1979 Donegal – Sammy Hammill

Photo: Derek Smyth
Brian Nelson was Sammy Hammill's Top Tip for Donegal and he got it right!

Sammy Hamill writes for the Belfast telegraph on Thursday 14th June 1979


IT MAY take a crystal ball to know just who will face the starting ramp for the Castro1 Donegal International Rally in Letterkenny tomorrow afternoon (2 pm) but no star gazing is necessary to predict that Ulstermen will take the lion’s share of the £6,000 prize fund.

Not only do they dominate the entry list but represent the strength and quality in a 160 strong field. Telephone and postal strikes, petrol shortage and the proximity of the Scottish and West German Hessen rallies have combined to eliminate a serious threat to the northern supremacy.

These unfortunate circumstances have produced gaps at the top of the entry list but have not done anything to diminish the intense battle which seems certain to be waged between the 250 horse-power Escorts of Bertie Fisher, Brian Nelson and Ernest Kidney and the pair of black and white sports cars from the London Chequered Flag team for Derek Boyd and Cahal Curley.

“CB” and a Stratos would always be a safe bet in Donegal. Photo D. Smyth

From these five must surely come the winner, even though former Castrol/Autosport champion George Hill (Vauxhall Chevette); Scots title-holder Drew Gallacher (Ford Escort); BTRDA champion Geoff Simpson (Ford Escort) and other quick men like Paul Windsor (Ford Escort), Willie Crawford (Ford Escort), Brian Culcheth (Opel Ascona) and Alan Carter (Ford Escort) still provide a cross-channel challenge of considerable strength.

Narrowing it down, however, the real battle has to be between Nelson in the Tuca Tiles/David Sutton Escort; Fisher with his similar Bush Performance car and Boyd in the 300 horse-power V8 Triumph TR7. The unknown aspects are Curley, ending his two and a half year retirement to drive the Chequered Flag Lancia Stratos and Kidney, in the Permapost Escort, regaining his competitiveness in the wake of a huge Circuit of Ireland accident.

Nelson from Hillsborough, the 1976 winner, is enjoying the switch from Porsche to Ford and is at his sharpest in Donegal. He likes the fast stages, the all-daylight format. And now with the Sutton-built Escort – they have provided Ari Vatanen’s winning car last year – he has the machinery to do the job again.

And although Fisher’s car was built locally by Sydney Meeke, it has shown itself to be no less competitive. It ran with sewing-machine consistency to finish third on the Circuit and indeed has needed little re-preparation for Donegal where Bertie ran a superb second in ’78 before crashing on the last day.

Bertie Fisher and Austin Frazer – could they avoid the Donegal jinx this year?
Photo David Smyth.

There will be no Billy Coleman or Mick O’Connell, and Jerry Buckley may be missing too but the South still has Noel Smith (Porsche Carrera) and Brendan Fagan (Ford Escort). However such is the sheer depth of talent from Ulster that it is the Northern “second division” which seem likely to be disputing the positions on the leader board.

Men like Dessie McCartney in the group two but amazingly fast Chrysler Ireland Sunbeam; John Lyons, the clear group one favourite in his Escort RS2000; Hugh O’Brien, now with full two-litre, fuel-injected power in his Norbrook Escort RS1800; Ian Cathcart and the group one trio of Sean Campbell, Jimmy Logan and Trevor Cathers.

Contrasting vividly with the Escorts is Boyd’s low and aggressive TR7. Derek’s ability to win is unquestioned but after six successive non-finishes even the most optimistic driver must find his confidence being sapped. But it could come right and Donegal is like a second home to Boyd.

The low and aggressive TR7 of Derek Boyd – a real contender if reliable.
Photo D. Smyth.

All three, it seems, intend to keep the tap turned down low for the first day at least while they see how the rally shapes up but it will only take one to make a break for a decisive lead and the whole situation will boil over.

And then there is the Curley factor. With a record of three Donegal wins in the past all three will be keeping a concerned eye on his progress, two and as half years away or not.

But in the final shake-up on Sunday night it is Nelson I expect to see repeat his win of ’76 with Fisher and possibly McCartney squeezing in behind.

A hot tip is Dessie McCartney – ultra-reliable and fast with Peter Scott on the notes.

The rally is based on three separate loops totalling 42 special stages. From Letterkenny tomorrow the route goes north towards Fanad Head taking in stages like Knockalla, Garrygort and the round the houses spectacular at Ramelton.

Saturday (9 am start) the cars head south-west towards Donegal town and Ardara for a tough group.of stages including Gweebarra River, Glasagh and Eagan’s Hill. Sunday (12.45 pm start) it is north-west towards Downings and Dunfanaghy for Atlantic Drive, Horn Head, Muckish Gap, etc.

