win was not on the cards.

This year, Donegal was a totally different beast from before — a new format was forced on the organisers by the RlAC’s decision not to allow route notes in any Irish rallies; the rally wasn’t a round of either the European Rally Championship or the Castrol/Autosport series; and the organisers themselves were new, relatively inexperienced, yet coped admirably with the problems of running an international rally. There were some points which could have been improved, but all credit to Liam Ormsby and Jerry Drumm for a job well done.

The top of the entry list looked healthy, with pride of place going to the David Sutton entered Escort RS1800 of Roger Clark and Jim Porter — the RAC and Galway winning car, fresh from the Acropolis. The Coleman/Frazer Stratos was next, with last year’s winners Nelson and Neill at three in the Porsche, converted to right-hand drive since the Circuit. Nelson said that they had also applied some different thinking to the car’s suspension settings and certainly the combination of these two factors was to have a dramatic effect on the car’s competitiveness. Dessie McCartney and twice winner Terry Harryman were at four in the Team PR Reilly 3-litre ex-Curley Porsche, hoping for an improvement in fortune, while the man himself – three times winner Cahal Curley — came out of retirement for this one rally to drive friend Phil Coulter’s standard 2.7 Carrera, with Drexel Gillespie riding shotgun.

Group One looked like being just as hotly contested as the overall lead, Dessie Nutt’s Frank Long Supermarkets Magnum top seed here at 16, while Bertie Fisher’s Lindsay Cars RS2000 was two spots behind. Local hero, club President, and one of the driving forces behind the rally – just some of the things Derek McMahon was called during the weekend — was at 23 in his 2-litre Avenger Series 7, with John Coyne’s similar car, fresh from his Circuit of Munster win, close behind. Add to this lot the RS2000 of late entry and last year’s Gp1 victor Henri Inurrieta, and you have some idea of the struggle which was promised.

Roger Clark and Jim Porter were out of luck with a blown head gasket but put a 00 number on the door and acted as sweeper on Sunday.

There were no major dramas at scrutiny, which was optional on Thursday afternoon, with due times on Friday morning for those not already through. However, in keeping with the total secrecy of the route, road books and servicing information were not issued until Friday.

The first day’s stages were all in the Fanad peninsula, ten in all and right from the first stage, it was obvious that there were two completely separate rallies in progress — one with 126 entries, and one with a single car, the Tuca Tiles Porsche Carrera. It’s a long time since one driver achieved such domination of an Irish rally and for the first eight stages, Brian Nelson was unbeaten. Oh yes, that Englishman in the Escort did equal him on Trusk, but the gap from first to second place with just two stages left was a cool hundred and twenty-four seconds! But, on Carran 2, Nelson’s throttle set-up broke, costing just over three minutes, so the order was Clark-Coleman-McCartney-Nelson on Friday evening.

However, back to the opening stages again, to find troubles in profusion for some people. John Price’s Simca Rallye 2 ran out of brakes on the opening stage and went over fifteen minutes lateness, while the David Sutton entered Gp1 RS2000 of David Robbins broke its anti-roll bar, then took a dive over a low wall while limping to the end of the stage, finishing on the beach.

The Group One battle was just as fierce as expected, with one unexpected intruder – the Dolomite Sprint of Robert Ward, which after three stages was a second up on Big D, with Fisher another second in arrears, and Coyne and Inurrieta hot in pursuit.

Bertie Fisher was trying as hard as ever around the Ramelton Stage.

After the “big four”, Cahal Curley was proving best of the next group, and enjoying himself immensely, with Derek Boyd, Sean Campbell, and the Martin Group Chevette of George Hill close behind him. However, the Derryman’s drive came to an end when he put the car on its side at Garrygort the second time around, damaging the rear suspension. Adrian Boyd had gone in his Alpine when the head gasket blew, and Ward’s Triumph didn’t last much longer, clutch failure putting him out.

