THE GREAT RACE
Hard-fought tussle between McRae and Vatanen – Group 1 to Jimmy Logan after Ivor Clarkk crashes – Many retirements on first day.
This report by Rupert Saunders first appeared in Autosport, April 17, 1980. Photos Colin Taylor.
The atmosphere at the supper halt on Monday night of the Circuit of Ireland was tense. The food was appalling, which didn’t help matters, but the two rally crews fighting for the lead were not worrying about the culinary delights. For two days Ari Vatanen and Jimmy McRae had been fighting for seconds over the special stages. It seemed that one or other would have to break soon.
McRae didn’t bother to come in to supper, preferring to get some rest away from the crowds. Vatanen sat quietly in the corner of the dining room, picking at the reheated meat. He had the advantage of being in front. On a couple of stages before supper he had been significantly quicker than McRae but the strain is telling in his face. In two days of rallying he had only been able to increase the gap by 17 seconds. There was another night of rallying ahead.
“We made an executive decision at that time, just between the two of us, Ari and I,” explained co-driver Dave Richards afterwards. “We would maintain the pace for the next two or three stages and try to pull out some more seconds. Then we hoped that we could back off for the longer stages to come. We couldn’t have gone any faster without taking some horrible risks. Jimmy must have been on the point of giving up.”
And Jimmy McRae was on the point of giving up. The road book information for stage 47 of the Circuit of Ireland described the stage as ‘twisty with a few jumps in places’. Jimmy hit the first series of those jumps far too quickly.
“The car flicked sideways and, for a horrible moment we were travelling at right-angles to the bank. Then it straightened up and I knew I had had enough. I remembered that there were two championships at stake and decided to settle for second. I drove gently through to the end of the stage and we checked Vatanen’s time. At first we thought that we had taken 20secs off him. Then we realised that we had started the stage two minutes behind him and not one. We had taken 1 min 20 seconds.
That twisty stage was Vatanen’s downfall. The title for the Circuit was over and victory belonged to Jimmy McRae and Mike Nicholson driving a Vauxhall Chevette HSR.
That the Benson and Hedges Circuit of Ireland should develop into such a battle between these two drivers was a foregone conclusion from Saturday lunchtime onwards. At that point in the rally. with one and a half days gone, and two and half days still to go. Billy Coleman, the darling of the Irish crowds, retired his Ford Escort RS with a broken engine. Ari Vatanen took the lead and Jimmy McRae held second, these two almost three minutes in front of the rest of the field.
McRae was fractionally quicker than Vatanen on the run into Killarney, benefitting from a suspension change three stages out from the overnight halt to help the car handle better over the open stages. Then he was quicker again on the Sunday run, bringing the gap down to just 18 seconds before the restart on Monday morning. But that was as close as he could get.
Through Monday night Vatanen cased slowly ahead and McRae lost a vital 17secs when he started one dusty stage a minute down on the Escort driver and couldn‘t judge the braking points accurately. For the next stage, co-driver Mike Nicholson managed to steal an extra minute but within a few hours it was all over anyway.
Vatanen’s Escort had been suffering badly from bump steer for several stages and, over a series of crests, the momentum took over. The car snaked sideways, the back of the car attouched a bank, overtook the front at over 100mph and the machine flipped over the roof, landing in the middle of the road on its side. Vatanen and Dave Richards had to climb out of the car, right it for themselves, and then drive to the end of the stage. In the circumstances the time lost and the damage were remarkably small, but mentally Vatanen was finished and his race was run.
There are other ways of looking at the rally. One Vauxhall supporter suggested that you could count the scoring as two accidents to one. MeRae had his accident in the early hours of Saturday morning and it lost him the lead. Vatanen had his first accident on Friday afternoon and it cost him 15secs. His second accident cost him the rally.
“I think we’ve found its limit.” cracked MeRae as he brought his battered car into the service halt just south of the border into the Republic. “I don’t know how it got away from me. We climbed a bank. flipped over a hedge and landed on our wheels in the middle of this field. Then it was just a case of driving out through the gate and back onto the road again. Even with these wings the Chevette doesn’t ﬂy too well.”
The fact that the car was undamaged was only McRae‘s first piece of luck. His second piece was the the stage on which he had had his accident was cleanable. He was debited with a time only 1min 30sec slower than Vatanen’s although he actually dropper nearer two minutes. The order changed from MeRae, Coleman, Vatanen to Coleman, Vatanen, McRae.
The fact that the three men had pulled away from the rest of the field tells its own story. MeRae was quickest over the first stage, Ormeau Park in the middle of Belfast, and was consistently fastest over most of that first6 day. The only other driver who looked to have the same turn of speed was Henri Toivonen and he was attacking the stages in typical fashion. After the first fastest time. on Torr Head he mis-understood the arrows on the top of a crest on the ninth stage, Glendun River. and the Talbot Sunbeam spun backwards into an Irish bog. A local tractor was used to pull the car clear of the quagmire and it was obviously undamaged because Toivonen went quickest on the next stage as well. Two stages later it was all over. The young Finn crashed the Sunbeam into a wall on the outside of a tightening left-hander and, although he managed to get clear of the stage, the car was beyond repair and out of time.
