1976 Circuit of Ireland – MN

This report is reproduced from Motoring News 29th April 1976.

BILLY COLEMAN in his own country is a different man to the Billy Coleman we see elsewhere. He has now won the Circuit of Ireland Rally, his country’s leading event, for the second time running and he has won the Galway Rally as well, these are both run on asphalt roads using secret routes. This year he was partnered by Dan O’Sullivan, the friend who co-drove him when they respectively created a sensation on the 1969 Circuit. They were then in the scruffiest Escort you have ever seen; this time they were driving a full works model, complete with compression-strut racing type suspension and 248 bhp Brian Hart 2-litre engine. Fords not only won the event but they provided the vehicles for the second placed crew, Russell Brookes/John Brown in a 245 bhp Terry Hoyle-powered car, whilst Gp 1 went eventually to the RS2000 of Ronnie McCartney/Derek Smyth after considerable troubles afflicted their rivals.

Once on the right tyres, Billy Coleman and Dan O’Sullivan forged into the lead and proved unbeatable, recording his second successive win.

Thomas Motors entered the winning car, Andrews Heat for Hire the second car and Lloyds of Stafford that of McCartney. Ronnie’s brother Dessie finished third in his private Porsche after leading for the first 12 stages, ahead of the Chequered Flag Stratos which was not only rebuilt following its Cheltenham Festival Rally accident but completed the rally with only minor troubles.

The idea of running a secret route rally on asphalt roads may be traditional in Ireland but it is still a daunting prospect for anyone who has never enjoyed the experience. The Circuit of Ireland chooses a selection of stages over varying conditions, from the maze of lanes of Northern Ireland through to the raw mountain tracks of the South. It is an unusual rally these days in being an almost true “Circuit”, starting at one end of a country and eventually returning to that point again. It is an event run under British rules and RAC supervision: the organisation being entrusted to the Ulster Automobile Club, although they depend on Eire for most of the stages and considerable co-operation. The rally stops for two consecutive nights, at Killarney in the South West of Eire, which is the base for an excellent rally-within-a-rally on the Easter Sunday using stages around the peninsulas between Bantry Bay and Tralee Bay, some of the most beautiful parts of all Ireland.

The rally goes through two nights, once on the way down to Killarney and once on the way back. There were 60 stages originally planned, 23 each on the long drives southwards and northwards and the remainder on the “Sunday Run”. In the end, one was cancelled through local objection, two were cancelled (one being substituted subsequently) through a misunderstanding with a local authority as to suitability, whilst on the actual event one was cancelled because of faulty timing and another in order to send an ambulance to a crashed rally car at an inaccessible point on a stage.

For the first time in many years a clockwise direction was chosen around the country, with breakfast on the second day being taken at Kilkenny and supper on the fourth day at Athlone. For security reasons all the stages in the North were held during daylight hours, either at the start or the finish of the event. Trouble in Northern Ireland seems to avoid affecting sport. A lot of people are always concerned at the thought of going to the North: it may seem enjoyable enough for competitors as they drive along, but the service crews are the people who have to wait beside lonely by-roads and receive the scrutiny of the army at checkpoints. There was one report to our knowledge of a telephone call to an English competitor suggesting that he should stay away from the event but he went, completed the course, and nothing untoward occurred.

Will Sparrow’s run in the DTV Magnum was not without problems, a lost wheel among them, but he and Rodney Spokes brought the Vauxhall home sixth.

With the reluctance of Ford, Chrysler and Leyland to be directly involved one might feel that the entry quality would be thin. Certainly this year there was no official cease-fire that last year lured Roger Clark to the Emerald Isle, but notwithstanding the situation the teams were there in spirit if not in person. Fords lent their remaining Capri-type winged Escort, the Roger Clark Monte Carlo car to Billy Coleman, whilst Brookes had what looked outwardly like his old car but which had obviously been extensively rebuilt since its last outing. Both cars used the compression struts reserved for tarmac events, whilst Russell was driving a car with a Panhard rod for the first time.

In Gp 1, Fords were represented by Ronnie McCartney, the Galway Gp 1 winner. Jerry Buckley’s RS1800, using a Hoyle engine and Panhard rod but no compression strut, was a car built in three weeks and using the same registration number that Buckley’s cousin Billy Coleman carried on his first famous Escort. Brendan Fagan had an RS1800 fitted with an 1840 motor in Gp 4, David Lindsay an RS1800 with 2-litre engine, Fred Wadsworth the old RS1600 formerly used three seasons ago by Rosemary Smith, whilst Winston Henry had an RS1800 with 1840cc engine in Gp 2. There were also many Gp 1 Fords.