The Chevette was plagued by punctures, getting two rear ones on Trust, while Noel Smith’s 3-litre Carrera had another retirement when the gearbox lost one of its ratios; although his Circuit of Munster misfire was still not cured. Trevor Noble’s Fiat 128 Coupe broke an engine mounting and was another casualty.

Friday’s final stage was a repeat of the very successful experiment first tried last year, the “Supersave Stamps” Ramelton round the houses spectacular, with immense crowds converging on this tiny village to see real street racing. And they weren’t disappointed, as its two-mile length seemed to whistle up a whole day’s worth of incidents as well as some real, on the limit, driving. Dessie McCartney was best, by a second from Clark, but the first hero for the crowd was Derek Boyd, who spun the Carrera, ended up facing backwards, selected reverse and used his autotest experience for a nice front throw — the spectators loved it, and showed their appreciation in no uncertain manner. Then, along came Dessie Nutt, who proceeded to roll the Magnum in front of their very eyes — not very clever at all. Next star was their own Big Derek, who went just a little wide exiting a right-hander and tried his best to demolish the village pump — he only partly did the job, but enough to start a gusher of water across the road. For Peter Thompson, problems of a different type. His fuel pump packed up, and it took all of ten minutes to trace and cure the fault.

And so, to the first night’s rest. Did I say rest? Never mind, I’m sure some people did. Saturday was the longest day, with seventeen stages. For Roger Clark, Jim Porter, David Sutton et al, it opened with a headache. Late on Friday, a blown head-gasket was diagnosed on the leader’s BDA engine, and plans were laid to try changing it at the lunch halt in Downings, where there was a service area and almost 90 minutes. However, fate had other ideas, and after the day’s first stage, POO 505R decided the time had come for a rest. The leader is gone — long live the leader . . . So, Billy led Dessie, but guess who was closing fast, and out for vengeance? Mr. Nelson, I presume — the green and white Porsche started the day 33 seconds behind McCartney, and seven stages later, at lunch, was 35 seconds in front, and just seven behind the Stratos, which had already suffered its familiar complaint of jamming in gear, this time in fourth.

The second group of leaders were hard at it too, as Boyd, Campbell and Lindsay were only ten seconds apart on Friday night and now, half a day later, twenty-three seconds covered them – stirring stuff indeed. McMahon and Fisher were locked in mortal combat, four seconds apart, and now eighth and ninth overall. George Hill’s rally was over, with a broken distributor drive on a road section, John Gilleece put his RS2000 off, while Robert Craigie’s 128 Coupe had an engine mount break, just as Noble’s similar car had done the day before. Peter Little’s class-leading Clubman broke its crankshaft on Atlantic Drive, while news filtered through of a fairly serious off for John Kennedy’s Avenger. Luckily, co-driver Don Wilmot’s injuries were not as bad as first reports indicated, but the car was a sorry sight indeed.

Three stages after lunch, Brian Nelson retook the lead and it seemed to be only a matter of how great his winning margin would be. But lady luck was by no means finished yet for the weekend and on stage 22, Oldtown 2, his gearbox jammed in second, three miles from the stage finish. Last year’s winner was forced to retire after a tremendous drive, while leading by eight seconds. A wrong minute for Coleman put Dessie McCartney into the lead on paper, for a time, until the error was corrected, but at the end of a long day, Billy was in front, despite a misfire caused by stones clogging part of the carb intakes.

How many spectators does it take to lift an RS2000?

The day’s major hiccup on the organisation front came when stage 25 had to be cancelled. Part of this had been used earlier in the day, and spectators cars were parked on the road to be closed for the second run, making it difficult to clear. There was a misunderstanding between Liam Ormsby and the stage leader, and eventually it was decided to send cars through as a road section only. For Bertie Fisher, this was a blessing, as just yards into the stage, the Escort which by now had taken the Gp1 lead, broke a half-shaft. Another who had cause to be thankful was John Coyne, who had a shock absorber mounting break, also on the cancelled stage — definitely a conspiracy against Derek McMahon!!

