1978 Donegal International Rally

Tidy and safe at all times, Vatanen's drive was of text book regularity.

This report is reproduced from Motoring News 22 June 1978.

Reporter and photographer are unknown

High Velocity Vatanen

THE Sun has got his hat on and he‘s coming out to play. hip hip hip hooray! . . . is the obvious musical accompaniment to last weekend’s third round of the Tarmac Rally Championship, the Castrol/Donegal International Rally. The event was run in three single day-loops from Letterkenny last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Thursday was a drab damp day and Monday dawned to a steady drizzle but the period in between were perfect summer days and produced huge crowds to line the sun-baked tarmac special stages; the steady drone of busy insects and the hub-bub of thousands of cheerful and contented spectators broken at regular intervals by the adrenalin-exiting induction sound of BDAs and the rasp of Porsche Carreras.

It was a perfect setting for such a rally and the enthusiastic crowds were treated to three days of textbook tarmac driving from Ari Vatanen with the tarmac special, David Sutton prepared, Ford Escort RS1800: the Nomex face-masked Finn showing no outward sign of driver effort, the heat, or the fact that he had led the rally from the first to the last stage. He commented at the finish in his straight-to-the-point Finglish that there had been little in the way of threatening opposition. How right he was – as others flew off the road in vain pursuit, Vatanen was obviously in full command and driving much below his limit, reading the unpredictable Donegal stages perfectly and not inflicting a single scratch on the Escort’s deep black gloss. The Escorts of Ronnie McCartney and Mick O’Connell finished in second and third places, with the Chrysler Sunbeam of Derek McMahon a resounding fourth overall, breaking the Ford Escort domination.

A couple of wheels off the road was business as usual for John Lyons and Trevor Semple.

Escorts were to provide the bulk of the competition, principal among them being the Sutton car. originally driven by Gilbert Staepelaere for its maiden outing on the Galway International. It finished fourth on that rally well behind Galway winners John Taylor and Phil Short; Taylor along with Vatanen the obvious favourites before the start. Other less exotic RS1800s were driven by Bertie Fisher (with a hurriedly re-prepared AVJ engine); Mick and Anne O’Connell, English drivers Paul Windsor, Mike Jackson and Peter Thompson, Ernest Kidney, Huge O’Brien, Winston Henry, Fred Patterson, Ronnie McCartney and from Jersey, Norman Harvey.

Chief Porsche exponents were Brian Nelson, Derek Boyd, Ken Shields and Noel Smith while John Price brought his ex-McCartney car from Wales. Last year’s winner Billy Coleman was once again driving the Chequered flag Lancia Stratos, the car with a fresh engine and new suspension.

Group two Chrysler Sunbeams were to provide quite a surprise with examples being driven by Donegal Club President Derek McMahon and Robert Ward. Rosemary Smith partnered by Pauline Gullick was back behind the wheel again (of a Sunbeam) and the obvious favourite to take the ladies prize.

With Cathal Curley, Achim Warmbold, Brian Nelson and Billy Coleman all previous victors, and not a Ford Escort amongst them, it was high time for a Ford win. Group one was also expected to be a Ford benefit. The question nobody wanted to ask out loud, but which everybody talked about furtively” was would the blond superstar Finn Vatanen keep the black Escort in one piece, or was he about to destroy the painstakingly prepared car?

Cool. aloof and incredibly quick, Vatanen streaked ahead on Friday’s first batch of sunny stages, the Donegal experts unable to do anything about it. Once a suitable buffer had been opened up Vatanen drove just as quickly as he needed to; a mature and thoroughly professional drive reminiscent of compatriot Hannu Mikkola‘s performances in Wales and Scotland.

Derek McMahon and Starrit Graham go flying on one of the many jumps on the rally. Funny how the car always seems to land on the driver’s side first!

One of the first to suffer in the chase was John Taylor who flipped his car on the second stage, losing half a minute but retaining third place behind Bertie Fisher. Billy Coleman was starting steadily with the Stratos while Robert Ward was in a spectacular fifth place, on only his second event with the Sunbeam and he seemed little affected by a rough running engine only pulling cleanly between six and eight thousand rpm. The Porsches of Brian Nelson and Derek Boyd were in sixth and seventh places, unable to use their top-end performance on the twisty northern headland stages of the first loop. Nelson had also punctured on the third stage, Horn Head, and was still suffering the after-effects of a severe bout of ‘flu which had forced him to bed during the week prior to the event.

Noel Smith’s Carrera was brought to a mechanical halt on stage two, while Peter Thompson had only a handbrake and was to retire on the second day with a broken axle. In Group one, Castlederg bank official John Lyons was already showing strongly in the top ten with his Fred Patterson backed RS2000, a car jointly owned with Derek Porter (also driving on the event with their old car). John has only been driving the RS2000 on tarmac rallies for little more than a year, but he is obviously a most adaptable driver, a former autotest champion who took up rallying four years ago.

