1978 Circuit of Ireland

Russell Brookes and John Brown carrying damage from their incident on the first special stage.

This article is reproduced from MOTOR Magazine 8th April 1978

Despite crashing on the first stage, Russell Brookes won the Benson and Hedges Circuit of Ireland Rally for the 2nd year running. Chevette-mounted Jimmy McRae came 2nd and Brian Culcheth continued Opel’s Group 1 domination.

Report by David Hardcastle
Photographs by Colin Taylor Productions and others as noted.

THE HIGHEST quality entry ever to grace Ireland’s premier motorsport event assembled at Bangor, County Down, on March 24. Between the 100 starters and the £7,500 prize fund lay 1,400 miles, 550 of them on closed public road stages, many of which were destined to be streaming wet.

Although Russell Brookes started at number one as last year’s winner in the Andrews Heat-sponsored factory Escort, Pentti Airikkala and DTV’s 2.3 Chevette at number two led both driver and manufacturers’ sections of the Sedan RAC Championship after their Mintex victory.

At three was the immaculate blue and white Fiat 131 of Markku Alen, extensively rebuilt in Italy after its round 1 retirement with a damaged front end. At 220 bhp the car was giving away at least 15 bhp to the two British favourites, and it was felt that the Fiat’s greater width may be a severe disadvantage on the ultra-narrow roads.

Marku Alen was shocked by how tough the Circuit of Ireland was, and reckoned it should have been a World Championship event rather than European. Photo D. Smyth.

Hannu Mikkola started at four in his Castrol Escort which he hoped might break his latest run of mechanical failures in Boreham cars. But the leprechauns weren’t favouring Finns this year and Hannu lasted only a handful of stages before going off and then bursting his transmission. Always a favourite in Ireland, Roger Clark had the Allied Polymer-Esso Escort at five, fitted, like all its stablemates, with Kugelfischer injection. Total’s tame Finn, Kyosti Hamalainen, was at 7th, his car, like Brookes’s, arriving on the morning of the start thanks to a ferry dispute at Stranraer which caused over-loading at Liverpool. The Chequered Flag team touched things even finer and got their Stratos to Larne in the back of a huge freezer truck. Money changed hands and the lorry driver was so pleased with the deal the team got a dozen frozen bananas to see them through the rally.

Behind Coleman in the Stratos, the next best seeded Irishman was Brian Nelson, his 280 bhp Tuca Tiles Porsche the most powerful car in the event. Following on came John Taylor (Escort), Tony Pond (TR7), Derek Boyd (Porsche), Ronnie McCartney (Escort), Jim McRae (Chevette), Graham Elsmore (Escort), and Dessie McCartney, seeded well down at 17 in Autofarm’s Carrera, registration number 911 SC.

Roger Clark was a crowd favourite and would finish in 4th place overall.
Photo D.Smyth.

Amid a huge holiday crowd, Brookes started the first stage near Monkstown in his usual storming style and went straight off on the first tight bend, courtesy of John Brown’s misreading of the map! The car hit a bank, tore out a tree by the roots and was lucky to be able to struggle on its way five minutes later with a puncture and badly bent front end. With a maximum penalty, Brookes effectively was last overall — but it took him only 15 more stages to gain the lead!

Dessie McCartney had taken fastest time on the first stage but halfway through the next, near Ballygally, marshals and spectators slowed him to a halt before a downhill 90 deg right. Most of the leaders had had dramas on a damp patch but Elsmore was the first to spin. His TI Escort came to rest with the front wheels on a bank lined with spectators on the inside of the corner. One teenage boy suffered a broken leg in the accident and three more people had shock and minor bruising. Although police at the scene called an ambulance, and quite rightly stopped the stage, they did little to clear the roads or calm the crowds, and summarily cancelled the following stage for no good reason. The bend in question was well marshalled, consistent with a heavy crowd, and a stewards’ inquiry later heard no criticism of officials.

Dessie McCartney takes it easy past the stranded Escort of Graham Elsmore.

On the fourth stage Alen, Mikkola, Nelson and Boyd were equal fastest, but McRae, sliding the Chevette dramatically but effectively, was only 2 sec down and already raising eyebrows. Pond’s TR7, looking good in its new red colour scheme with no Leyland lettering, was also using a lot of road but losing a lot of steam. A radiator split on the second stage and by the fifth he trundled to a permanent halt. Alen was fastest here again but by stage 6 Brookes had got back into his stride and reeled off a string of
eight fastest times.