Ramelton was again the day’s finale, and again Dessie showed his mastery of the village streets, to leave himself 39 seconds down entering the final day. The trio battling for third were still at it, with the pair of Porsches now sharing the same total, and Lindsay 21s behind. Then came a four-minute gap to David Agnew’s BMW, who was well clear of the Group One scrap, where Fisher led McMahon by half a minute now, while Coyne was threatening as Derek tired towards the end of the day.

David Agnew and Robert Harkness are watched by the highest spectators on the rally.

Sunday had all the ingredients of a “High Noon” showdown, and ‘Mr. Second Place’ McCartney opened well with fastest on the first three stages, to reduce the lead to 25s. Very impressive. But, Billy was now on the tyres he wanted and the car seemed to be running more cleanly. Suddenly, it is all over. McCartney slides off for 3 minutes on Cloghfin, and all the pressure is off. Then, on the following stage, Mullafin, “there was a bang and the engine stopped. Sounded expensive.” Exit the Team PR Reilly car, yet again, to keep Dessie’s miserable record for 1977 intact. With the heat off, Coleman slows noticeably, but who’s this in second place now? David Lindsay, fifth overnight, switches on and rockets past Campbell and Boyd, into the vacant runner-up spot, while Derek Boyd, who was first on the scene after McCartney’s off, lost almost two minutes thanks to spectators on the road. Coleman, Campbell and Lindsay found a way through, leaving Derek sad, but wiser about how to deal with crowds on the road.

For Lindsay it was only a brief moment of glory, as his engine went in a big way on stage 33, Glasly, promoting Sean Campbell to the ever-changing second place, by now well clear of Boyd. John McClean’s Porsche went tree climbing but continued with a very much non-standard front end. Derek McMahon, by now demoted to third in the category by a hard-charging John Coyne, and in imminent danger from Inurrieta, came through the Convoy headquarters with shrubbery hanging from both ends of the car. In the words of Plum Tyndall’s bulletin: “they fall like flies.”

Convoy, a sleepy village, came to life for the day as cars passed through no less than six times, with the same fixed service area in use all the time. Congestion was fairly high, as most of the access roads to Convoy were cut off by stages, so that spectator traffic mingled with various batches of rally cars trying to go in different directions at the same time. No enormous jams resulted but methinks that the whole show could very easily have ground to a halt if there had been just a few more cars in the area.

As in all Irish rallies, a series of 00 cars was in use, clearing the stages before the first competitor and the times coming in for 004 made one wonder what would have happened if he was competing, as they were quite respectable, and in one case, fastest overall. The car was an Escort, crewed by R. A. Clark and J. A. Porter, and they look destined for great things!! As the offending gasket had been replaced, it was decided to spend Sunday suspension testing, this being an opportunity to try various tarmac suspensions under rally conditions with nothing to lose if they weren’t right.

Everybody was on the limit in Ramelton.

With the end now in sight, we lost Norman Harvey’s Escort from the top ten, and Bertie Fisher began to wonder if he would ever see Ballyraine Hotel. Three stages left, and flames from the exhaust (the silencer vanished earlier) set the carpets alight twice in as many tests. A rear wheel bearing goes, oil gets on the brakes – change the half-shafts. Road time is now running out, on the last stage, another car is caught at a dust-covered hairpin — visibility is nil, a large rock jumps out in front of the Escort, damaging the rear quarter panel, but narrowly missing the wheel. And then, mercifully, the last minute panic is over and the now tatty Escort stays alive to win the class and take a great fifth overall.

For Billy Coleman and Austin Frazer, the Laurels of victory, by over two minutes from Sean Campbell and Paddy Speer. For everyone else, elation or despair, depending on whether one finished or retired. Donegal is over for another year — roll on next June.