1979 Ulster Rally – Autosport

It was Pentti Airikkala's third Sedan Championship win of the season and this virtually assures him of the 1979 British title.

Vauxhall’s first international one-two – Airikkala wins and has Sedan series virtually secure – McRae second – Poor showings from Brookes, Wilson, Toivonen and Culcheth – Report: ANN BRADSHAW – Photography: COLIN TAYLOR PRODUCTIONS unless noted otherwise.

Two on Tarmac

Two years ago Pentti Airikkala went to the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally and had a pretty miserable time. Despite a good first year in the Dealer Team Vauxhall Chevette, he only managed third on this event after a frustrating night. On that event, he had looked tired and at times incredibly unhappy with a succession of problems. Pentti looked neither tired nor unhappy last Saturday afternoon, however, when he drove Into Lame after a two-year absence, knowing that he had won the rally with the minimum of mechanical aggravation. Not only was this a fine win for the Finn, but it also virtually assures him of winning the Sedan Products Open Rally Championship. Only absolute disaster on the Lombard RAC Rally, with him failing to get a good placing and either Russell Brookes or Stig Blomqvist winning can now rob him of the justly-deserved British international championship crown. His performances this year have proved him a deserving successor to last year’s champion Hannu Mikkola.

If this was a good rally for Pentti, then it was perhaps the best yet for Vauxhall. Not only did they win the event, but they also came second, with Jimmy McRae putting the icing on the cake for them. Not surprisingly, DTV’s press office, Paul Davies, was ecstatic after the event and liberal with his champagne. Vauxhall had achieved their first-ever one-two on an international, only incredibly bad luck striking Jimmy in the closing stages of several rallies having prevented this double before.

Alas, this was not a happy event for everyone especially those from this side of the water. While many of them tried hard to keep up with the local drivers they made silly mistakes and went home with a few red faces. The drivers who would rather forget their performances on this event must surely include Henri Toivonen and Malcolm Wilson in their Total Oil Escorts, Russell Brookes in his Andrews Heat for Hire Escort, Brian Culcheth in his Dealer Opel Team Ascona and Tim Brise in his Dempster Racing/Esso Kadett GT/E.

The one factor that came out of this event was that the local Irish drivers, on the whole, know how to pace themselves better to this sort of rallying (250 stage miles in less than 24 hours). They ably demonstrated that sensible driving brings a finish and that it is more important to be there at the finish than fastest on the first stage.

The Group 1 Class was won by the very personable Sean Campbell who drove well and sensibly over the slippy roads.

Group 1 was again a close fought battle and the deserving victor was Sean Campbell in his Escort RS2000. This was very much the province of the Irish with John Lyons in his Vladivar Escort coming second to Sean and assuring this young talented driver of the Tudor Tarmac Championship G1 title.

This event was the last round of the Tudor championship and, with the departure of a dejected Billy Coleman who just could not live with the pace, Brian Nelson found himself minus one of his fiercest adversaries for the title and landed himself the crown with a fine fourth in his Tuca Carpet Tiles Escort.

Why competitors from England like going to Irish rallies is a question that most Irish competitors were asking on the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally. It was a difficult question to answer, but perhaps the best way is simply to say that the Ulster and other events organised on the other side of the Irish Sea are very good rallies. However, the Ulster is one of the few fairly uncivilised events in the Irish calendar because the organisers insist on carrying on through the night. Most Irish events would not dare to impose on valuable drinking time in such a way, but this irreverent attitude to such an important happening must be forgiven when the format and the ingredients of the rally are discovered.

The ANICC, under the leadership of Clerk of the Course, Roy Sloan, came up with an event that started in Craigavon Shopping Centre at 5.45pm on Friday finished in front of the King’s Arms Hotel, Lame, at 3.30pm on Saturday; in that relatively short period of time the rally covered 250 road and 250 stage miles. The organisation seemed to go without a hitch and competitors did not seem to have much to complain about. There were vague grumblings about badly arrowed junctions, although the consensus of opinion was that the standard of arrowing had improved over the four events in the rally’s history. One of the particularly pleasing things was that there were no reports of meeting non-competing cars coming the wrong way up stages. The only problem that occurred was when Pentti caught up and passed a double 0 car just on the last corner of a stage, the Finn smilingly accepted Roy Sloan’s apologies and seemed only to be worried about how long it took him to get by the Mkl Escort.

Irish legend Ron Neely took the Group 1 Clubman GT to a fine class win. Davy Johnston was co-driver as usual. Photo David Smyth.