At the end of the first loop of twelve stages, Ari Vatanen returned to Letterkenny 52s ahead of Bertie Fisher with John Taylor in third place, Coleman and Nelson tying in fourth, Robert Ward sixth, John Lyons Group one leader seventh, with Derek McMahon, Ronnie McCartney and Ernest Kidney completing the top ten. Vatanen’s drive had been uneventful save for a bent prop shaft and a temporary gear selection problem which had cost a few seconds. Of the favourites, Derek Boyd, ran o.t.l. after a driveshaft failure on the eighth stage. Two stages of the loop had been scrubbed due to accidents, the most serious being a nasty roll suffered by the Patrick Murphy (Dublin) Ford Fiesta. His car left the road at a caution-boarded bend and was all but destroyed. the crew luckily able to walk

Saturday’s run was to the south of Letterkenny using inland stages of a faster nature and including the longest of the event – the 23.7 miles of Letterbarra. It was here that Vatanen came closest to showing any emotion, describing it succinctly: “Good stage, good stage!” But he was not quickest. That honour went to Bertie Fisher by just two seconds, despite a time-consuming spin at a hairpin; John Taylor recorded third fastest. and he had worked hard, a loose steering rack putting the car “all over the place“. Unluckiest was Robert Ward who collected a puncture deep in the stage and lost more than four minutes changing the wheel. Soon after, on Rossbeg he rolled the Sunbeam out of the rally.  Rossbeg also cost Ronnie McCartney 30s and saw the retirement of Brian Nelson, his Tuca Tiles Porsche breaking a rear hub for which his spares were “at home” as the part is usually completely reliable.

Friday had been a quiet day compared to this. Spectators too were on the increase and by Sunday they were to reach problem-proportions. When the cars once more returned to the now-seething Ballyraine Hotel in Letterkenny, Vatanen was inevitably out in front. at this time by more than two and a half minutes. Bertie Fisher was still chasing hard in second place with Billy Coleman third, Ronnie McCartney now fourth and – still upsetting the traditional pattern — John Lyons was holding fifth place with his RS2000 and proving to be the star of the show with his exhibition of driving, the Escort stotting down the stages two-wheeling with abandon.

A stage cancelled on this loop was the 9.7 miles of Graffy Hill. This time the accident was not to a competitor but to the stage timekeeper who met a spectators car head-on. The stage was run successfully the second time around. It was proof enough that rally watchers were getting to places they shouldn’t have been and it was by no means the last of the problem.  Rossbeg was a stage some would rather forget, especially John Taylor who, with a new rack fitted and battling against gearbox problems, rolled the Haynes Escort for the second time, this time into retirement.

Both Vincent Bonner (Vauxhall Magnum) and Ernest Kidney suffered punctures here, Kidney stopping on the stage to change the wheel. Capping their problems, both drivers then contrived to have punctures on their second runs through. In Group one Sean Campbell (RS2000) was now ahead of Robin Lyons’ Avenger, but in tenth position he could only wait for John Lyons to hit trouble.  Lyons obliged on the final Sunday run.  With just three stages to go, Lyons had the mother and father of rolls, his car beginning to weave down a long straight making him suspect a puncture.  It was confirmed at the next corner when the Escort hit the scenery and rolled down the track, Lyons counting seven loops.  Miraculously though there was not a single panel or piece of glass intact, all four wheels were where they should have been and pointing in the right direction.  The time lost cost him the group one lead to Campbell.

Ronnie McCartney and Derek Smyth worked hard all weekend and their consistency and reliability paid off with second place overall.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Lyons, all in true Boys Own storybook fashion, set about reeling in Campbell. He arrived at the penultimate stage 18s adrift. Over the 16.8 miles of Kinnad, (shortened by a half-mile after the finish was re-sited to avoid the congestion of spectators), Lyons drove his four-wheeled wreck in magnificent style, fighting it every inch of the way and flashed through the finish line back in command of Group one – 26 seconds faster than Campbell.  To he fair, Sean Campbell had passed the battered car earlier as it lay in the bank and had assumed it would go no further.  Seeing the extent of the damage he was also somewhat unsettled and had just hoped the crew were unharmed.  He certainly hadn’t expected Lyons to have continued.

