1980 Ulster Rally – Autosport

Photo: Colin Taylor
Dessie McCartney came back in style to win in his new car. Brian Russell was alongside in the co-driver seat.

Still the Chevette

This report is reproduced from Autosport magazine – 28 August 1980

McCartney back to win after five years – Campbell’s G1 for Opel – McRae leads but fails to finish Ulster Rally 


Vauxhall Chevettes still dominate Irish tarmac rallying, despite the fact that pre-event favourite Jimmy McRae failed to finish the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally at the weekend. The rally was won, after a long hard fight, by Dessie McCartney driving his newly acquired Chevette HSR; the car which McRae had, earlier in the year, taken to victory on the Circuit of Ireland and Donegal events. Vauxhall Chevettes have now won all four of the rounds of the Henley Hanley Tarmac rally championship, three wins going to McRae and one to McCartney. There are two rounds of the series still to run.

Second place on the Ulster was taken by Derek Boyd in his fuel-injected Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, and indeed, Boyd was the rally leader from just after the rest halt until four stages from the end. Running as a privateer, Boyd was forced into one stage on the wrong tyres, suffered a puncture, and McCartney was through to take victory. Third place went to Robin Lyons in a Sunbeam and Cahal Curley was fourth in his Escort after collecting road penalties. The Group I category was won by Sean Campbell driving his new Opel Ascona 2000.

The Ulster Rally is still an international event, although it is no longer a round of the Sedan Open championship and consequently attracts little interest outside the Tarmac competitors. Nevertheless, this year’s rally was well run with a good concentration of competitive mileage and 28 tests making up the 280 miles of special stage. The total length of the rally was some 430 miles.

Positions in the Tarmac series remain relatively unchanged with McRae still leading and Ger Buckley still second.

When competitors gathered at the start of the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally in Craigavon on Friday, they could have been forgiven for thinking that this was going to be a one horse race. Jimmy McRae’s record on tarmac this year is such that it is hard to imagine anybody beating him and, of the other entrants, only Dessie McCartney, Cahal Curley and Derek Boyd would seem to be in with a chance. Entries from the English side of the Irish Sea were thin on the ground and, with Bertie Fisher and Ian Cathcart both opting not to start (but running as ’00’ drivers) the Ulster did not look set to be a classic event.    

The format of the rally had been changed slightly from previous years with a longer rest halt at midnight so that fewer of the stages were run in darkness. Nevertheless, the action still came thick and fast with 13 stages from Craigavon through to Lame and then a further 15 tests in a loop around Co. Antrim before returning to Larne for the finish. The rally confined itself to the north-eastern corner of Northern Ireland, running over just 24 hours with the start at 4pm on Friday, the finish at 3.30pm on Saturday and a rest halt of four hours in the middle.  

It was cold on Friday for the first stages to the west of Craigavon but Brendan Fagan warmed up quicker than most and slid out into an early lead which he extended over the first three tests. Fagan was driving his Chevette better than ever before but, inevitably, McRae started to go quicker and slowly began to haul him in. After six stages there was a slight breathing space with a regrouping control outside Dungannon and, as darkness fell, McRae made his move. He was 30secs quicker than anybody else over the seventh test and went into the lead.

The coming darkness caught several crews without spotlights fitted, Noel Smith suffering particularly badly from this problem and actually being caught on a stage. Ian Corkhill was an early retirement when his Escort engine lost its oil pressure but most of the others made it safely to the rest halt.  

McRae had a lead of just under a minute at Lame with Boyd, Fagan, McCartney and young Ken McMillen all going very well. McMillen had been with the first three for the daylight stages but then an accident (backwards into a bank at high speed) broke his driver’s seat and his times were erratic from that moment on. Curley had dropped back after Austin Frazer made an uncharacteristic error and lost four minutes on the road, a 40 second penaIty to the Derryman.

Derek Boyd led for much of the event but had to settle for second in the end.

The second part of the rally took crews north along the classic Antrim stages and it was here that the final acts of the event were played out. On Orra Lodge McRae had a ball-joint break in the front suspension of the Chevette and it flew off the road, landing undamaged but immovable in the bog. Just half a mile further up the road, Fagan made an uncharacteristic error and his rally too ended here, the two Chevettes parked forlornly within sight of each other.

Boyd inherited the lead with 21secs to spare over McCartney but Dessie was trying very hard and, as the rally moved into areas which he knew well, he  started to work away at the gap. With four stages to go he was through and it seemed as though Boyd’s challenge was spent. The Sunbeam driver made his crucial decision to stay on an old set of tyres, suffered a puncture and the rally was over. McCartney’s winning margin was just over 30secs.      

The Group 1 battle on the rally had been just as interesting as the overall fight, with a hard charging Austin McHale eventually succumbing to a number of mechanical problems and Sean Campbell coming back to the winner’s circle; Sean’s new Opel Ascona looked and went very well, his times bettering those of McHale on several stages. But the Escort driver was having more than his fair share of problems and he finished the rally with a split sump and a bent cross-member for his troubles.

Despite rather being left out in the cold by the rallying establishment, the Ulster Rally turned out to be a far better event than many people imagined and Dessie McCartney was a popular and worthy winner. Hopefully next year it will find a proper place in the rallying calendar.

General Classification: Hanley Henley Tarmac Championship Round 4 – Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally; 22-23 August 1980

  1. Dessie McCartney/Brian Russell (Vauxhall Chevette HSR), 181 29s;
  2. Derek Boyd/Roy Kernaghan (Talbot Sunbeam), 185m 10s;
  3. Robin Lyons/Ian MacFarland (Talbot Sunbeam), 187m 15s;
  4. Cahal Curley/Austin Fraser (Ford Escort RS), 188m 13s;
  5. Noel Smith/Ian Turkington (Porsche Carrera), 190m 03s;
  6. Ken McMillen/David Bole (Ford Escort), 190m 59s; 
  7. Sean CampbelI/John Horton (Opel Ascona 2000), 191m 32s: 
  8. Ken McKinstry/John McGaffin (Escort RS2000), 193m 05s; 
  9. James Tannahill/Wesley McMillan (Ford Escort RS2000), 194m 20s; 
  10. Austin McHale/John McGee (Escort RS2000), 194m 55s.