Chrysler and Leyland were not represented in the big car groups: Chrysler entered Sclater in a Gp 4 Avenger Twincam but scratched for political reasons whilst Leyland did not even get that far. Vauxhall entered Sparrow in a Gp 4 Magnum Coupe twin cam, a car with lots of little mods which Gerry Johnstone had been contemplating: saving weight, improving the
handling —- nothing dramatic, just a series of things in an attempt to make the car competitive again.

These were the official entries: then came the private ones, led, to the immense pleasure of everyone in Ireland, by the Chequered Flag Stratos. It took two weeks of constant work, day and night, to make the car ready. Graham Warner explained that there were many things they would have liked, for example the bigger brakes which have been homologated but not supplied. Still, to be there at the start in the first place was a remarkable achievement.

Then came the Porsches: two of them full 3-litres (Curley in the Chequered Flag car and John Tansey), eight in Gp 4 with 2.7 or 2.8 engines and a couple in Gp 3. Non-starters were Noel Smith with a foot injury and song-writer Phil Coulter for what the imaginative Press Officer surmised as “Tax Reasons”! Having won Galway, been second on two Manxes, a Donegal and a Circuit, Dessie McCartney was clearly the hottest Porsche hope, especially as Cahal Curley had recently had an eye operation and was not expected to be fully fit.

The Porsche Carrera driven by Dessie McCartney/Terry Harryman was handicapped by having a standard 2.7-litre engine fitted, making it underpowered for the fast stages.

McCartney’s hopes sank to zero when his oil pressure failed after scrutineering the night before the start. He had to remove his 2.8 unit and fit an absolutely standard 2.7, and hope for the best. Brian Nelson, his old blue car painted a fetching green and white, the colours of Tuca Carpet Tiles, a new sponsor and entrant, still had left-hand drive and was almost unique among the top entries in being fitted with tyres other than Dunlops. He used Goodyears.

Brian Evans, David Agnew, and Ken Shields all had familiar cars, whilst Harold Morley a neat black one. The Gp 3 cars were entered by Joe Pat O’Kane. Reggie McSpadden (who planned to share the stage driving with co-driver Robert McBurney, in his day one of Ulster’s finest rallymen) and, of course, the non-starting Coulter.

In Gp 1, Ford were represented by Mk2s of McCartney and Sean Campbell, with Mk1s of Henry Inurrieta and, Philip McCartan (Tony Pond’s Tour of Britain car), Chrysler Dealer Team (Ulster) entered Robin Eyre-Maunsell with the lone 1850 cc Avenger (one day shall we see some more of these big-engined cars?) whilst with good 1600 cc models we had James Doherty, Robin Lyons and an old 1500 for the only all-lady crew Joan Pink/Rita Farrell. Vauxhall had their SMT/Castrol car for Jim McRae which Johnstone states now develops 183 bhp, whilst they also entered the Irish driver Dessie Nutt.

The ever-consistent Ken Shields presses on towards a fine 8th place overall, and not a mark on the car after five days round Ireland.

Leyland maintained a low-key involvement, helping Pat Ryan’s private entry with a 160 bhp Dolomite Sprint. In other Dolomites were Mike Ford-Hutchinson and Ron Smith. Gp 2, like Gp 3, was almost a non-starter. Bengt Lungstrom from Sweden took over John Haugland’s entry with a Toyota Celica and was obviously the most serious contender. Foreigners were a little thin, Walfridsson and Lungstrom apart. The German Alpine and Autobianchi never appeared, but the enterprising Norwegian Arne Garvik entered a Gp 1 Honda Civic whilst from France came three enthusiastic Simca Rallye 2 drivers from SRT Paris Fremicourt, who eventually took the Ecurie prize. Le Gall (who had won a class on the Manx last year) and de Longeaux had Gp 1 cars whilst in a modified version was de Saint Wandrille. It was certainly an adequate entry considering the length of the event (1,500 miles) and the inevitably high cost of the hotels, especially at Killarney.

