1987 Donegal – Carsport

This report is reproduced from Carsport Magazine July 1987
Written by Sammy Hamill and Photos by Hugo McNiece, unless otherwise stated.


Two incidents, one of his own making and the other in which he was only an interested spectator, turned Bertie Fisher into a Donegal International Rally winner — at last. It is almost 10 years ago that he first drove a car capable of winning this Formula Shell-backed event and, although he has been its leader on several occasions, this was victory sweet and decisive after all those abortive attempts.

Bertie was all smiles at the Letterkenny finish.

Grinning ear-to-ear at the finish in Letterkenny, the delighted Fisher admitted: “It has been a long apprenticeship but it was still worth waiting for, and I think I know the secret now…..I should retire more often!”
But there was no trick to his second international win. He did it from the front. Co-driven as always by the imperturbable Austin Frazer, and backed by the professionalism of the Meeke Motorsport team, Fisher’s Alumac/Shell supported Opel Manta 400 run like clockwork for the three days and his only real problem was the high rate of tyre wear on the opening batch of Saturday stages.

Fisher, in fact. never conceded the lead at any point in the rally, powering to the front on the first stage on Friday evening and then having the chance of victory in his lap on the second when Austin McHale got caught up in Billy Coleman’s dust. But all credit to Bertie, he grasped the opportunity with both hands and never gave McHale or anyone else half a chance from there to the finish.

Credit too, to John Connor who finished a fine second in the Phil Collins hired Manta with James McDaid making it an Opel 1-2-3 in third place ahead of an off-key Coleman in the Rothmans BMW M3. Vincent Bonner was fifth despite a four-minute puncture which dropped his Opel Ascona out of the battle with McDaid for third and in sixth place was . . . John Lyons. And he said he was only trying to win Group N in the Lancia Ireland 4×4 Delta!

John Lyons, in the showroom Lancia Delta, beat all the Group N teams and all but one of the Group A’s to finish 6th Overall. Photo by Rallyretro.com

Where would he have finished had ‘he really been trying? It was certainly another chapter in the Lyons folklore, the unlikely looking Lancia fairly dancing over the bumps as John waltzed away with Group N, beat everything in Group A except Coleman’s BMW and humbled all but a handful of Group B drivers.

But even if Coleman was a huge disappointment, not just to the thousands of spectators who crammed the Donegal roadsides but to the Prodrive team too, he still exerted a major influence on the rally. The four-time winner was running first on the road in the short Friday evening prologue section.

Billy Coleman, partnered by Ronan Morgan, cuts across the grass to ease his way around the hairpin bend. He would have to be happy with 4th place overall this time.

He was only sixth fastest on the first stage but on the second, an 11-miler, he was caught by the Formula Shell-backed Dealer Opel Team Ireland Manta of McHale and Christy Farrell after only four miles. But in the still-dry conditions, dust from the wheels of the M3 hung over the road, blinding McHale to such an extent that he didn’t dare risk a passing attempt. Instead, he had to eat Coleman’s dust for seven miles as Fisher, starting 30 seconds behind, closed on both of them.

Coleman’s time for the stage was 9 mins 49 sec; McHale’s was 9.30 but Fisher was on 9.05. increasing his three-second first stage lead to 28 seconds. It was the kind of gift Bertie had no intention of discarding.

Throughout the second day. the real meat of the rally, McHale came charging back but at the end of it all the gap was 38 seconds — the same as it had been on the night before, plus 10 seconds of road penalties McHale had picked up when the Manta’s seat broke and he had to make running repairs between stages. In other words, they had been exactly equal over the 14 Saturday stages.

McHale knew it was important to strike a psychological blow early on the last day or his chances would be gone for good. Equally, Fisher was aware that he could kill off the challenge with a quick time on the first stage. The battleground was Atlantic Drive. Fisher was first on the road and recorded 6min 55 secs. in a stunningly quick trip over the seven miles of one of the toughest stages in Ireland. He rolled slowly down from the finish towards the service area, watching for the black Manta to appear. McHale stormed into view, wrestling the Opel to its limit. The clock stopped at 6.58. Fisher had won round two – and with it, most people felt, the rally itself.

James McDaid and Rory Kennedy helped put three Opel cars ahead of Billy Coleman, bringing their Manta into third place Overall.

McHale, of course, was never going to give up and after the first loop of four Sunday stages. he had managed to narrow the gap to 34 seconds as Fisher concentrated on driving quickly. cleanly and, above all, safely.

Atlantic Drive started the second loop again and this time and as Fisher’s distinctive Shell decorated Manta swept down the hill, there was a long gap until the red Opel of Connor appeared. McHale was missing. He eventually came through five minutes late, the Manta having stopped in the stage when a fuel line pulled off.

But such had been the pace of the battle for the lead that the delay didn’t even cost him a place! However, the fight was over and there were only three stages for Fisher to coast through for his long-overdue victory. With nothing left to chase, McHale eased back; then, amazingly, Austin lost concentration on the last stage and on roads that were now wet and extremely slippery, he smashed through a wall, severely damaging the Manta.

It was a sad end to a determined drive that had been dogged with misfortune from stage two.

John Connor and Starritt Graham were part of the Manta 1-2-3 by talking second place overall.

Downings publican Connor came home second, his finest Donegal finish, in a Collins Manta that had hardly missed a beat. He was some five minutes adrift of Fisher but that hardly mattered after a virtually copybook drive which was as impressive for its unflustered assurance as it was for its speed.

Equally important, it brought Connor the top Donegal driver title ahead of the hard-trying McDaid who up until two weeks before the rally was still saying he had retired! But he rubbed off the rust, overcame a few frustrating mechanical problems early on, which, unfortunately, let Connor get clear, and came charging through to a well-deserved third place.