No Irish rally would be complete without the sterling efforts of Brian and Liz Patterson running the press office. This friendly and helpful husband and wife teamwork hard putting out regular bulletins that contain important facts and also pieces of humour to keep a smile on everyone’s faces. Thank you both, and your hard-working team for once again keeping us all so well informed.


With the all-tarmac Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally being the penultimate round of the Sedan Championships and the last round of the Tudor Tarmac and the Belfast Telegraph /Goodyear Championship, it was highly unlikely that anyone would be trying out anything new. A quick word with the top teams soon bore Out this assumption, although a few of them were not going to risk the misfortunes that befell them on the Mopar Manx again. The most notable in this category were Russell Brookes in his Andrews Heat for Hire Escort and Stig Blomqvist in his Saab Dealer Team Turbo. Brookes had had to change no fewer than nine sets of tension struts on the Manx and he was not going to risk anything, so had changed to rose joints. Blomqvist, with a car now producing 265bhp, did not want another driveshaft failure, remember stage one on the Isle of Man. The team had, therefore, track-tested the Circuit of Ireland driveshafts and found them to be perfect.

Despite “little problems”, the recurrence of the Circuit braking trouble, Stig Blomquist brought his Saab Turbo home third overall and elevated himself to second in the Sedan Championship.

Dealer Team Vauxhall were there in force, with Pentti Airikkala and Jimmy McRae in their Manx cars. Airikkala’s car had begun its competitive life on three stages of the 1000 Lakes. Even with only those few stages in Finland and the same number on the Manx, Airikkala had declared that it was one of his best-ever Chevettes.

Brian Culcheth and Tim Brise were there to wave the Opel flag in Groups 1 and 2. Culcheth was using his usual Ascona, that made its competition debut in Ireland on the Donegal Rally. This car had had an engine rebuild since the Manx at Broadspeed and the team were hopeful that he would be able to pedal a little faster than on previous events. Brise had everything to lose if he made a mess of this one as he needed a win or good placing in his Kadett to put the Sedan Gl title within his grasp.

The Total Oil team, with Escorts for Malcolm Wilson and Henri Toivonen and Alan Carter in his G1 Escort (another hopeful for the Sedan, title) completed the line up of top 20 entries from this side of the water.

It was quite obvious that all those mentioned were going to have their work cut out fighting for overall honours against the men who were more interested in the Tudor than the Sedan championship. The impressive list in Escorts from both sides of the Irish border read Brian Nelson in his David Sutton Cars built, Tuca Carpet Tiles-sponsored machine, Bertie Fisher (Team Castrol/Bush Performance Centre), Ernest Kidney (Ballycassidy Permapost) Billy Coleman, and Ian Cathcart, all of whom were capable of giving the Sedan men a run for their money.

Some of the quickest smaller cars in Ireland have been the Talbot Ireland entries for Dessie McCartney and John Coyne. Both drivers were out, Coyne having a change of car, using that last rallied in Donegal by Rosemary Smith.

John Lyons uses all the road, and then some more at times. Photo David Smyth.

Add to the above such names as Ron Neely in his amazing Mini, very quick G1 men John Lyons and Sean Campbell in their Escort RS2000s, Robin Lyons (Talbot Sunbeam). Peter Thompson (Balchis Escort RS), Bertie Law (W.J. Law & Co/Saville Motors with Team Castrol Chevette), David Porter (Toleman Group/Team Castrol/SMT Chevette), Vincent Bonner (Henley Forklift Talbot Sunbeam) and Jim Howden having his first-ever all-tarmac event in his Escort RS and you have a top-class entry.


“Welcome to Milton Keynes West,” was how Plum Tyndall introduced the Craigavon Shopping Centre to the uninitiated. This was the start venue for the fourth Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally and the proceedings were staged in the middle of an industrial estate. Although not the most picturesque of starts for a rally, at least the competitors were able to thunder off the start line straight on to the first stage, the road from the centre down to the main road. This was just three-quarters of a mile of road, with a couple of roundabouts and a couple of left-handers that proved very little but provided some early entertainment for the sizeable crowd.

The cars were to do four stages and then go to Lame for a service halt and, despite the short distance covered, there were already plenty of tales to be told.

Dessie McCartney finished his 35th rally out of 36 starts and brought his car home 11th overall after a rather troubled rally.