The attrition continued with Coleman retiring the Flag Stratos minus one rear corner, while Fisher’s impressive run (his car’s reliability has not often allowed him to complete so much of an event) came to an end on Doon 1, resting for the second time that day against the scenery.  More than half on the 140 entry had retired b} the time Letterkenny was reached for the last time, many of them with bent bodywork.  The stage roads had noticeably suffered during the third day of relentless sunshine, tar softening and becoming molten allowing loose stones to appear through the surface, the force of fat racing rubber tearing chunks away to produce unexpectedly skittery corners. But the worst trouble came from spectators who were now well “into” a weekend of sun and liberal refreshment in the Irish style. People were lying around the side of the track feeling quite immune to the ten-tenths motoring passing by, it was more like Finland or Portugal.

Almost inevitably they became quite out of control on the daunting Knockalla coast road and were even parking their cars down both sides of the actual stage. The obvious happened with a competitor bouncing off a parked car, while another late runner came off at a hairpin and assaulted a concrete barrier, a spectator being grabbed out of the way quickly and avoiding sustaining an injury. Impervious to pleas from the organisers, it was wisely decided to cancel the second run, the cars being sent through at a slow pace. But the spectators were not through yet and alter Knockalla they made a beeline for the final stage causing the rally to run late and, again, they had made their own trouble when the final stage had to be scrubbed when the road closure order expired.

Ari Vatanen and Peter Bryant won the Castrol Donegal rally, leading from the first special stage, and making it look easy.

If they had come to watch Vatanen they should have been impressed, the slippery nature of the roads on the final day bringing out the best of Ari’s flamboyant style: the Finn sliding the black Escort to ever greater degrees leaving thick black tyre marks as the lasting evidence of his progress through the lanes and highways of Donegal.

Virtually the entire population of Donegal celebrated with Ari Vatanen, Peter Bryant and David Sutton on Sunday evening in Letterkenny. Vatanen had driven a superb rally and had still given the impression that it had almost been too easy. He had been driving “blind” where most of his rivals had a good impression of the road (some – very well mentally noted) and it was only his second such tarmac event.  None of the old, wilder, Vatanen showed; only the cool precision of a professional.  Commiserations to Rosemary Smith and Pauline Gullick who had the Ladies Prize well sewn-up when their Sunbeam blew its engine on the final stage, perhaps making up for Sandy Lawson’s similar fate on the Circuit?


Clerk of the Course Jim Callaghan (predictably referred to as the “PM”) and his men ran a superb and highly competitive event which this year included very effective computerised results from the Dublin based Nixdorf company who had installed a complete system in the headquarters hotel.  If the PM can figure out a way of taming the well-meaning but highly independent-minded spectator element, the rally can only receive greater benefit.

Castrol/Donegal Rally
Tarmac Rally Organisers Championship
Round Three

1. A. Vatanen/P. Bryant (Ford Escort RS1800) 228.36,
2. R. McCartney/D. Smyth (Ford Escort RS1800) 240.39,
3. M. O‘Connell/A. O’Connell (Ford Escort RS 1800) 242.13,
4. D. McMahon/S. Graham (Chrysler Sunbeam 1800) 242.35,
5. E. Kidney/N. Moffitt (Ford Escort RS1800) 243.35,
6. G. Buckley/J. Caplice (Ford Escort RS 1800) 243.59,
7. J. Lyons/T. Semple (Ford Escort RS2000) 247.11,
8. S. Campbell/D. Sandford (Ford Escort RS2000) 247.20,
9. R. Lyons/I. McFarland (Chrysler Avenger) 248.19,
10 N. Harvey/R. Jenkins (Ford Escort RS1800) 250.35.

Class 1:
1. T. Noble/K. Campbell (Fiat 3P) 279.36
2. G. McGarrity/D. Hackett (Honda Civic) 281.11

Class 2:
1. J. Boyce/S. McGettigan (Chrysler Avenger) 252.32
2. K. Irwin/G. Crawford (Chrysler Avenger) 256.52

Class 3:
1. J. Lyons/T. Semple (Ford Escort RS2000) 247.11
2. S. Campbell/D, Sandford (Ford Escort RS2000) 247.20

Class 4:
1. D. Carnegie/S. Mayer (Mini Clubman GT) 275.08
2. R. Kernaghan/M. Kernaghan (Mazda Hatchback) 277.02

Class 5:
1. D. Agnew/R. Harkness (VW Sirocco) 254.48
2. P. McCartan/P. Wright (Chrysler Sunbeam) 255.02

Class 6:
1. A. Vatanen/P. Bryant (Ford Escort RS1800) 228.36
2. R. McCartney/D. Smyth (Ford Escort RS1800) 240.39

Ladies Trophy:
1. S. Lawson/B. Clarke (Volvo 66) 280.19

Happy to be unhurt after such a massive accident, but coming across the finish ramp as Group One winners, John Lyons and Trevor Semple.