This report by Sammy Hamill is reproduced from the 1998 Circuit Programme.
The 1997 AA Circuit enjoyed one of the biggest and best entries for years. At the end of the three day challenge Bertie Fisher emerged the winner — a second time in quick succession since his 1995 win broke a long history of hard luck stories on the rally.
A year ago Bertie Fisher did everything right. drove the perfect rally, yet it still took some outside assistance to prevent his 1997 AA Circuit of Ireland ending in disaster. Donna Beattie and her father Donald heard air hissing from a tyre of Fisher‘s Toughmac Subaru Impreza as he prepared to start the penultimate stage of the rally, 14 daunting miles of the appropriately named Sweathouse. He was leading by just under three minutes at the time. Fisher is in no doubt what would have happened but for their intervention. “No matter how you look at it, we would have lost five minutes on the stage, possibly more. We might not even have finished.”
“The hole was where the tyre was resting on the road and only a tiny amount of air was escaping. Even when they told me they thought I had a puncture I couldn’t hear any air coming out. It was only when we rolled the car forward that it came gushing out. It was parked right behind McHale’s Toyota and had the Toyota engine been running, the faint hiss of air escaping from the tyre would never have been heard.”
A gallant and gracious runner-up, McHale added “But you have to hand it to him. He drove a magnificent rally and from Friday evening the rest of us had nothing to fight for but second place. He never put a wheel wrong and nor did I expect him to”.
And McHale offered no excuses even though he could have pointed to the 90 seconds or so he lost on Friday with a sticking throttle. “If that hadn’t happened I might have been able to make him work a bit harder,” he said with a smile.
The rally was run under the direction of Bridget McKernan, the first woman clerk of the course to take charge. This is how it developed:
Bangor to Tallaght
The opening leg started quite literally with a bang. Andrew Nesbitt, one of pre-event favourites, was just a second behind Bertie Fisher on the short spectator stage at Bangor Castle but on stage two he crashed out. Nesbitt’s Keith White Tyres Toyota Celica got out of shape over a series of bumps and skated off the road on the next right hand bend which was wet and greasy alter a sudden hail shower.
With one major opponent out of the way, Fisher set about building a lead on the run south across the border to Monaghan. Initially Eamonn Boland in his Hertz Escort led the chase but he was quickly overtaken by Irish national champion Stephen Murphy in his Statoil Escort.
Most notable was Austin McHale whose Castrol Toyota was down in seventh after dropping over two minutes with a sticking throttle. On one stage he had to use the ignition key, turning the engine on and off, to slow the Celica.
Ahead of him Liam O’Callaghan was fourth after losing a little time when the Ultron Celica filled with smoke from a leaking oil pipe and James Cullen was fifth in his Wrangler Escort, disappointed that he had been hit by a number of problems including a slipping clutch and the throttle jamming.
After Monaghan, the final three stages into the new overnight halt at Tallaght brought only minor changes to the leader board although McHale got back on song to set quick times as he moved up to sixth. Cullen climbed back to fourth but no one was able to make any real impression on Fisher who finished the day with eight fastest times out of the 10 stages and a lead of more than one-and-a-half minutes.
Tallaght to Tallaght
Fisher was geared up for a McHale charge when the rally moved up into the Wicklow Mountains but conceded just a second to the flying Dubliner over Sally Gap and then beating him on the dauntingly fast Aghavannagh.
When the cars made the long return journey back to service Tallaght, Fisher’s lead was up to over two minutes on Murphy, but Cullen, happier with his car, was onto third ahead of Boland who suffered gearbox problems on Aghavannagh and high well have dropped considerably more time had Killamoat not been cancelled. The Malcolm Wilson team changed the gearbox, clutch, and prop-shaft in 20 minutes to keep him in the rally.
As it was, O’Callaghan had closed in behind him despite clipping a wheel and deranging the steering of the Celica right at the start of Sally Gap. But he was now coming under pressure from McHale who had narrowed the gap between fifth and sixth to little more than 20 seconds.
On the second loop through the mountains, McHale was fastest over Sally Gap, seven seconds up on Fisher, before losing one second to the leader on Aughavannagh and then dropping four on Killamoat.
Back at Tallaght, the positions showed Fisher well in control of the situation but behind the Subaru it was beginning to stack up. The final three stages of the day – Gormanstown, Ballyhook and Spinians Hill – saw Cullen, Fisher and McHale each take a fastest time. But it all remained very tight with only a few seconds changing hands.
So Fisher returned to Tallaght leading from new second-placed man James Cullen who admitted he’d “had a real cut” in his efforts to wipe away the memories of the first leg. And despite losing the front bumper of the Wrangler Escort along the way, he was 29 seconds up on Murphy who felt his Statoil car’s engine had lost its bite during the day.
McHale had third place in his sights, just 15 seconds down on Murphy after a superb drive, and O’Callaghan had opened up some breathing space over Boland.
Tallaght to Bangor
The long run back to Bangor began with a trio of stages round Mullingar with service based at the excellent Hamill’s service station complex. There was general agreement that this was one of the best parts of the rally with great stages and good service facilities.
Certainly O’Callaghan liked it and he began with fastest time on the first of the stages, Yellow River, and again on the third, Thomastown. “These stages are wider and suit the Toyota better”, he commented. They suited McHale, too. and he seized the opportunity to squeeze past Murphy into third place even though his Celica had landed heavily over a “maybe” jump and jammed in gear.
Cullen felt the stages were good but he hadn’t “got into gear” and now had McHale breathing down his neck, just 20 seconds behind.
The next three stages took the cars north from Mullingar to Sligo and McHale continued to chip away at Cullen’s advantage. The Rally moved over the border but the drama of the third leg wasn’t over yet. On the last stage before the Bangor overnight halt, McHale went off the road, dropped 20 seconds or so and opened the door again to Cullen. It meant there was just two seconds between second and third as the cars finally returned to Bangor in the early hours of Easter Monday morning. O’Callaghan had put in a strong burst over the Sunday leg and was now in a secure fourth and, remarkably, the top 10 all made it through what had been a very long day.
Bangor to Bangor
Fisher set out on the final leg intent on staying out of trouble but McHale and Cullen couldn’t afford that luxury. After another sprint around the Castle grounds in Bangor, Cullen set about regaining his second place and took two seconds off McHale on the first proper stage of the day, Foy Lane. Just two seconds between them!
But McHale soon widened it again with fastest times on the next two stages, Breagh Bridge and Mullins Hill, and with Cullen’s engine beginning to show signs of overheating and he was drifting back — eight seconds after stage 33, 35 seconds after stage 36. McHale had seen off the challenge and secured second place.
It might even have been first had a spectator not heard air hissing from one of Fisher’s tyres as he waited to start the 35th stage, the 14 mile Sweathouse. Almost certain disaster was averted when he was able to change the wheel and carry on. Fisher is convinced that if he had started the stage with the puncture, he would have lost between three and five minutes, and the rally win would have been gone.
As it was, he was able to bring the Subaru back to Bangor the convincing winner of the 1997 AA Circuit of Ireland, still three minutes ahead of the pack after one of the most flawless drives of his career.
McHale, Cullen. O’Callaghan, Murphy, Boland and Hurson followed in behind but Doughty didn’t make it. His Escort retired with electrical failure with the finish almost in sight. His exit brought only the second retirement of the rally from the original top 10 starting order and only the third change on the leaderboard over the entire four days. His late exit allowed Neil Wearden to bring the Honda UK Civic into 10th place.