1979 Circuit of Ireland

This report is reproduced from Autosport Magazine.

Airikkala dominates the Circuit

With a truly sensational drive, Pentti Airikkala dominated the Benson and Hedges Circuit of Ireland, held over the weekend Pentti, co-driven by Risto Virtanen in their Castrol-DTV Vauxhall Chevette won the rally by almost eleven minutes, despite being delayed by back axle problems during the early stages of the event. The drive was made all the more remarkable by the bravery of co-driver Virtanen who was suffering from a broken rib from the very first stage. Heavy braking on that stage rebroke an old injury and Virtanen completed the rally in considerable pain but never once complained.

After early troubles, Pentti Airikkala was an easy winner of the Circuit of Ireland. Photo D.Smyth

Second place on the rally went to Billy Coleman and Frank O’Donoghue driving their Escort RS1800 and third place was inherited by Bertie Fisher and Austin Frazer in their Escort RS, after an incredible last night during which four of the leading runners retired. The Group 1 winner was John Lyons in his Escort RS2000 and the Group 2 winner was Dessie McCartney in his Chrysler Sunbeam.

As seems to be the rule rather than the exception with Irish rallies these days, strikes affected the event quite considerably. Firstly there was the long-running postal dispute in the Republic, which severely hampered communications and meant that no additional phone lines could be installed in rally headquarters in Killarney and then, secondly, there was the acute shortage of petrol in Ireland. This was caused by a combination of factors, the explosion earlier this year at Widdy Island; a strike by dockers and tug drivers which prevented tankers from docking; an apparent desire by the fuel companies and suppliers to hang on to current stocks with a major price rise in the offing.

Billy Coleman and Frank O’Donoghue made a slow start but over the weekend recovered to take second place overall. Photo D.Smyth.

The Circuit organisers, the Ulster Automobile Club, had been given assurances that there would be petrol available for the Rally and so pressed ahead with their original route. As it was, the rally arrived in Galway in the early hours of Saturday morning, having passed through three empty fuel halts, and desperately low on supplies. The nearest stocks were a further 40 miles South and so all the stages from Galway to Killarney were cancelled and the rally ran straight down to the Killarney area where petrol was more plentiful.

One problem which the club didn’t suffer from was a shortage of entries. The only non-runners of note were Ari Vatanen with his injured back and the Cork crew of Mick and Anne O’Connell. In all, some 126 cars left the start of the event, a healthy reflection of the stature of the Circuit. The rally is a round of the European Rally Championship, coefficient 3, but the only driver who could claim to be interested was Billy Coleman who would certainly have been doing the event in any case.

Of particular interest at the start was the new Chrysler Sunbeam, being given its first homologated outing on an International rally by Tony Pond. The car had shown itself to be particularly quick on test outings and was considered by many to be a favourite if it held together. Other fancied runners included Russell Brookes – winner for the last two years – Per Eklund in the Triumph TR7 and Pentti Airikkala in the Chevette. There were question marks hanging over the performance of two of the Group 2 cars, Stig Blomquist’s new Saab Turbo and Roger Clark’s 1600cc Fiesta. Would Blomquist’s car be fast enough for outright placings”? Would Ford get more time to put development miles into their front-wheel-drive baby?

Tony Pond was in the newly-homologated Sunbeam but fell foul of an enormous jump, just as Brookes would do, destroying the suspension and the shell. Photo D.Smyth.

The Circuit of Ireland is an extremely long rally. As originally planned this year’s event would have contained just over 600 stage miles which means that a driver must pace himself correctly from the start. Alter the first half dozen stages there were several people who must have wished that they had taken things a little bit easier from the start. The rally lost two favourites on one jump on one stage.

The seventh special stage was 14 miles long. Just alter the 12 mile mark there was an enormous jump on which there was no caution board. Most drivers claimed to have seen the jump, which was one of a series, in plenty of time but both Russell Brookes and Tony Pond must have taken it absolutely flat out because both the Escort and the Sunbeam destroyed themselves on landing. Brookes’ Escort lost its back axle, destroyed its front suspension and ended up banana-shaped, while Pond’s Sunbeam ended up with a twisted shell, broken suspension and a broken wheel. Both cars are almost certainly write-offs.