The other Talbot Sunbeam Lotus was one of the early retirements too, with Brookes pulling his car up on the fifth stage after the con-rod punched its way out through the side of the engine, spreading an oil slick down a mile of the special stage — an unexpected hazard which gave Jimmy MeRae one of his nastiest moments of the first day. There were worrying moments for other Vauxhall drivers. too.
Terry Kaby’s car spluttered to a halt on the second stage and it took a minute or two to trace the fault to a broken rotor arm. The problem was to find a replacement. The rotor arm from a Vauxhall Magnum didn‘t fit and then one spectator produced the required replica from a Mini which fitted perfectly. Kaby was on his way again — but back in 109th place. Graham Elsmore continued too-—but he had a slipping clutch and by the end of the day, the problem was so bad that he had to change the gearbox just to cure a leaking oil seal.
At least all three Vauxhalls were still running. The Opel and the Toyota were both out, both with valve troubles. Brian Nelson managed a couple of stages with the new Group 1 Ascona 2000 but Alan Carter only scored on one stage with the Toyota Celica. When the car dropped onto three cylinders on the road section between the first two stages, the team decided that it wasn’t worth carrying on and retired on the spot.
“A lot of people have been trying too hard today,” was Mike Nicholson’s assessment of the situation as the rally returned to Belfast with McRae just 14secs in the lead. He wasn’t really being fair since most of the retirements had been through engine trouble. Stig Blomqvist’s Saab was the last car of the day to go, losing all its oil through a split cooler on the tenth stage, Mare’s Tale, and running the bearings.
The hard triers all made their mistakes in the early hours of Saturday morning when the last stage north of the border claimed most of the field. Tim Brise put his Escort off the road on a tightening right-hander which was covered with gravel and it was only the fact that he and Phil Short flagged other drivers down that stopped the carnage from being any greater. Timo Salonen hit the bank. Mick O’Connell hit the bank. Ian Cathcart went off for a couple of minutes and all the leading Group 1 runners dropped into the hole, Julian Raymond managing to leave the road twice in the course of the same stage.
From the accidents came at least two retirements and only one happy result. With Brise out of the rally the Kleber tyre men were able to concentrate their service on Bertie Fisher and the young Irish driver began to ﬂy. By the end of that day he had worked his way through the ﬁeld to take over third place, well poised should either of the leading two strike trouble.
“I’d have been off there if Phil Short hadn’t waved me down,” said a relieved Steve Ward, running his Datsun on a shoestring budget, but his relief was short lived. As the second day of the Circuit dawned and the blazing sun rose in the sky again, the rally reached the Sally Gap, the longest stage of the event. Despite the warm weather there were still patches of snow lying on the top of the mountains and conditions were treacherous indeed.
Coleman jumped his Escort too hard early in the test and bent a steering arm, forcing him to slow, but this time, luck was on his side. The stage was cleaned by the four fastest drivers and so his penalties didn’t count. Ari Vatanen should have been two seconds quicker than McRae, with Coleman a further 18secs down. For Steve Ward it was the end of the road. The Datsun nosed into a hole, spun on its front panel and slammed down into the tarmac, bending the back axle beyond repair.
The drama of Sally Gap (“bloody dangerous” — Dave Richards) and Aghavannagh behind them, crews settled into something of a rhythm as the rally ran directly south-west towards Killarney. There was little time for service and certainly no time for any running repairs so reliability became more important than outrght’ speed. McRae, following his early morning dramas, pulled Vatanen in a little, and both Coleman and Elsmore dropped out, on the same stage and both with engine failure. The fight to the finish was now on.
With everybody watching the battle for the lead it was easy to overlook the battle that was going on for third place, a position occupied by Bertie Fisher, Malcolm Wilson and Roger Clark during the course of Sunday. A driver who could have been expected to be in the laurels was John Lyons, having the drive of his lifetime in the Group2 Opel Kadett. Going into the Sunday run Lyons was in fifth place and happy to bide his time. On the second stage of the day he was caught by a dropping left-hander over a brow and put the Opel off the road, another victim of a tricky corner which some crews felt should have been cautioned.
“I wasn’t even going quickly,” he complained later. “I was quite happy and the pressure was off. There should have been some warning.” A view echoed by Alex Jackson who also put his Group 2 Kadett off on the same spot.
After a lap around the beautiful island of Valencia there should have been a simple run back home — but rallying is never that simple and third place became as uncertain as first and second. On speed alone it should have belonged to Malcolm Wilson who was very fast around the Sunday loop and kept his head through the night. But Malcolm made two mistakes, one on Sunday and one in the early hours of Tuesday morning, both of them putting the car off the road.
Perhaps Roger Clark should have collected third place after a steady drive in the V8 TR7, only opening the car up on the faster stages where the sweeping bends suited its driving style. A good result looked on the cards until the engine gremlins struck again. A baffle in the sump-pan came loose, touched the crankshaft and little pieces of aluminium floated free in the oil.
