1977 Ulster Rally

Photo: Motoring News
Ulster Rally Winner Derek Boyd takes a tight corner on a sunny morning stage at Drum Manor.

Article reprinted from Motoring News – 8th September 1977

Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally 1977

A Family Affair

Derek Boyd’s finesse makes it look smooth and easy.
Vauxhall have the Group 1 championship in their sights

DEREK BOYD won the ninth round of the RAC rally championship last weekend in convincing style; the Ulsterman’s Porsche Carrera finishing the high-pressure 480-mile tarmac route of the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally more than three minutes ahead of RAC points leader, Russell Brookes. Thirty-three-year-old Derek Boyd (younger brother of Adrian) enjoyed an almost uniquely trouble-free run over the 240 stage miles, while Brookes suffered mechanical problems and punctures, dropping nearly eight minutes in total. Hannu Mikkola‘s challenge for the lead faded mid-way through the event with fuel injection problems, Arne Hertz helping the Toyota to the end of the stage from within the engine bay, holding connections together. The car broke its crown wheel and pinion on the start-line of a subsequent stage. Both Vauxhall Chevettes suffered a variety of problems but finished in third (Airikkala) and fifth (Sclater) positions, with Brian Nelson’s Carrera sandwiched between.  Vauxhall saved face by winning the Group 1 category after a copybook drive from Jim McRae, the Scotsman now only one point behind Will Sparrow (Mopar Avenger) in the RAC series after Sparrow was forced out early in the event with chronic misfiring.  With such an impressive special stage mileage telescoped into just twenty hours, the Ulster proved to be an extremely arduous but well-liked event.

IT wasn’t a case of the hares and the tortoise, but it certainly looked like it.  If Porsche Carreras can look inconspicuous, then Derek Boyd’s example was the one. Never looking to be in the slightest drama, the 33-year-old Ulsterman drove a truly deceptive rally; By far the smoothest of the Porsche drivers during the night and day of September 3/4. The quick Escorts and the pair of Chevettes looked nervous and temperamental by comparison. Derek Boyd, a Motor/RAC championship registered competitor, took his full quota of points with Russell Brookes and Pentti Airikkala finishing in second and third positions gathering their totals to 59 and 48 respectively, all their efforts giving Brookes just a further one-point advantage over the Finn. Brian Nelson returned to the Larne finish in fourth place, after a drive which did not satisfy the ex-racing driver; a situation he plans to remedy on the forthcoming Manx Trophy. Chris Sclater came in fifth after a fairly fraught rally, while Jim McRae helped Vauxhall to the team award with his Magnum after a stirring drive to dominate group one, the Scotsman now just one point behind Will Sparrow after the Chrysler driver’s uncharacteristic retirement.

Between problems, Russell Brookes’ progress was most impressive but there were just too many delays.

During Friday, rain squalls and high winds lashed the East coast of Ulster, never allowing the roads to dry despite frequent glimpses of the sun. It looked ominous. As cars passed through scrutineering at the impressive Antrim Forum sports complex, the most obvious change in the entry was the non-appearance of Andy Dawson/Stuart Pegg, Dawson deciding some days before the event that he just couldn’t justify the event with something like 15 rush jobs on at his DAD London preparation premises. The Ulster was not originally in his Ford contact anyway.

Pentti Airikkala, the number one seed, had the services of Terry Harryman for this event while his regular co-driver, Colin Francis continues to recover from his road rally accident. Chris Sclater and Martin Holmes were seeded at four, both Chevettes being the cars from the Burmah and largely unchanged, the recent rear axle location problem proving during the course of the rally to be well-cured after the strain imposed by fat racing tyres with sudden momentum and reversal strains encountered, which was harder on these components than the “give” of a loose surfaced road. Russell Brookes brought his newer car, equipped with compression struts since Scotland and generally stiffened-up for Ireland. Hannu Mikkola and Arne Hertz started at four with the Celica, hoping for a repeat of his Burmah showing, and obviously in good form despite a hectic schedule of events. Brian Nelson (with Malcolm Neill) was next up with his magnificent Tuca Tiles three-litre powered and 917-braked Carrera. Nigel Rockey, co-driven by Peter Scott started at seven after the gap left by Dawson, followed by John Taylor/Phil Short (using the Escort from the Jim Clark Memorial), Sean Campbell/Damien Campbell (Carrera) and Derek Boyd/Rodney Cole, the latter Carrera an ex-Agnew, ex-McSpadden car in largely standard trim and requiring no more than a top-up of half a pint of oil and a rear tyres change during the course of the event.