As if the loss of these two drivers was not enough, those first six stages already claimed several others. Tim Brise, partnered for this event by local co-driver Derek Smyth, rolled his Kadett on stage 3; Adrian Boyd retired his Dolomite Sprint on stage 2 with engine failure; his Brother Derek had clipped a rock with the front of the Chequered Flag TR7 and broken the steering on stage 6; and Roger Clark had retired the Fiesta after stage 5 when a camshaft lobe wore away. The top end of the field was already starting to look a little bit thin.

Ernest Kidney would only get as far as SS5 when a nasty accident would result in several spectators being injured. Photo D.Smyth.

Stage 5 was also the scene of a particularly nasty accident involving Ernest Kidney’s Escort and a group of spectators. Towards the end of the stage there was a fast downhill section with a fast left bend at the bottom. Kidney’s Escort failed to take the bend and hit the spectators, who were standing on the outside of the bend against the wall of a house. Five people were injured, one of them with head injuries and all of them with broken bones. It was yet another salutary and unfortunate warning of the dangers of standing in the wrong place on special stages.

Everybody was very closely matched in those first few stages but it was the young Malcolm Wilson who was quickest of all, leading as the rally crossed the border into the Republic, from Brian Nelson and Billy Coleman. Pentti Airikkala had started well but then lost time with a broken Panhard Rod mounting on the axle, a failure that had cost about two minutes in the stage and then means changing the whole axle. In the run down to Galway, he was to break two more mountings as he powered the car over the jumps, keeping both the DTV service crew and the BOC welding van very busy. Stig Blomquist was also in trouble, the Saab Turbo literally melting its brake pads and leaving him with very little braking by the end of a long stage.

The Group battles were as hot as ever with Trevor Cathers in his Avenger leading Group One as the rally crossed the border, and Dessie McCartney was at the head of Group Two.

Henri Toivonen was spectacular to watch, taking a wide line on the special stage near Dungannon. Photo D.Smyth.

Just over the border were some of the longest stages of the event with the 20 miles of Arigna Mountain as the ultimate test. Neither Henri Toivonen nor Timo Salonen made it that far, both retiring on the stage before, stage 9. For Toivonen, a broken input shaft to the gearbox meant the end of a rally in which he had hardly gotten into his stride, and Salonen clipped a rock with the front suspension of his Fiat and broke a bottom arm. The Fiat driver had been enjoying himself and was going well so the team decided to go on down to Killarney and compete on the “Sunday Run”, a decision they later regretted since Salonen rolled the Fiat on the second stage out of Killarney.

Friday night saw the rally heading for the West coast of Ireland and the testing stages of Conemarra. Coleman put on a spurt here and pulled himself up the field, helped by Malcolm Wilson stopping to change a punctured wheel on one stage and losing about four minutes in the process. Then John Taylor dropped out with a blown head gasket and the positions at an early breakfast in Galway showed that Pentti Airikkala had been going all out to make up for his earlier problem and had taken the lead. Behind him lay Billy Coleman, Brian Nelson and then Malcolm Wilson.

Stig Blomquist tales the Partry Mountain special stage just as the daylight disappears. Photo D.Smyth.

But, petrol was in short supply. A promised delivery of fuel to Galway hadn’t happened and the rally was in grave danger of grinding to a halt. Already some of the crews with limited service facilities had run out. The decision was made to stop that leg of the rally at Galway and to re-route down to Killarney where the situation would be assessed again. After meeting with the petrol suppliers in Kerry area, it was decided that the Sunday stages would go ahead as planned and each team was allocated a garage from which it could draw supplies. The rally was back on its feet again.

One might have thought that the petrol problem would have kept the spectators away but that was far from the case. Killarney was as packed as ever and the “Sunday Run” had the usual problem of blocked roads and mad enthusiasts. Bathed in glorious sunshine, the Ring of Kerry was outstandingly beautiful and the troubles of the previous night were soon forgotten as the rally got underway again.

There were few casualties during the Sunday stages but the first was Graham Elsmore who put his TR7 off the road on just the second stage. Neither he nor Per Eklund really seemed to be fully competitive with both cars lying in the lower part of the top ten. Noel Smith, who was lying tenth in his Porsche, retired when the oil pressure faded away, and Ronnie McCartney was sidelined when his Escort broke a drive-shaft on the stage around the island of Valentia.

Dessie McCartney and Peter Scott finished ahead of both Blomquist and Culcheth in the Group Two Category. Photo D.Smyth.