The biggest shock was the demise of the entire Total Team. Toivonen went straight on at a left-hander on stage 2 (Cherry Hill) and savaged a tree, while Wilson made it to service, but in very poor shape; On stage 4 (Tardree Mountain), the back end of the car had decided to give a brick wall a hefty whack, as the Escort was halfway around the corner. The offside rear was badly dented, and the axle was. also bent. Incredible though it may seem, there was no spare axle on the Thomas Motors Service barge. Brookes was the only person running with a similar axle and there was no way he could risk lending his one and only spare. After about half an hour of fruitless searching, Wilson and the team had to admit defeat and pack up.

Brookes had already been, in the wars when the reverse light switch broke off his gearbox and deposited all the oil on the toad on stage 2. This gave his crew very little worry and a new ‘box was soon fitted before stage 3.

The legion stories at this point included Nelson spinning on stage 4, Fisher losing first, third and fifth gears on the stages and hoping it was just due to a loose gearstick, Kidney having to change the gearbox and fit a new clutch pressure plate to stop clutch slip in service, Culcheth having trouble keeping the Ascona on the cam, Porter changing the prop shaft which was causing vibrations and McCartney fitting in a new rear window after breaking the other on stage 4.

Lyons was more than happy with the Goodyear racers he was using and had a 28secs G1 lead over Campbell. Airikkala was going to do the next few stages on slicks to see if he could overtake his teammate McRae, who was leading t this point. But, perhaps most important of all, drivers were complaining about how slippery the roads were. With the event being held about six weeks later than usual, there was obviously much more mud and leaves on the roads and this was telling in the tales of spins and near misses.

Ernest Kidney seems to have some very strange driving tactics (note the unusual hand positioning) however it was obviously effective as he finished in sixth place.

So, as the drivers set off for the next six stages before the Portstewart supper halt at about midnight, the order was McRae, Airikkala, Nelson, Blomqvist, Wilson (now retired to the nearest hotel), Brookes (not seeming very happy with himself), Coleman (who thought he was going as quick as possible but was still over l min down on the leader), Kidney, Lyons and McCartney.

There was only one major retirement on the next stages into Portstewart and that was Brise in his Kadett. Reports were that he just got it wrong on Orra Bridge (SS8) and went off putting the car into a very nasty bog. The last thing he could afford to do in his championship battle was this sort of thing and although Carter was sorry for Brise, he could not help but be relieved that some of the pressure was off.

As the cars arrived at the rest halt, Airikkala was now firmly in front of his teammate, McRae, and being called a “very crazy driver” by his co-driver, Risto Virtanen. Airikkala explained that their major moment had been when they came over a blind brow and thought the road went straight on. In fact, it did anything but this and Airikkala had to use all his considerable skills to avoid hitting a bridge: “I have hurt my pride and confidence,” he admitted.

Nelson was fighting hard for a good placing, but was having slight brake problems, their sponginess not giving the Ulsterman any confidence at all. Blomqvist, not at his most lucid, would only say that he had little problems but, on asking for more information from one of the team, this explanation was translated into brake problems. At this stage it was due to the brake not being able to go for its whole travel but worse was to come when the Circuit problems reared their ugly heads the next day.

There was a slight kink in the roof of McRae s Chevette which had been occasioned by landing very hard after jump on Torr Head (SS8) The force of the landing had also rearranged the suspension and only at this point was the car starting to handle properly again He was also having problem with exhaust fumes in the car and the back door was now firmly taped up Brookes was just not getting into the groove at all, and it was nice, to find him honestly confessing that he was just not driving well. He was also looking and feeling off-colour and one had the feeling that every mile was some kind of torture for him. Howden had also hit McRae’s yump and had bent the steering rack, caused the gearbox to vibrate (he thought it only a matter of time before this would, break and, with no spare, was not feeling too optimistic about finishing) and the whole engine to drop down (grinding a bit off the starter motor helped to relieve this problem).

But the most miserable man of all at this point was Coleman. He was driving as hard as he thought safe and, despite having experienced no problems, was lying a lowly seventh. He was completely demoralised and was considering ‘packin’ the fiddle’ (a phrase Liz Patterson assures us is Irish for giving up). Obviously, after three hours of rest he decided this was by far the best course of action as he was not seen again.