On the group one front, McRae was expected to do well, his Magnum, a completely new car (at last) with the engine from the Burmah, the build taking considerably longer than expected due to parts problems. The Vauxhall’s torque and top-end speed, plus good tarmac handling, giving it an advantage over the RS2000‘s of Graham Elsmore and Malcolm Wilson. Another, unexpected, RS2000 was that belonging to Ronnie McCartney, Dessie deciding to use the car and taking over a low seeded cancellation but soon taking over a better running order number. Ronnie McCartney was driving the new McMahon built Avenger, though a crankshaft breakage on the way across the country on Thursday meant some late work to have new engine internals fitted in time.

The Belfast Telegraph sponsored Ulster Rally ’77 was due to start from the Antrim Forum at 1900hrs on Friday evening, with a loop of seven stages before the first main control back in Antrim followed by ten stages to the Lodge Hotel control at 0430 for a one and a half-hour halt, before eight stages to the Altmore Hotel control by 110Ohrs on Saturday, and a final string of seven stages to the Larne finish by 1530. In all, there were 490 miles in 20 hours, 240 of them competitive.  It was going to make the previous RAC round, the Burmah International, look like a holiday tour by comparison.

Not on top form, Brian Nelson and Malcolm Neil’s progress was still action not to be missed.

The Ulster provided pressure right from the first stage — just seven miles outside of Antrim – and the tempo was never to slow right through the night and day. There was no hour of the clock without stages and with fifteen minutes lateness before accruing time penalties of 10 secs per minute, there was just no time to relax, and the blood-shot eyes and gauntly drawn faces at the King’s Arms Hotel after the finish, late on Saturday afternoon, were many. It was roughly equivalent to two-thirds of last year’s Lombard RAC Rally run at considerably higher speed and in a fraction of the time.

Thankfully, by the time of the start, the weather had decided to stop playing up and a low evening sun dried out the roads perfectly before nightfall. The first stage, Lyle Hill, over secondary roads to the north of Seven Mile Straight, saw plenty of action with drivers warming to the event with some wild lines and snatchy braking as cars and tyres moved into operational zones. Chris Sclater had his first spin of the night here, a quick 360-degree tyre-smoke enshrouded episode losing a few seconds. He would continue to have the occasional unscheduled swapping of ends, including one spin on a narrow section later in the night, which Chris described as “only a place where a Chevette could get away with it.” It was so narrow, in fact. that Chris had to drive in reverse to the next junction. The reason for his Chevette’s handling problem was easy to see, as the limited-slip differential was not doing the job intended. Tyre-smoking exits from bends and junctions were spectacular, but not as quick as he would have liked and at one of the morning service halts, his Chevette only just made it with rear tyres right down to the webbing.

First stage drama for Chris Sclater and Martin Holmes as they go into the first of several spins thanks to a failing diff’.

Hannu Mikkola was quickest on Lyle Hill – and looked it — with Derek Boyd three seconds behind and not giving any indication of the rate of his progress to come. The second stage was the only “silly” stage of the event (apart from a 0.55-mile sprint around the grounds of Antrim Castle for publicity purposes at the end of the event). This test, suitably called Nutt’s Corner, was over the artificial roads of an h.g.v. practice ground and was labelled as a spectator stage, though several hundreds of boisterous spectators followed the rally through the real stages of the night without any snarl-ups. It is worth noting here that one of the “double zero” cars (for the first few stages) was Adrian Boyd with his Alpine (he has decided to keep the car “forever”) but he had to retire from his duties with head gasket problems cropping up for the third time in a row.

Why weren’t there the usual crop of first stage and early retirements, we’ll never know; suffice to say that everybody kept ongoing, on time, and in the right sequence. The fifth stage saw the start of Russell Brookes’ problems with a puncture.  It would seem that he was destined not to win, for right through the event he would drive furiously to make up for lost time only to have another problem occur.  His schedule of little disasters included a total of three punctures — two of which happened early in stages and cost time — a broken throttle connection holding him back another three minutes, the loss of reverse gear after an overshoot, some spins, and the experience of trying as hard as possible through the wet Northern night stages on slicks. By mid-morning, he was describing his car as “nearly dead”.

Already requiring a new shell, Malcolm Wilson presses on regardless at the midpoint of the event.

However, the driver who was the undoubted star of the event, in terms of accidents, was Malcolm Wilson. His problems were caused by a dramatic roll on Carnanee at the stroke of midnight. His RS2OOO slewed in the road, rolled, rolled again, then shot over – a hedge and into a field. With the assistance of spectators he was back in action in about six minutes but now had an “ongoing accident-imminent situation” due to a severely out of line track control arm and the steering arm, the car going around right-handers in fine fashion but hardly looking at left-hand turns and slots. It meant cannoning-off right-hand verges, banks and walls and the car slowly but surely became further buckled, twisted and mangled until it was almost impossible to recognise as an RS2000. Just as it would be easier to mention the stages where it didn’t subsequently go off, it is easier to say that the boot-lid and rear number plate is all that was salvageable by Larne on Saturday afternoon. On an earlier stage, SS4 Nuthill, Wilson had a brief, practice, off and was in the company of fellow RS2000 pilot Graham Elsmore, and Hannu Mikkola, loose gravel the culprit. But apart from that slight indiscretion, Mikkola was posting very quick times and actually grumbling that the stages weren’t fast enough.