His Brother Dessie was still leading the Group Two category where a fierce battle was being waged between Brian Culcheth and Stig Blomquist. The Opel and Saab drivers finished the day neck-in-neck, but both being beaten by McCartney. The major excitement was in Group One which had developed into a straight fight between the two Escorts of John Lyons and Alan Carter, but then Carter rolled his car gently on one stage and more seriously three stages later. With the New Zealander out of the rally, Lyons was left with little opposition.

By the end of Sunday, Wilson was pulling time back again and the leader board now showed Airikkala with over three minutes in hand over Coleman and then Wilson in third place. Nelson was fourth and Jimmy McRae fifth, the Scotsman avoiding trouble but going almost as quickly as his team leader. In fact, the two Chevettes were the fastest cars over the Sunday stages.

John Lyons and Jimmy Davison claimed the Group One category in typical Lyons fashion. Photo D.Smyth.

It’s a terrible mistake to think that the last day and a half of the Circuit is quite simply a run back to the north. When you leave Killarney there are still some 150 miles of stages to go and the cars and drivers are tired. The positions may have looked settled but nothing was further from the truth.

Pentti Airikkala simply continued to power away. All the way through the run to the north he was consistently setting fastest times and there was nothing that Billy Coleman could do about it. Behind these two, all hell was let loose.

Billy Coleman and Frank O’Donoghue had a steady drive to second place. Photo Unknown.

Stage 40 was the start of the rot, just a couple of hours out of Killarney. Malcolm Wilson spun and put his car backwards off the road, losing only 15 seconds in the process. However, there was considerable underbody damage including bent spring hangers and, two stages later, the young Cumbrian was out of the rally with a broken drive-shaft. The chances are that the axle was bent in the relatively minor accident.

With Wilson out, the order looked more open but there was nobody around to take advantage. Jimmy McRae had lost time when an oil pipe broke in the middle of stage 42 and, although he got going again, he was very late on the road. When the clutch failed on stage 53, he ran out of time, a sad end to a well-judged drive.

Brian Nelson should have had third place locked up when Malcolm Wilson went out and McRae developed terminal oil problems. It wasn’t to be. Photo ECP.

Brian Nelson should have been firmly established in third place by now but he had gone off on stage 52 leaving a surprised and delighted Bertie Fisher with the place. Brian had his accident on a section of loose surface stage which caught most of the drivers by surprise and which was thoroughly unpopular — except that is with Saab. Blomqvist had finally got the Turbo’s brakes sorted out and was giving Dessie McCartney quite a hard time for the Group 2 award.

The rally crossed over into the north with the positions all shuffled around and most drivers just keen to see the finish in sight. Brian Culcheth’s Opel blew its head gasket but the team managed to get the car to the finish by topping the engine up at every stage – and then Per Eklund’s Triumph TR7 blew its engine on the penultimate stage. Three TR7s had started and none of them finished.

Per Eklund almost made it to the finish of the rally but the engine let go with just one more to do. Not a good event for the TR7 brigade. Photo D.Smyth.

Midst all the confusion Pentti Airikkala reigned supreme. He had never lessened his pace and thoroughly deserved his conclusive win. Coleman picked up some valuable points in his championship chase but had to admit that he had been firmly beaten.

General Classification:

  1. Pentti Airikkala/Risto Virtanen (Vauxhall Chevette) 509m 29s;
  2. Billy Coleman/Frank O’Donoghue (Escort RS1800) 520m 15s;
  3. Bertie Fisher/Austin Frazer (Escort RS1800) 522m 51s;
  4. Ger Buckley/John Caplice (Escort RS1800) 529m 06s;
  5. Dessie McCartney/Peter Scott (Chrysler Sunbeam) 537m 31s;
  6. Stig Blomquist/Hans Sylvan (Saab Turbo) 538m 23s;
  7. Brian Culcheth/Neil Wilson (Opel Kadett) 544m 48s;
  8. John Lyons/Jimmy Davison (Escort RS2000) 554m 41s;
  9. Jim Logan/Derek Ervine (Escort RS2000) 561m 57s;
  10. Trevor Cathers/B. Young (Chrysler Avenger GT) 571m 08s.
Ger Buckley and John Caplice squint into the Tuesday morning sunrise near Dungannon on the Sweathouse Stage. Fourth Overall was a great result for the Cork crew. Photo D.Smyth.