Rally packs and programmes are being printed by Tudor Publications in Belfast and are available from: Motor & Sport, Donegall Pass, Belfast; Gardiners, Botanic Avenue; Tudor Publications, Botanic Avenue; Motortune, High Street, Bangor; Lindsay Cars Ltd., Lisburn; O’Kane Cars, Castledawson; Drive-Rite Accessories, Ballymena; Stewart’s Service Station, Strabane, Halfords of Dungannon and Cookstown and T. P. Topping, Enniskillen.

Sammy Hamill writes for the Belfast Telegraph on Monday 18th June 1979


THERE WAS a massive Ulster celebration in Letterkenny last night, but it was tinged with a touch of sadness. Brian Nelson and Rodney Cole led home a 1-2-3-4 finish for Northern Ireland crews in the Castrol Donegal International Rally, but casting a cloud over the victory party was the accident which will surely end Cahal Curley’s thoughts of a more
permanent return to the sport he once dominated.

As predicted, Brian Nelson and Rodney Cole strode home to a repeat win on the Donegal International. Photo Derek Smyth.

Just after the halfway point of yesterday’s final leg, Curley, three times winner of the event, destroyed the Chequered Flag Lancia Stratos in a high-speed roll on Atlantic Drive. Neither he nor co-driver Drexel Gillespie were injured, but the little Italian car was badly damaged.

Even before the bitter end, it had been no fairytale come-back for Cahal. He put the Stratos off the road on the first special stage on Friday, losing 20 minutes to the leaders, and was struggling thereafter. He was still trying desperately to make up lost ground when he crashed, although there were suggestions that spectators standing in a dangerous place had forced Curley to take avoiding action and contributed to, the accident. It will almost certainly mean the end of Cur1ey’s rallying, and the end, too, of the_Stratos. Chequered Flag boss, Graham Warner, indicated that the car, which won here in ’77, probably would not be re-built.

Cahal Curley and Drexel Gillespie on their way on to their roof on the Atlantic Drive special stage. Photo David Smyth.

That aside, it was a marvellous week-end for Ulster and especially for Hillsborough’s former racing champion, Brian Nelson. He brought his David Sutton-Tuca Tiles Escort RS1800 into the finish with a victory margin of more than four minutes. It could have been much more, but with a professional approach which matched the preparation and back-up of his car, Brian established his authority over the rally with an attacking drive on Friday then settled back to defend his position. He was never seriously threatened, although Bertie Fisher and Austin Frazer in their Bush Performance Escort RS1800 remained a constant shadow. Fisher knew he wasn’t going to catch Nelson, but he kept the pressure on, waiting, hoping, the leader would make a mistake.

Nelson made no mistake, but it takes nothing away from Bertie’s mature drive which could have come to nought with a senseless charge after all or nothing.

Another giant-killing performance from John Lyons. Photo D. Smyth

The other outstanding – perhaps the outstanding performance came from John Lyons, partnered by Trevor Semple in the Vladivar Escort RS2000. Third overall, the winner, naturally, of group one, Lyons turned on all the flair and style in a drive which often looked to be bordering on disaster. It was, however, quite masterful and leaves one to wonder just what Lyons would do in a full group four Escort.

Ernest Kidney and Nicky Moffett waged a hectic duel with Lyons but with their Permapost Escort RS1800, thought to be suffering from a blown head gasket, had to concede defeat by a mere 20 seconds at the end of three days. John Coyne in the remaining Chrysler Ireland Sunbeam, fought his way back to fifth place (first in group two) ahead of the similar car of local man Vincent Bonner, while NI champion Robin Lyons and Seamus McCanny completed a trio of Sunbeams in seventh place, the fifth Ulster driver home.

Overall placings

  1. B. Nelson, Ford Escort, 295 mins. 2secs.;
  2. B. Fisher, Ford Escort, 299 mins. 22 secs.;
  3. J. Lyons, Ford Escort RS2000, 304 mins. 46 secs.;
  4. E. Kidney, Ford Escort, 305 mins. 3 secs.;
  5. J. Coyne, Chrysler Sunbeam, 307 mins. 20 secs.;
  6. V. Bonner, Chrysler Sunbeam, 309 mins. 12 secs.;
  7. R. Lyons, Chrysler Sunbeam, 310 mins. 19 secs.;
  8. S. Campbell, Ford Escort RS 2000, 313 mins. 49 secs.;
  9. D. Gallacher, Ford Escort, 315 mins. 4 secs.;
  10. J. McDaid, Ford Escort, 318 mins..30 secs.