In common with most European Championship rallies, the Circuit employs a system of time controls before each special stage, although it is made somewhat cumbersome through their delay allowance arrangements (called “Perm” time), whereby competitors can but need not make good delays at stage starts. The whole concept of control zones is all a little strange as well, since competitors crowded control areas irrespective of the control area boards. The penalty for lateness at controls is 10 seconds per minute, and competitors must not fall more than 15 minutes behind schedule.

Not so lucky this time were Norman Thompson and Michael Kernaghan. Their rally would end in a ditch.

The results calculations were only intermittent, and the press information service run by Gordon Harvey was usually, though inevitably unofficially, a lot more aware of positions. The rally organisation run for the first time under Peter Allen achieved a surprising polish, particularly in view of the shortness of time given to the new team. In short, it was a joy to be involved.

Brookes and Coleman were the men to beat. but they both found themselves starting off at a severe handicap. John Horton had produced what seemed a good tyre for the job, a slick into which an A2-pattern tread pattern had been cut. He called it a “Dry A2″ as opposed to the usual “Forest A2”. but for some reason it did not work. Des McCartney, despite his power handicap, gained a good start and progressively left the Fords behind. It proved to be a fascinating battle in the opening stages. The first stage was a publicity sprint away from the starting ramp, like the Mintex, the Firestone or the 1000 Lakes.

Russell Brookes, with John Brown, pulled up to a clear second place overall after making a slow start on the wrong tyres.

Already McCartney had taken a lead, with 46 seconds against 47 for Curley, Evans and Tansey, all Porsches. Brian Nelson was slightly quicker on the second stage, a beautiful route around the side of Strangford Lough. but McCartney went further ahead overall. Through all the Northern stages except one, McCartney pulled away so that by the time the rally passed through the border into Eire he was a minute ahead of Brookes. Agnew was already out. He had misfiring which he thought was due to timing trouble, but when his time allowance was up he found it was the ignition pack. OTL. Lindsay was another early retirement with his RSl800.

As the rally went into the first night, Brookes and Coleman started frantically making arrangements to change their tyres for normal Dunlop racers. Coleman was able to borrow some from his cousin and had them fitted in time for Sally Gap, the fantastic 19-mile blast up the Wicklow Mountains. Immediately Coleman’s times fell dramatically. From being 69 seconds behind, in one bound he was only 16 seconds behind, whilst at the following stage, Aghavannagh, he was well in a lead he was to keep for the rest of the rally. Brookes, however, could not change his tyres until after the Kilkenny halt three stages further on – and immediately he responded by putting up FTD, no less than 29 seconds quicker than Coleman.

The race for the lead was really on. Brookes had gone off the road towards the end of the first night and fallen slightly behind Walfridsson, Curley and Nelson, but was regaining those lost seconds fast. In eight stages he had pulled back four positions to lie second equal with Dessie but as the second day grew older Dessie speeded up to withstand the challenge. As the rally reached Killarney the Porsche was only eleven seconds ahead of the Andrews Ford, but two minutes behind the Thomas Motors car. Walfridsson was driving sensibly in fourth place, ahead of Curley, Sparrow, Nelson, Evans, Shields and Buckley.

Per-Inge Walfridsson drove the rebuilt Chequered Flag Stratos with unaccustomed restraint, and despite collecting one maximum, was rewarded with fourth place, helped by John Jensen.

On the first stage out of Killarney on the Sunday run, Brookes had more trouble. He smote the scenery but regained the road with little trouble – but then the car stopped. It seemed the accident shock had dislodged both the master switch and the fuel pump leads, and when eventually the troubles were resolved the crew had a maximum penalty. Luckily the penalty for this stage was relatively slight, but Brookes found himself on a snake plunging down the leader board, to sixth. Then Walfridsson had his rear suspension fail after clipping the side of the road. He had a maximum as well, in fact he spent an hour on the stage whilst he radioed for help. Whilst he was requesting assistance the service crew were themselves in trouble. Only a cancelled stage and an appropriately easy following road section kept the Stratos in the event. Curley then went out with steering breakage after an off, following a brave drive when many people never thought he would be fit enough for the strain of competition. At the return to Killarney, Brookes was back to third in front of Nelson, Sparrow and Walfridsson. At the head, Coleman was now four minutes ahead of McCartney.

Ronnie McCartney’s hard driving all weekend was rewarded with a win in the Group 1 category. What is it they say… to finish first, first you must…….