Ken Shields (Porsche Carrera), co-driven by Trevor Hughes, was another to be troubled with a puncture when he stopped to change a wheel on the fifth stage, only to discover that the jack wouldn’t work. Road penalties resulted, and to further his night’s troubles, he had to tackle the daunting Torr Head and Glendun super-quick stages on dipped headlights — not much fun at Porsche speeds.

Nigel Rockey was not very happy with his car, soon discovering that it was set much too low and difficult to drive — so low the prop-shaft was fouling on the transmission tunnel. He also had persistent braking problems throughout the rally and was not one of the smiling faces. Jim McRae was another without the braking power he would have liked, his problem just one of finding the time to have pad changes. He was also keeping his fingers crossed that a leaking oil sump seal wouldn’t deteriorate further — after the night’s driving more than five gallons had been lost out of the bell housing, and he hoped that it wouldn’t find the clutch. It lasted, and a late problem with a fuel blockage was his only other time-consuming trouble. McRae’s drive was one of the most impressive of the rally. It can surely only be a matter of time before he is given a shot with a works Chevette for his trouble.

Also impressing was John Taylor, without a scratch on his car, which for the ’77 season (to date) was a happy sign. Ill luck hadn’t deserted the Haynes driver, however, and he was complaining of “no brakes”, which one assumes was a slight exaggeration. The car lost most of its exhaust early in the night and Taylor’s rally ended on Saturday morning with the car forlornly parked still with pristine bodywork, on SS22, “Drum Manor, with the alternator detached.

By the time of the first main control, back in Antrim at 223Ohrs, Russell Brookes was l6s ahead of Hannu Mikkola with Derek Boyd poised in third place, Rockey in fourth and Taylor fifth. Of the Chevettes, Pentti Airikkala was down in ninth and Chris Sclater 1Oth. Pentti was not enjoying the event at this early stage, finding it difficult to read the road confidently (and admitting to “lapses” on the closed road stages when he was looking for ‘Z’ bend signs on the Finnish side of the road!). By morning, he was very much happier and getting into his stride.

The night brought incidents for most people, but still very few retirements.  A couple of drivers to suffer surprising indiscretions in view of their “local” knowledge, co-drivers included, were Brian Nelson, with a spin on Nut Hill, and Ronnie McCartney who entertained the crowd on Craiganboy where the stage passes spectacularly downhill, through Genoe Village, his Avenger swiping a garage door at a deceptive junction, revealing a tractor within. The distressed owner exclaimed that he had only painted the doors a few days previously so that the drivers could see them clearly. The stage was later scrubbed after a jammed watch. Not helping the running of this stage was a local drunk who insisted that the only place he wanted to rest, was in the roadway – at the exit of a long and fast left.

Bearing the scars of that contact with the garage in Glenoe village, Ronnie McCartney and Derek Smyth would take third place in Group 1. Photo Les Ashe

Two other stages had to be scrubbed, SS25 due to a lack of marshals and the worrying appearance of farm tractors on the road, and SS32, due to uncontrollable spectators — a blessing in disguise, as this loose half-mile was entirely out of character with the rest of the event, but obviously promotionally important.

Heading East and then up-country, Derek Boyd continued to keep going quickly — as he did
throughout the night — and by the time the Lodge Hotel, Coleraine, was reached he was 37s ahead of Mikkola with Brookes, Rockey, Taylor, Campbell and Cathcart following. Roy Cathcart was one of the more impressive to watch, his Escort never less than entertaining. Religious beliefs prevent Roy from driving on rallies with Sunday stages, so it was something of a rare appearance.

It was after dawn when the fireworks began. By the Coleraine halt, Derek Boyd was holding
station ahead of Mikkola, Russell Brookes had dived down to fifth (the throttle linkage this time) once again, Pentti Airikkala (now without rev-limiter which had malfunctioned early on the first section and cost him more than a minute), was up to third, and Brian Nelson was in fourth. Brian didn’t have the light output he would have liked for the night, with just two rather puny auxiliary lamps, and – lighting apart — he was not happy with his performance, complaining that he was on and off the throttle far too much and generally suffering the effects of late nights earlier in the week, totting-up his annual business accounts, and staying up late the night before the start with at forum appearance.

it began to go wrong for Hannu Mikkola on SSl9, the 8.5 miles of Crockstockan, when fuel-injection linkage problems forced Arne Hertz into the engine bay, in order to hold it all together. Mikkola was just 2m 39s short of taking a maximum. The final disaster struck on the start line of SS21, Drum Manor, when the differential exploded on the line.