Then there was Coleman – unhappy, off the pace and never able to exploit the potential of the sleek M3. Why? No one really seemed to know and even Prodrive boss Dave Richards appeared to be mystified. “Billy hasn’t really had a run in a rally car since last October and I accept that could be part of the problem”. But as for any other reasons, he just shrugged his shoulders.

Yes, the car was fine and even though it was Group A he had expected it to be competitive against the Mantas, pointing out that the M3 had been over a second a mile quicker than a Group B Porsche 911 in testing — and Coleman had won Donegal in a Porsche! Richards was as baffled as the rest of us.

Bonner, the 1983 winner, had been in the thick of the duel for third place and the best of the bunch from Donegal battle until his Ascona punctured a wheel on the third run over Kindrum. He decided it was best to stop and change the wheel and dropped four minutes even though there was assistance from some spectators, one of whom kindly tightened up the wheel nuts.

The ever-popular past-winner, Vincent Bonner, had a series of tyre dramas but still took fifth place.

At the end of the stage, Vincie acquired a tyre of the right width for the rear of the Ascona but could they get the original off? They could not. The helpful spectator had obviously been taking body-building lessons and neither Bonner nor co-driver Seamus McGettigan could shift the wheel nuts. More time was lost dragging the ill-handling Ascona over Knockalla and back to service where the Meeke mechanics finally managed to release the wheel.

It put paid to Bonner’s challenge but he still came home fifth, making it three Donegal men in the top five — and three Meeke-prepared cars there as well.

Lyons rounded off the top six with another of those awe-inspiring performances. He made joint 10th on Friday night and after that was never off the leaderboard. One stage perhaps summarises the whole Lyons-Lancia effort. On the first run over the Marble Hill stage on Sunday he was third fastest — quicker even than Coleman’s BMW — and only seven seconds slower than Fisher! That’s Group N motoring.

James Cullen and Ellen Morgan dragged their badly damaged Honda through the stages.

But this rally had many heroes. Like James Cullen, Stephen Emerson, Charlie and Eugene Donnelly, John Gilleece, Eamonn McAleenan, Gerry McVeigh, John Kelly, Mike Barrable, Robin Lyons, Ian Calvin and, especially, Pat Kirk.

They were all in the top 10 at one stage or another, some making it to the finish, others falling out after superb efforts.

Cullen somersaulted the little Honda Civic early on the second day, and even though it was a rolling ball of scrap metal — and he and co-driver Ellen Morgan were badly shaken in the accident — James kept right on going, eventually finishing up in 14th place.

Dungannon’s Gerry McVeigh and Manus McKenna put in a great performance to finish 8th Overall.

Emerson was as high as fifth at one point then his troubles started with the Nissan breaking a fuel line, a driveshaft and doing a roll which ended up back on its four wheels, whereupon Stephen slipped it into first gear and carried on. However, all the problems dropped him right out of contention.

Both the Donnelly brothers were in the top 10 at different times, Charlie slipping off the road on Kindrum with almost no damage to the car but, without spectator assistance, he couldn’t get the Escort mobile again. Eugene then climbed into the top 10 only for his Escort to break its gearbox.

Gilleece looked like repeating his top-six finish of last year until his Chevette blew its engine and McAleenan was hanging on at the back of the top 10 until the Escort started to overheat, probably as a result of a stone holing the radiator earlier as he overtook another car in a stage.

Armagh’s Kieran McAnallen in another Opel Manta, sponsored by ALUMAC.

Pat Kirk suffered a ‘driver error’ problem on Friday night which left him down in 20th place but then he came rocketing back through the field and had established himself in sixth place when the Nissan broke its back axle on the second run over Atlantic Drive, just three stages from the finish.

John Kelly’s G3 Escort was up to eighth by mid-day on Saturday but then gearbox and back axle problems intervened and he gradually drifted out of contention.

And the result of all this was top 10 finishes for Barrable in the ex-McHale Manta, Lyons was second in Group A behind Coleman in the 1600cc Peugeot 205GTI, McVeigh, who again demonstrated his potential with an impressive drive in the Lotus Sunbeam, and Calvin with the venerable Ascona – which make it six Opels in the top 10.

However, this rally belonged to Fisher. He took control and resisted all attempts to prise the lead away with a perfectly judged tactical performance. It was only fitting that his first words at the finish were for Matt Doherty and the organising team.

Clerk of the Course was Matt Doherty, setting new standards in Donegal for Rally Safety.

It was Doherty who brought Fisher back into the fold a year ago by persuading him to take on the role of safety officer in Donegal and what Bertie saw then had an enormous influence in helping him to overcome the traumas of that much-publicised Galway near-miss. In Donegal, he saw that rallies could be run safely and it was there that his come-back started.

Twelve months on he is an International winner again and even if he says it is “just for fun now”, having Bertie back is a bonus we should all be grateful for.

1987 Formula Shell Donegal Rally – General Classification:

  1. Bertie Fisher and Austin Frazer (Opel Manta) 2.45.37
  2. John Connor and Starritt Graham (Opel Manta) 2.51.53
  3. James McDaid and Rory Kennedy (Opel Manta) 2.54.03
  4. Billy Coleman and Ronan Morgan (BMW M3) 2.54.51
  5. Vincent Bonner & Seamus McGettigan (Opel Ascona} 2.55.36
  6. John Lyons and Derek Porter (Lancia Delta) 2.57.59.
  7. Mike Barrable and Dermot O’Rourke (Opel Manta) 3.00.14
  8. Gerry McVeigh and Manus McKenna (Lotus Sunbeam) 3.02.56
  9. Robin Lyons and Noel Harvey (Peugeot 205 GTi) 3.03.26
  10. Ian Calvin and Uel Calvin (Opel Ascona) 3.04.49