Things started to happen on the return to the North. Buckley was staying out of town and left his keys some thirty miles away. No problem, he set off to drive in a 1600 Escort to retrieve them. Unfortunately, the car expired under the strain, leaving him stranded. This was a blow, and he had to resort to thumbing a lift. Some good Samaritan ladies were then prevailed upon to help out, but inevitably they were not making good enough time for Buckley’s liking. In the end he had to offer to take the wheel. It must have been years since a nun’s Morris Minor had been driven quite so fast! Less amusingly, Sparrow had a wheel fall off his Magnum. This presented no serious time loss, but he wondered how this should ever happen. The nuts had been scrupulously tightened.

Then Nelson went off. He does not know why to this day, suddenly the car took charge on the exit of a bend. The Stratos was going better after a spell with only three brakes, the gnome-like Swede driving with a restraint of which few considered him capable. Brookes still had McCartney to conquer. He began to lop quarter and sometimes half-minutes off the Porsche’s times, but on stage 42, which was substantially loose-surfaced, he fairly murdered the time of the German car by nearly 45 seconds. He was by now ahead and stayed in second place till the end. At last, the order at the head of the field was settled. Jerry Buckley lost his sixth place with gearbox trouble: an overhead clutch pipe had failed and the strain had broken the selectors. This was changed but he lost sixth place to Sparrow who had survived the wheel bother, a couple of fiat tyres and an odd misfire to give Vauxhall a dependable position. Ken Shields, the man who has never failed to finish a Circuit, brought his ex-Tordoff Porsche home in eighth place, whilst in fifth place, Brian Evans had a relatively peaceful event after his expensive Galway excursion, with only a two-minute delay.

Robin Eyre-Maunsell’s Avenger was fast but erratic, finally losing the Group 1 lead with a comprehensive roll on the Balix Hill section on the last day.

In Gp 1 Ronnie McCartney came home perhaps the most surprised winner ever. In the early stages he was as low as sixth Gp 1 car! Sean Campbell took an early lead, ahead of McRae and Nutt and Eyre-Maunsell whilst on the second day Henry Inurrieta pulled up to challenge Campbell. The Spaniard then hit a sheep which put him off the road and suffered a carburettor fire, but still battled onwards until finally breaking the steering after a bad yump on the Killarney Run. McRae went steadily until leaving the road when he had punctured a couple of wheels. Inurrieta, who had just retired, went back to rescue him, the SMT car being in a precarious position, and used his newly acquired winch for the purpose. The winch worked so well that McRae asked Henry where he had obtained it. He had bought it from SMT!

Pat Ryan started steadily and gradually gained confidence with the Dolomite Sprint gaining Gp 1 FTD at Sally Gap by over a half-minute. The strain was too great — the next stage a caliper broke off, shattered the disc which punctured the inside of a wheel rim, deflating the tyre. Eventually things were put right, and on the first stage after breakfast he put up third best Gp 1 time, despite another puncture. Again the effort was too much: on the following stage the other caliper broke off. This time it happened at the wrong moment. Ryan went head-on into a stone wall, demolishing the car and breaking a chest bone of his co-driver Martin Holmes. Campbell lost his chance of a group win when the gearbox broke, passing the category to the official Avenger of Eyre-Maunsell, who was three minutes ahead of McCartney. And then disaster struck the Avenger. Accelerating away from the start of stage 55 he jumped badly and rolled end over end, wrecking the car and retiring. He then managed to drive the car away, but after a mile it expired with overheating. McCartney found himself in the group lead and ninth overall!

In the one-entry ‘Ladies’ race, Joan Pink survived until near the end of the final night when the lights failed. She used her Benson & Hedges gratuitous torches to keep going, but eventually the course closing car caught up with her and she went OTL. John Coyne lost third gear but found his self igniting carpets more of a handicap, but still made the finish. For sheer endeavour, the efforts of Bill Douglas in his 10 year-old Triumph 2000 2.5Pi took some beating. He completely underestimated the braking demands of the rally and almost came to a stop with gearbox trouble. He finished black with sweat and dirt, but happy, as was Lundstrom, the Gp 2 winner. He rolled on the third stage and continued without a screen for the rest of the rally with the remorseless determination of a kamikaze pilot. It is just a pity there were not more people in Ireland to enjoy the challenge of the rally and the friendliness of the people.