Russell Brookes wonders what a trouble-free run would be like. Derek Boyd explains.

Derek Boyd could begin to ease-up. This next group of stages in the most southerly section of the route saw several more problems for front runners, Airikkala losing fourth gear for the rest of the rally; Sclater’s car requiring a water pump change (a job never before tackled on the Chevette, but completed in just 12 minutes amid much less-than-proper language from Mr. Bell, (who kept discovering bits too hot to handle), and an alarming problem directly under Frank Main (Frank co-driving with Peter Thompson who was enjoying himself considerably with his new ex-Rockey Escort prior to a more serious attempt at the Manx with Frank). Frank‘s problem was that the carpets on his side were on fire and it soon became Peter’s problem too, as the car filled with smoke and they coughed and spluttered to the end of the stage. Luckily Frank was equipped with a full set of Nomex.

Cathcart had his only serious problem during the morning when the “back box“ started playing-up and had to be cooled and cajoled by a wadding of cold, wet, grass packed around it. His car refused to start for several anxious minutes after the Altmore Hotel “elevenses” break, while Brian Nelson also had problems getting the Porsche started, the fault “mysterious” and electrical. Pouring neat petrol down the trumpets produced an explosion of suitable force to shock the motor to life, though an intermittent misfire still persisted.

Nigel Rockey suffered a broken spring for the final few stages, not knowing where or why it happened. Russell Brookes was by now without reverse gear, and after an overshoot excursion on Drum Manor, had to summons pushers to get going again.

In group one, the main feature just had to be that Malcolm Wilson was doggedly soldiering on (no amount of offs could cause any noticeably greater damage), while Jim McRae was still out in front, neat and tidy as ever, his fuel problems not altering his position after Bertie Fisher (with Robert Harkness co-driving) suffered a puncture and lost a minute. Graham Elsmore’s “tarmac” car (new for this event), was still looking like an RS2000 should, but Graham had enjoyed his fair share of moments. A surprise came McRae’s way on Greenmount (SS23) when he caught an elderly Ford Corsair happily plodding along the stage, the farmer driver giving a casual “left flasher” before turning off the stage.

Moments later Pentti Airikkala was off the road as the front left tyre comes off the rim.

A final problem for the hard- trying Airikkala occurred on SS26 when the Finn charged into a ninety left not realising a front tyre had just deflated, the resulting straight-on costing more than a minute. Over the final stages, Derek Boyd set no more top times but cruised-in with the utmost consistency, while Brookes once again charged back up to finish second, his stage times a testimony as to how hard he was pushing his ailing car. By the last stage, it was surely time for Russell to take another tumble, and it nearly happened. A black object at the trackside was accidentally run-over, and he quickly realised that what he thought had been an old tyre, turned out to be a very solid back-painted flagstone. He drove to Larne with the rack bent at the end of an event in which he had to work very, very, hard indeed.

In comparison, Derek Boyd couldn’t have enjoyed greater reliability, the rear back tyre change, top-up of oil and cleaning the windscreen of flies all the “service” he required. The ex-Formula Ford Northern Ireland champion had enjoyed his most successful rally ever, though he has enjoyed good results before (second in Donegal in ’74 with “LVX”). It was surprising to learn that he started rallying some thirteen years ago with a Mini-Cooper.

As a rally, the Ulster was a great success, despite the occasional shortage of marshals and a few too many incidents of peculiar time-keeping, and some non-competing traffic on stages. In terms of pleasure-per-mile, for drivers and spectators, alike, it was an unqualified success. Even the police – who kept a distinctly low profile — were friendly and helpful in coping with possible tangles of closing roads and accommodating the spectator traffic, a problem smoothly avoided.

Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally 77
l. D. Boyd/R. Cole (Porsche Carrera) 237.12.
2, R. Brookes/J. Brown (Ford Escort RS1800) 240.23.
3. P. Airikkala/T. Harryman (Vauxhall Chevette) 240.29.
4. B. Nelson/M. Neill (Porsche Carrera) 242.06.
5, C. Sclater/M. Holmes (Vauxhall Chevette) 242.10.
6. S. Campbell/D. Campbell (Porsche Carrera) 244.52;
7. N. Rockey/P. Scott (Ford Escort RSl800) 245.25;
8. K. Shields/T. Hughes (Porsche Carrera) 247.54;
9. J. McRae/D. Brown (Vauxhall Magnum) 250.54;
10. R. Cathcart/A. Frazer (Ford Escort RSl800) 250.55.

1, J. McRae 250.54;
2, B. Fisher 253.43;
3, R. McCartney 254.36;
4. J. Coyne 255.44;
5. G. Elsmore 258.26.