“We think that we’ve got them all out but we can only really hope. If we get some more time we’ll try to drain the system again,” said Roger optimistically, but his optimism was misplaced. After one stage on Monday the oil pressure dropped away again and Guinness was the only cure!
So third should have gone to Bertie Fisher – but that didn’t happen either. Fisher’s troubles started on the first stage of the Sunday, Molls Gap, when he holed the sump. That damage was cured but a blown head gasket two stages from the end of the day put him out permanently.
Third place did go to Ger Buckley, the only driver in the final top five to make the finish with an undamaged car. And that really was the lesson of the 1980 Circuit of Ireland. This was as long and tough an event as ever. The Circuit has lost none of its sting. Just ask Jimmy McRae or Ari Vatanen.
Benson & Hedges Circuit of Ireland Apr 4-8
European Rally Championship (coeff 2) Round 13
Sedan Products Open Rallv Championship Round 2
- Jimmy McRae/Mike Nicholson (Vauxhall Chevette HSR), 462m 40s;
- Ari Vatanen/Dave Richards (Ford Escort RS), 465m 04s;
- Ger Buckley/John Caplice (Ford Escort RS), 478m 27s;
- Malcolm Wilson/Terry Harryman (Ford Escort RS), 482m 19s;
- Ian Catiicart/Robert Harkness (Ford Escort RS), 499m 34s;
- Terry Kaby/Brian Rainbow (vauxhall Chevette HS), 502m 31s;
- Jimmy Loganl Derek Ervine (Ford Escort RS2OD0), 507m 59s;
- Godfrey Jones/Cyril France-Jackson (Ford Escort RS2OOO), 508m 59s;
- James McDonald/Leslie Murphy (Talbot Sunbeam), 515m 42s;
- John Tansey/Rea Inglis (Ford Escort RS), 515m 53s.
Class 1, G1 up-to-1300cc
- Trevor Noble/Kenny Campbell (Opel Kadett), 561 m O1 s; (21 o/a)
- Neil Calvert/Dave Read (Ford Escort), 567m 16s; (24 o/a)
- Ian Harrison/Alan Ridehalgh (Ford Escort), 570m 40s; (27 o/a)
Class 2, G1 up-to-1600cc
- Mike Dunnion/Dave Stone (Talbot Avenger), 546m 50s; (17 o/a)
- Michael Kirby/Chris McNa|ly (Volvo 343), 596m 55s; (40 o/a)
- Margaret Lawlor/Olive Hayes (Renault 5 Alpine), 606m 285; (45 o/a)
Class 3, G1 over 1600cc
- Jimmy Logan/Derek Ervine (Escort RS20000), 507m 59s; (7 o/a)
- Godfrey Jones/Cyril France-Jackson (Escort RS2000), 508m 59s; (8 0/_a)
- Julian Raymond/John Daniels (Escort RS2000), 516m 27s; (11 o/a)
Class 4, G2 up-to-1300cc
- Gerry McGarrity/Dan Hackett (Honda Civic), 546m 53s; (18 o/a)
- Brian Wiggins/Tony Shepherd (Vauxhall Chevette), 561 m 52s; (22 o/a)
- Dermot Sullivan/Michael Roche (Datsun Sunny), 585m 14s; (36 o/a)
Class 5, G2 up-to-1500cc
- Ernest Kenmore/John Armstrong (Escort Sport), 533m 52s; (14 o/a)
- Raymond Knox/Trevor Knox (Talbot Sunbeam), 536m 40s; (15 o/a)
- Pat Murphy/Tony Mahony (Escort Sport), 550m 41 s; (20 o/a)
Class 6, G2 over-1600cc
- James McDonald/Leslie Murphy (Talbot Sunbeam), 515m 42s; (9 o/a)
- Peter Clarke/Bernard Smith (Escort), 564m 12s; (23 o/a)
- Langley Humphries/Ken Humphries (Escort), 572m 33s; (31 o/a)
Class 7, G3/4 up-to-2000cc
- Ari Vatanen/Dave Richards (Ford Escort RS). 465m 04s; (2 o/a)
- Ger Buckley/John Caplice (Ford Escort RS), 478m 27s; (3 o/a)
- Malcolm Wilson/Terry Harryman (Ford Escort RS), 482m 19s (4 o/a)
Class 8, G3/4 over 2000cc
- Jimmy McRae/Mike Nicholson (Vauxhall Chevette HSR), 462m 04s; (1 o/a)
- Terry Kaby/Brian Rainbow (Vauxhall Chevette HS), 502m 31 s; (6 o/a)
- Rosemary Smith/Rita Farrell (Opel Ascona 400), 538m 04s; (16 o/a) .
Class 9, Diesel
- Joe McHale/Michael O’Neill (VW Golf), 611m 19s; (46 o/a)
- David McAuley/Brian Willis (VW Golf), 621m 39s; (47 o/a)
- Ivan Sheane/Brian Holmes (VW Golf), 637m 45s; (51 o/a)
131 starters; 52 finishers.