Billy Coleman became so discouraged by the supper halt that he decided to withdraw his Escort,

The cars left Portstewart at about 3.30am on a very fine, starlit night, with the order: 

  1. Airikkala, 68m 07s
  2. McRae, 69m 34s 
  3. Nelson, 69m 55s 
  4. Brookes, 71m.12
  5. Blomqvist 71m 49s 
  6. Fisher 72m 50s 
  7. Coleman 73m 16s
  8. McCartney 73m 45s 
  9. Cathcart 73m 52s 
  10. Kidney 74m 14s

Retirements were due to come thick and fast soon after the re-start and first was Porter who rolled the SMT Chevette in a rather comprehensive way on stage 11 (Bolea). Brookes was next to go on stage 12 (Slieve Kirk): he went into a corner that tightened on him. The road was a bit slippery, but the moment he put a wheel on the grass he was on his way to an accident. He went off, hitting a concrete gatepost that snapped in the process. It was all over for him and his service crew who had just prior to that changed the tarmac front struts on the Escort as they had seized solid.

Also on stage 12, Lyons was in trouble when second and third gears failed. He lost about 30secs here and was not able to change the ‘box until after SS1S but, in the meantime, he had his moments on stage 14. He went off trying to take a second gear corner in top. He was pushed back on the road but, with the car jammed in gear, it was impossible to move. Subsequently the car jammed the stage and, after quite a queue formed, the test, much to Lyons’s relief, was cancelled. There were those who suggested that this incident was not as clear cut as it seemed, suggesting it might not have been entirely accidental.

Vauxhall’s main problems from here on were only a puncture for each driver. McRae’s was on SS1S, where he lost about 20secs. while Airikkala, whose Chevette had a precautionary axle change after this stage, punctured on SS17. The Finn lost about half a minute, with no spare 11 inch tyres, had to complete SSI8 with one 11-inch and one  inch tyre on the rear, not the best thing to make a car handle well.

Talbot Ireland were due to have their first casualty when Coyne went off the road on stage 16, which was just after 9am on Saturday. His Sunbeam went sailing off backwards over a ditch and into a bog with the little car’s roof level with the surface of the stage. It took 20mins add help from a local to get the car out, but by this time they were very late. “Unfortunately we met a ‘very good marshal on the next stage confessed the crew who realised they were OTL. Coyne did carry on to the end of the rally and gave the finish marshals on SS20 a surprise by going over the line backwards.

Brian Culcheth retired his immaculate Opel Ascona with engine failure after a slow start.

The rally progressed with Culcheth still not able to get on terms with the rest. Dealer Opel Team’s fortunes plummeted to their lowest ebb of the season as not only had Tim Brise (not a DOT entry but receiving considerable help from them ) retired but the Ascona was also destined to do so on SSI9. It is a shame, as this car is, without doubt, one of the best-built rally cars around and it seems plagued with bad luck. This time it was the engine that failed, but it will be a few days before either WT or Broadspeed are able to work out just what went wrong to put Culcheth out of his misery that he blamed partly on his tyres.

While in the Culcheth was sitting ‘stage, DOT mechanic, David Whitehead, was helping 02 adversary McCartney to stay in the event. Before this stage a new steering rack had been fitted as the original had been slackening off bit by bit. On a slow, greasy corner on SS19 the car slid wide and bent the new rack and control arm, whereupon the tie rod broke. McCartney could not turn into left handers without the help of the handbrake and so crawled out of the stage. With the help of Whitehead, a new tie-rod was installed and 90 per cent of the rest of the work was done before the car sped to the next control, just 3secs before maximum lateness. McCartney had been lying safely in the top 10 until these problems and was losing time bit by bit. “The car was driving as if on a knife edge,” explained McCartney, and went on to-say that on the very last stage, he got his car on two wheels, but only by half the usual Manx standards.

Bertie Fisher and Austin Frazer would finish in sixth place. Photo David Smyth.

The third driver to retire at this point was Cathcart with his Escort’s engine putting flames out through the carburettors. He stalled in the middle of the stage, got going again, but realised by the end that the sensible thing was to switch off for good.

The Saab was beginning to play up again, just as it had done on the Circuit with the brake pads melting and welding themselves to the discs. The discs were having to be changed at the end of longish stages. The Turbo machine was also suffering from a cracked manifold and had a fuel injection pipe go during the night. Apart from this Blomqvist and Nelson were having a good tussle, which was not to be settled until the very last stage.

Kidney was lying sixth at this point, but he was due for problems when he clipped a stone at the start of stage 20 and had to do that 17-miler and the next 6-miler with a bent steering arm. In all, he dropped about 3 mins but luckily no places with this problem.

