The Circuit of Ireland’s halcyon days are long gone, but memories will not fade
Those were the days, admittedly distant now, when Easter meant only one thing to a determined band of brothers (and sisters too) who hit the road, bound for Killarney and beyond.
It was Circuit of Ireland time and we loaded up our cars ready for a marathon five-day trek all over the island to marvel at the skills of some of the best drivers in the world. The Seventies and Eighties were the halcyon days of a rally which, then, was regarded as the ultimate challenge of man and machine.
So tough, in fact, that Markku Alen, already a legend in the sport, felt he had been conned and said he wouldn’t be back unless he was paid a World Championship-level fee.
He was only one of a plethora of mega rally stars who took up the challenge of a 1,500-mile route that encompassed up to 600 miles of competitive special stages, drivers like Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, Henri Toivonen, Ari Vatanen, Timo Salonen, Per Eklund, Michele Mouton, the first lady of rallying, and so many more.
They came, they saw, but they couldn’t conquer the rollercoaster Irish roads.
Back in the Sixties it was our own Paddy Hopkirk who reigned supreme, winning five times, only to be eclipsed in the years that followed by the Scot that every Irish fan loved, Jimmy McRae, the all-time record holder with seven victories.
He was involved in some epic battles, none more so than in 1980 when he went head-to-head with Vatanen, who would later become world champion. Their duel remains one of my special memories, partly because it swung to and fro for most of four days and partly because both drivers were good friends. I wasn’t sure which one I wanted to win.
It wasn’t like that 12 months earlier when McRae’s Vauxhall team-mate Pentti Airikkala became the first Finn to claim victory. That was the year the rally so nearly ground to a halt because of a strike by tanker drivers south of the border. There was literally no petrol to fuel the competitors’ cars never mind those of us trying to provide media coverage.
For a time it looked as though it wouldn’t even start but eventually it went ahead on promises from the Irish government they would ensure fuel was available. But by the time we reached the breakfast halt in Galway on Saturday morning, most tanks were running dry and all the filling stations were closed.
It looked like the end of the road until the authorities arranged to supply fuel to a petrol station 40 miles south at Nenagh. If we could get there we could buy five punts worth – enough, hopefully, to carry us to Killarney where, they assured us, fuel was being delivered.
With all competitive sections cancelled for the day, the rally rolled down the main roads to Killarney ready to reset and begin again on Sunday morning. It was there that Airikkala powered in front and led all the way to the finish back in Newcastle on Easter Tuesday.
He was far from a popular winner. A taciturn character, he had been surly and unco-operative throughout the five days, so much so that the majority of the press gang boycotted his winner’s briefing. He wouldn’t talk to us during the rally so we didn’t want to hear from him when it was over.
Bizarrely, Pentti later became a ‘friend’ and even tried (unsuccessfully) to teach me how to drive in the Scandinavian style.
Everyone who was part of those great Circuit days has memories that stand out – like Jack Tordoff’s victory in 1973. It was the height of the Troubles and, after the ’72 event had been cancelled, Malcolm Neill, son of one of the founders of the rally in the 1930s, took charge and was determined to forge ahead.
With the help of Jack Duddy, marketing head of Gallahers who agreed to provide unbranded sponsorship, Neill got the show on the road again and couldn’t have been more pleased to see Yorkshireman Tordoff steer his Porsche to victory. Neill believed it sent out a message that the Circuit of Ireland and Northern Ireland was open for business.
There was a Porsche winner the following year, too, when the inimitable Cathal Curley fought off the fierce challenge of Billy Coleman, the battle being decided on Slea Head when Coleman’s Ford Escort rapped its tail against a bank and dislodged the electrical master switch.
When word came through of the incident, Curley knew instantly where it had happened. “A farmer must have been spreading slurry and spilled it all over the road outside his yard. It was more by luck than good judgment I kept the Porsche on the road,” he recalled.
Curley’s songwriting pal Phil Coulter led the ‘Celebrations’ at a riotous party that lasted through to Wednesday in Newcastle’s Slieve Donard Hotel.
Coleman was to go on and win in each of the following two years, his run only halted by the emergence of another Circuit master, Russell Brookes, whose victory in 1978 ranks among the most astonishing ever.
The portly Midlander had won in 1977 but a year later he faced possibly one of the strongest fields ever including Alen, Mikkola, Airikkala, Tony Pond, Roger Clark, a previous three-time winner, McRae and Coleman. On top of that, Brookes crashed on the first stage at Knockagh.
It left him dead last and with a heavily damaged car. He soldiered on, the Ford mechanics steadily rebuilding the Escort at every service stop and gradually the determined Brookes fought his way through to finally hit the front and finish ahead of McRae’s Vauxhall Chevette and the Fiat Mirafiori of Alen.
Brookes, who died late last year, won again in 1983, this time driving a Chevette, but this was now the McRae decade.
I remember sitting down with him in the Dealer Opel Team motorhome as he had breakfast on the verge of a third win in 1982 and asking what his Circuit secret was. He nodded out the window to where the sister Ascona of young charger Toivonen was being repaired (again) and said: “You have to take care of the car – this is not a rally for heroes.”
McRae did that better than anyone but also became a hero to Irish supporters as he put together his winning sequence – 1980, ’81, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’88 and ’89 – with such grace and friendliness.
His son Colin continued the family tradition by winning in 1991 and becoming world champion before being tragically killed in a helicopter crash.
But as the Nineties progressed the Circuit lost much of its international appeal, becoming a truncated version of the great five-day marathons and was on a downward spiral although it did produce local heroes like Bertie Fisher, Austin MacHale, Frank Meagher, Andrew Nesbitt, Derek McGarrity and Eugene Donnelly.
The spiral was halted when Bobby Willis took control from the Ulster Automobile Club in 2011, the former co-driver and Belfast businessman building the rally into a major international again and bringing the Intercontinental Challenge and the European Championship to Belfast.
He was within touching distance of a place in the World Championship only to be stymied by Stormont’s collapse.
This Easter (2020) we don’t have even a watered down version, Covid-19 has seen to that, but we still have our memories of the dash to Killarney, the pre-dawn climb up to Moll’s Gap on a Sunday and the great names we had the privilege to witness in days gone by.