After five stages the order was Alen, Boyd, McRae, Coleman and Airikkala, who appeared to be going well but somehow not quite fast enough. Culcheth made Group 1 as he was to do throughout in a masterly display of smooth driving, while Terry Kaby threw the Dolomite Sprint around grimly some 7 sec ahead of John Lyons’s Escort. John Taylor went missing with transmission failure and the usually steady Ken Shields crashed his Porsche.

By the seventh stage, the impossible had happened. Driving only his second rally in the Group 4 Chevette, Vauxhall’s No 2 driver Jim McRae was leading the rally 3 sec ahead of world star Alen and 45 sec ahead of Ireland’s favourite son, Billy Coleman. The quiet-spoken Lanark heating engineer confessed later that he was surprising even himself, despite having developed a “feel” for the place with 7th overall last year in a Group 1 Magnum. The battle with Alen continued into the night as the crowd-pleasing Airikkala surprisingly went off for a maximum and Coleman ruined his clutch attempting to get out of a field.

Ronnie McCartney and Derek Smyth drift past the bank where Brookes spent five minutes in the hedge. Photo by Les Ashe.

Ronnie McCartney was driving the Group 4 Escort with great aggression but uncharacteristically overdid it on Friday night and went off the road, only a few hundred yards away from where his brother Dessie had stopped with a broken gearbox. The roads were streaming wet and stories of high adventure came thick and fast. Highest of all was that of Peter Thompson whose Escort came to rest on top of a wall.

“Twenty men appeared from nowhere in the pouring rain and lifted us back on to the road,” reported co-driver Frank Main. “Unfortunately they put us back facing the wrong way! There was no room to turn, but it’s amazing how fast you can go in reverse when another car is coming . . .” Hamalainen had no such fun, his well-used Peter Clarke Escort merely trickling to a halt with suspected battery failure.

It was McRae, Alen and Brookes in that order at the Galway breakfast halt, separated by only 1.5 minutes with Clark a full three minutes behind the trio. Airikkala had pulled up to 7th behind Elsmore and in Group 1 Kaby was just over a minute behind Culcheth. Six stages in daylight took the cars down through Clare and Limerick towards Killarney, McRae, Brookes and Airikkala sharing fastest times.

The Scotsman delighted the Press by hanging on to his lead for the overnight rest halt by just 15 sec from Brookes. The Chevette was obviously in great form, despite losing a rear side window, and the team was working well, despite the absence of their manager. Gerry Johnstone was said to be back at the ranch, supervising the building of Pentti’s Portugal car.

Nelson was delighted at his discovery of A2s during the night but a spate of five punctures later in the rally was to dampen the enthusiasm and lose him two places overall.

Brian Nelson enjoyed the A2 tyres until he started picking up punctures later on the event. Photo D. Smyth.

Adrian Boyd had forsaken more powerful machinery for Group 1 but was having problems with the smart Dolomite Sprint, avoiding exclusion by only 3 sec after changing the clutch master cylinder. A dropped valve was to end his rally on the homeward run. Down in the classes Sandy Lawson was the surprised leader of the small Group 2 brigade, her little Volvo automatic over a minute ahead of Tom Lawther’s troubled Mini and light years in the lead for the Ladies’ award. Gerry McGarrity’s Honda Civic led the small Group 1 class but was to retire after only one Sunday stage.

The weather again proved uncooperative and this famous section of the circuit had little of the carnival atmosphere of previous years. Some drivers felt it was too short and too easy with erratic spectator parking, a big hazard to the passage of the convoy. Certainly the boy-racer’s Escort parked through a wall on the first stage Moll’s Gap made no difference to Brookes’s time. On what is effectively the main road from Killarney to Kenmare, he took an incredible 22 sec off everyone, and almost wiped out McRae’s lead.

A damaged nose didn’t hold Russell Brookes back, and having fallen to last place on the first stage, was back at the top of the leaderboard within 15 special stages.

Five stages later Brookes had overtaken the Vauxhall to lead by 37 sec in a typical piece of tigering, and the policy now was to outrun everyone to the finish. But even before the Chevette had been overtaken there was considerable discussion about the tyres supplied by Dunlop to the two top teams. Airikkala was reported to be especially unhappy with the lack of traction and it was clear that the Chevette just did not have the rear end grip of the Escorts. The wet racers were ostensibly the same but the men from DTV were certain their Dunlops were inferior.