McRae was due for another puncture just before the start of stage 23. He stopped near the start to change it and, to his consternation, Nelson ran over his foot while he was completing the process. Whether it was the indignation of this or just a wish not to see his team-mate too far ahead, he started to motor quickly and was taking huge chunks of time off Airikkala.  Airikkala had decided that with a 6mins gap between the two Vauxhalls and third man Blomqvist he and McRae could afford to ease off. McRae obviously did not agree and over the last seven stages reduced Airikkala’s lead from 3mins to just one.

Poor Howden was still going, despite thinking after stage 10 it was just a matter of time before his gearbox gave up. He was lying just outside the top 10 and, with three stages to go, the gearbox decided to call it a day. This was a great shame, as Howden had done magnificently on his first tarmac event. Luckily, he enjoyed himself thoroughly and is determined to make a few more trips to Ireland.

So, as the end came in sight, there were a few relieved drivers. Campbell had taken the G1 lead after Lyons’s problems and stayed there. He was thrilled with the result. His event had not been trouble-free, as he had had exhaust and steering problems and had been running tyres for about seven stages more than he should have done; nevertheless, he was pleased with the performance of his CR65 racers that he had used all event.

Brian Nelson won the Tudor Championship by finishing fourth in the Tuca Carpet Tiles Escort.

It was a relief to all concerned to get back to Larne, and obviously all members of DTV were ecstatic. This win has virtually assured Airikkala of the Sedan Championship and so will remove some of the pressure from the team on the Lombard RAC Rally. Although Campbell had taken the G1 win, Carter, despite tyre problems all rally, was in third place and able to take the lead in the Sedan Group 1 battle. Nelson had just lost out to Blomqvist on the last stage, but fourth ahead of Fisher was enough to give him the Tudor title. All in all a fine rally and a very good and well deserved result for all concerned.

BelfastTalagraph Ulster Rally October 19/20

Sedan Products Open Rally Championship, Round 6

Tudor Championship, round 6

  1. Pentti Airikkala/Risto Virtanen (Vauxhall Chevette), 207m 05s;
  2. Jimmy McRae/Frank Main (Vauxhall Chevette), 208m 055; 
  3. Stig Blomqvist/Bjorn Cederberg (Saab Turbo), 214m 36s;
  4. Brian Nelson/Rodney Cole (Ford Escort RS), 214m 40s;
  5. Bertie Fisher/Austin Frazer (Ford Escort RS), 216m 22$;
  6. Ernest Kidney/Nicky Moffatt (Ford Escort RS), 222m 03$;
  7. Sean Campbell/Damien Campbell (Ford Escort RS2000), 223m 495; 
  8. John Lyons/Brian Russel (Ford Escort R52000), 225m 56$;
  9. Peter Thompson/Walter Ainsworth ford Escort RS), 226m 16$;
  10. Alan Carter/Alan Cree (Ford Escort RS2000), 226m 20s,
  11. Dessie McCartney/Peter Scott (Talbot Sunbeam), 227m 19s 

Rally leaders: SS1, McRae, Airikkala and Blomqvist: SS2 to SS5, McRae;SS6 to end Airikkala.

125 starters, 71 finishers.

Group 1

  1. Sean Campbell/Damien Campbell (Escort RS2000). 223m 49s;(7 o/a)
  2. John Lyons/Brian Russell (Escort RS2000), 225m 56s; (8 0/a)
  3. Alan Carter/Alan Cree (Escort RS2000), 226m 20s; (10 0/a) 
  4. Robert McBurney/Norman Smith (VW Golf), 235m 49s; (13 0/a) 
  5. Kenny McKinstry/John McGaffin (Escort RS2000); 239m23s; (15 0/a)

Class 1-G1 up to 1300cc:

1, Ron Neely/David Johnstone (Mini), 247m 47s; 

Class 2-G1 1301cc to 1600cc:

1, Robert McBurney/Norman Smith (VW Golf), 235m 49s; 

Class 3 –G1 over 1600cc:

1, Sean Campbell/Damien Campbell (Escort RS2000), 223m 49s; 

Class 4-G2 1301cc to 1600cc:

1, Stewart Robertson/Lawrence Clarke (Talbot Avenger), 236m 53s;

Class 5 -G2 over 1600cc:

1, Stig Blomqvist/Bjorn Cederberg(Saab Turbo), 214m 36s;

Class 7, G3/4 over 1600cc:

1, Brian Nelson/Rodney Cole(Escort RS)214m40s

Class 8 G3/4 over 2000cc

1, Pentti Airikkala/Risto Virtanen (Vauxhall Chevette), 207m 05s; 

Class 10- Diesel:

1, Gerry McGarrity/Dan Hackett (Honda Civic), 250m 20s; (31 0/a)