Donegal Class Results:
Class 1

  1. R. Neely/D. Johnston (Clubman GT), 337 minutes, 17 secs;
  2. T. Noble/K. Campbell (Fiat 128 3P), 343.25;
  3. M. Reilly/E. Robinson (Clubman GT). 351.57.

Class 2

  1. E. Harvey/N. Harvey (Avenger), 326.50;
  2. G. Robinson/W. McIlmoyle (Avenger) 329.33;
  3. P. Jones/B. Martin (Avenger), 335.07.

Class 3

  1. J. Lyons/T. Semple (Escort RS2000), 304.46;
  2. S. Campbell/D. Campbell (Escort RS2000), 313.49;
  3. J. McDaid/L. Duffy (Escort RS2000), 318.40.

Class 4

  1. J. Cullen/R. Kennedy (Avenger), 327.10;
  2. W. McVicker/E. Hughes (Sunbeam), 332.57;
  3. B. Dickson/L. Reavy (Sunbeam), 337.29.

Class 5

  1. J. Coyne/C. Farrell (Sunbeam), 307.20;
  2. V. Bonner/M. Bonner (Sunbeam), 309.12;
  3. R. Lyons/S. McCanny (Sunbeam), 310.01.

Class 8

  1. B. Nelson/R. Cole (Escort RS1800), 205.02;
  2. B. Fisher/A. Frazer (Escort RS1800), 299.22;
  3. E. Kidney/N. Moffitt (Escort RS1800), 305.03.

Class 9

J. McHa1e/T. McGee (VW. Golf Diesel), 447.47.

Class 10

  1. D. Carnegie/S. Meyer (Fiesta), 352.21;
  2. J. McConnell /G. McConnell (Kadett), 358.18;
  3. M. Higgins/S. Hannigan (Clubman GT), 368.22

Sammy Hamill writes for the Belfast Telegraph Wednesday 20th June 1979


ATLANTIC Drive may have spelled a spectacular finish to Cahal Curley’s Donegal International Rally come-back but it is not the end of the road. “No, I am not quitting again”, he insists.

“In fact? I have already had discussions with Graham Warner of Chequered Flag about possibie rallies in the future. Despite what happened I enjoyed being back behind the wheel and I will be driving again”.

This wasn’t the view Cahal Curley expected from his Lancia Stratos. Photo David Smyth.

The crash, however, has caused problems and it will be some time before it is known whether the little Lancia Stratus can be rebuilt and in the meantime the Flag team are pursuing their plans to build a second Triumph TR7 “V8 to run alongside Derek Boyd’s car;

The target at the moment is the Tour of Madeira in August but whether Curley has a ear or not depends on either getting the Stratos back into shape or completing the second TR7.

“We are looking at the possibilities of going to Madeira”, says Warner, “But I am not overly optimistic that we will have a car ready in time.”

“The Stratos has been pulled to pieces and it looks as though it will need a new monocoque. Unfortunately, they are not being made any more but I have some feelers out in Europe to try to locate a damaged car which still has the central monocoque section intact. It will take some time.”

“As far as the second TR7 is concerned, I have had some discussion with John Davenport at B L Motorsport and it could be towards the end of the year before it is ready.”

“An additional internal problem is that our chief mechanic Don Fenwick has to go back to New Zealand at the end of the month and his absence could further delay things. But we will see how it works out.”

Warner was naturally disappointed with his team’s showing in Donegal but, the true enthusiast that he is, he was more upset with the engine problems suffered by Boyd’s TR7 and the slow times of Curley in the Stratos on Friday and Saturday, than by the crash.

“I hate to see my cars scrabbling around among the backmarkers, but to be fair, Cahal had a lot of braking problems and the first stage crash must have had a devastating effect on his confidence.”

“But his Sunday performance – before the accident – convinced me he is still a competitive driver.”

Seconds away from slipping off the road and hitting a large rock. Photo D.Smyth.

“On the other hand, Derek’s car simply ran the main bearings again and it is clear there is a serious problem with the dry sump system of the V8 engine. My own engineers will be carrying out some modifications and Derek will do some testing before the car appears again.”

“I feel he has been let down rather badly and the whole chapter of disasters has done nothing for his confidence. But we will make the car work properly for him, be sure of that”.

Warner had hoped to take Boyd to the Tour of Ypres in Belgium next week but the Triumph suffered some suspension damage when Derek spun on Lough Keel and this, coupled with engine unreliability, forced those plans to be scrapped.

Curley, meanwhile, looks back on Donegal, the rally he won three times, with mixed ‘feelings.

“At the start, the car was virtually undrivable. It had no brakes at the front and locked up the back every time I touched the pedal. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that it was finally sorted out.”

“Then we seemed to be on the wrong tyres for just about every stage. I used five different types and goodness knows how many different combinations. By this time I was thoroughly fed up with the whole thing.”