By contrast, in the Fiat camp, Alen used 70 Pirellis during the rally and over 100 wheel changes were made. His exhaust twice needed major welding and towards the end of the Sunday run he lost 2nd and 4th gears necessitating a gearbox and clutch change before the return to Killamey.

Jimmy McRae and Terry Harryman had to take it easy towards the finish to protect a failing engine but held on just fine to finish in second place.

“This rally is too bloody long for European Championship,” he said at the finish. “Two days, not four, is enough for a rally at this level. This rally is long enough and hard enough to be World Championship.” His only other criticism was the lack of caution boards to mark places of particular danger. Only six were used throughout, and Alen felt some stages needed six themselves – though it’s fair to add that he only once bounced the Fiat
into the scenery.

After a first-night “off”, “When a bridge parapet moved”, Henry Inurrieta was going better in the well-used RS2000. He knew that he must take 2 sec a mile off Culcheth to win Group 1 and during Sunday actually started doing it. “Sadly he found out and put his foot down
again,” said the Spaniard.

Trafask Bridge, stage 32, was a news story in its own right. Brookes and McRae both went off at the same (uncautioned) place, happily briefly and with little damage, but Kaby was less fortunate. Out of line while jumping the Dolomite, the car hit a rock, arrived at the next bend with a front wheel puncture and slid off at the stage finish. Spectators refused to lift him out until he had changed the wheel but shortly the rack seized and he was out.

Derek Boyd was already on his way back to the bar, his Porsche having flown through an open gate into a very boggy field. An hour later the crew had turned it round and were attempting to barnstorm out through the mud when a late number arrived at all angles and
blocked the gate. There are times when one is forced to accept defeat . . .

Lyons was struggling along on three cylinders towards an excellent 11th overall in the Escort, while the Irish Group 1 white hope Sean Campbell drove very steadily to 10th place to finish the Circuit at his 7th attempt.

John Lyons and Derek Porter brought their RS2000 home in 11th place overall, just behind Sean Campbell. Photo D. Smyth.

Alen took the first fastest time out of Killarney but neither he nor McRae were willing or able to challenge Brookes. Both Brookes and Clark, now chasing Pentti for 4th place, changed their front tie rod rubbers which had chewed up when the bolts worked loose. “Now it handles like it should have done from stage one,” said Brookes brightly, and it was obvious whose name was on the winner’s cheque.

As dusk fell Clark’s traditional waiting game paid off — at least to the extent of one place. Airikkala’s engine blew without warning on a road section and ended a rally on which he never quite seemed to get in the groove. More disturbingly, a few hours later, McRae’s engine went off song with something which just could have been a dropped valve. The car was 2nd nearly three minutes ahead of Alen. Jim kept the revs down and the team prayed.

Noel Smith and Ian Turkington had a relatively trouble free run to 6th place overall.
Photo D. Smyth.

On the final run north, Inurrieta changed a starter solenoid, Lyons found his 4th cylinder and Brian Nelson dashed through a gate which had been “opened” by Brookes. McRae’s engine persevered and all the heroes made it back from the final test in Belfast’s Ormeau Park where a short stage was held for the benefit of four BBC cameras and 7,500 people. The heroines, however, did not. With just two road miles to go, in a traffic jam, Sandy Lawson’s Volvo, the ladies’ prize and a place in the top 30 all went bang. The Spirit of the Rally award never had a more obvious candidate.


  1. R. Brookes./J. Brown (Escort RS1800), 512m 48s;
  2. J. McRae/T. Harryman (Chevette 2.3), 517m 06s;
  3. M. Alen/I. Kivimaki (Fiat 131), 518m 42s;
  4. R. Clark/J. Porter (Escort RS1800), 519m 19s;
  5. G. Elsmore/S. Harrold (Escort RS1800), 530m 34s;
  6. N. Smith/I. Turkington (Porsche Carrera), 549m 17s;
  7. B. Culcheth/N. Wilson (Opel Kadett), 551m 03s;
  8. B. Nelson/M. Neill (Porsche Carrera), 551m 30s;
  9. H. Inurrieta/D. West (Escort RS2000l, 556m 38s;
  10. S. Campbell/D. Sandford (Escort RS2000), 558m 20s.