“A lot of the things that were going wrong were my own fault. I had been away so long and I left too many of the decisions to the guys who were running the car. The types of tyres, what to do about the brakes. That kind of thing.”

By Sunday, the car was handling much better and CB was back on the pace.
Photo Derek Smyth.

“By Saturday night I realised it was time I started thinking like a rally driver again. I was the one doing the driving and I was the one to make the decisions.”

“It went a lot better on Sunday. I felt I had at least got to grips with the car and was putting up respectable times when the accident happened.”

“I got into a bit of trouble on the bend but it would not have been anything serious if there had not been a stone sticking up out of the bank. I think it was the only stone of any size in the whole area but it had to be on the bit of grass I was using.”

“Did spectators play any part in the crash? I was aware there were lots of people and cars on the outside of the corner and I had to get the plastic frog – that’s what we call it because of the way it hops about over the bumps – onto the inside somehow.”

“And maybe if there had not been spectators on the bank I would have seen the stone. But who knows? These things happen and every driver accepts that possibility.”

Now Curley has his eyes on Madeira and, if a deal can be Worked out with the organisers, feels sure he will have a car.

The Manx Trophy is a possibility too and the Cork “20” almost certain, but strangely he has no great desire to do the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally in October.

“The Flag will probably only run one car but I’m not all that keen anyway. Derek Boyd and Brian (Nelson) know their way around too well for an old man like me,” he says with a smile. Maybe he has forgotten that he won that rally too back in 1976.

Sammy Hamill writes for the Belfast Telegraph – date unknown.

BRIAN NELSON’S victory on the Castrol Donegal International Rally brings him within striking distance of leader Billy Coleman at the top of the Tudor Photographics Tarmac Championship. Now only four points separate the two Escort drivers, Coleman from Cork on 27 and Nelson from Hillsborough on 23. Only one point behind is another Ulsterman, Bertie Fisher.

Brian Nelson moves to within a touching distance of Coleman for the lead of the tarmac championship. Photo David Smyth.

Ironically, Coleman opted out of Donegal to go chasing European Championship points on the Hessen Rally in Germany — but failed to finish.

Now he finds himself under pressure with the next round of the Tudor series far from his favourite event. It is the Manx Trophy in September, a pace note rally, and one in which he has never figured strongly, while Nelson is always a strong front runner and could well take over the championship lead.

Bertie Fisher isn’t out of the running yet for the 1979 Championship.
Photo David Smyth.

Three weeks later, however, it is the Haltone Cork “20”, a rally which Billy, naturally, has dominated in the past and where‘ Nelson has twice crashed heavily.

It is also a rally which carries the biggest prize fund in the British Isles, a mouth-watering £9,000!

And the two-day event (October 6-7) introduces a sensational £1,000 for the fastest driver over the first day stages in the Dungarvan area.

The Tudor championship could then well hinge on the final round, the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally on the home ground of both Nelson and Fisher on October 13-14. Coleman may yet regret his decision to go to Germany.

Overall Positions after Donegal.

  1. Billy Coleman . . . . 27
  2. Brian Nelson . . . . . 23
  3. Bertie Fisher . . . . . 22
  4. Pentti Arikkala . . . 15
  5. John Lyons. . . . . . .13
  6. Mick 0’Connell. . . . 12
  7. Noel Smith . . . . . . . 10
  8. Jerry Buckley . . . . . 8
  9. Ernest Kidney . . . . .8

Overshadowed by Nelson’s copybook drive in Donegal were a number of outstanding performances by other Ulster drivers in the various classes.

Ballinamallard’s Ron Neely and Davy Johnston took the class win. Photo D. Smyth.

Ron Neely made some amends for the big disappointment of retiring within sight of the finish of the Circuit of Ireland by winning class one, his little Mini coming home six minutes ahead of Trevor Noble’s Fiat 128. Ron now establishes himself at the top of the Tudor Championship class.

George Robinson, after a slow start, came back strongly to finish second behind Eamonn Harvey in the Avenger in class (Two) with Peter Jones in third place, a result which moves him up second to Robert McBurney in the series.

John Lyons, of course, won class three by a nine minute margin from Sean Campbell and takes over the championship lead from Trevor Cathers while second place in class four for Willie McVicker was good enough to keep his Sunbeam in first place.

Trevor Cathers and Drew Wilson lost their lead in the championship. Photo D. Smyth.

John Coyne won class five but Vincent Bonner’s second place promotes him to joint leadership with Dessie McCartney. Brian Nelson won class eight and moves up behind Coleman with Fisher now third.

In class 10 young James McConnell finished second to Dermot Carnegie, who now leads the series.