1983 Donegal Rally

A packed house watches Vincent Bonner and Seamus McGettigan make local heroes out of themselves with a fine win in Donegal.

Article reproduced from Carsport Magazine July 1983
Report by Sammy Hamill, Photographs by Harold Moffett

James Cullen – Clerk of the Course

In truth, the 1983 Donegal International turned out to be a classic dish conjured up out of ingredients which had looked appetising to the discerning. There was no indication in the entry list that it would turn out to be a battle royal and even on the evidence of last year no suggestion that it could be so superbly staged by virtually the same organising team.

It looked like being the biggest one-horse race of the year even though Fisher refused to regard himself as an odds-on favourite. He was aware of the possibility of teething troubles with the new Sydney Meeke-built Manta 400 and wary too, of the threat being posed by McHale and Kenny McKinstry in particular.

And while he took it steadily over the opening batch of stages, the striking white and multi-striped Manta turned out to be a superb car – discounting a minor problem with the front brakes – and it was clear McHale’s slender lead would inevitably be wiped out.

A spectacular drift and Austin McHale lines the car up perfectly on Atlantic Drive.

But Austin’s bad luck bogey saved Bertie the effort, the Pat Kirk/ATS Chevette jamming in first gear on the fifth stage and as McHale crawled through, making way for overtaking cars, he punctured a front wheel in a ditch to add insult to injury.  An eight second lead turned into a four minute deficit.

McKinstry had gone, his KD Kars Escort blowing a head gasket, and Fisher had the measure of second placed Bonner. It looked like the rally might already be over as a contest. By the end of Friday night’s eight stages Fisher was almost a minute in front and only McHale, battling his way back from 19th place, was on the same pace although still some four minutes off the lead.

On a burning bright Saturday morning Fisher roared through the first stage, sweating profusely inside the oven-hot cockpit of the Manta but well pleased with life in general. Minutes later he heard that McHale was six seconds quicker. Stage two and Fisher trod a little harder on the throttle pedal. He was 10 seconds quicker than McHale. The decision had been made. Bertie and Austin Frazer were clearly regulating their speed according to McHale, now moving through the top 10, and not second-placed Bonner.

At the end of five stages Fisher was nearing a two minute lead with McHale up to fourth but the gap between the two had only varied by one second. But why race McHale, I wondered? Surely it isn’t really necessary? Fisher and Frazer thought otherwise. They wanted to keep at least “puncture distance” in front.

The beautiful Opel Manta of Bertie Fisher moments before it all went wrong for him on Fanad Head.

In any case Bertie felt he was well within him limit, braking early for junctions, staying off the verges and generally taking care of the car. He had it under control. There were however two long loops around the Fanad Peninsula to come in the afternoon, four stages each time without service. Fisher and Frazer considered that section crucial. As they led the field away from the Milford Inn after the lunch break, they had no idea how crucial.

First was Kindrum Lake with the pointless “naggery” Truskniore section thrown in, just the place to puncture a tyre or even tear a wheel off. Fisher intended to be careful. McHale couldn’t afford to be anything else but charge. He was 15 seconds faster than Fisher.

Richard Heeley and Vincent Meade managed to avoid trouble and finished a sound third place overall.

No one will know what effect that had on Fisher, although Frazer insists that possibility was all part of the calculations. They could afford to let him do that on a stage they considered potentially dangerous to their chances. But whether pride entered the contest at this point, we cannot know.

Fisher crashed on the next stage, Fanad Head. He will admit he was going quicker but I am personally convinced that had nothing to do with it. He flew over a crest into an un-arrowed junction, the left front of the Manta glancing off a wall and spinning the car across the road into a ditch.

Other drivers confirm that the arrows which had unquestionably been put there, had been removed. Frazer explains “There was a CARE warning in the road book and I was watching the mileage coming up to it on the tripmeter. We were in a series of fast sweeping bends but there was nothing that looked like a hazard as we came up to the relevant trip reading.

Robin Lyons gets very sideways in Ramelton on his way to sixth place overall.

“I was watching for the advance arrow to time my call but there was nothing. Then we came out of the fast sweepers at about 80-85 mph and suddenly there was this blind crest. I realised immediately this was the CARE but it was too late. I shouted but we were already going over the crest and Bertie tried to throw the car to the right. There just wasn’t enough room and we hit the wall.”

Damage to the bodywork of the Manta looked a good deal worse than it really was but two wheels had been punctured, the suspension and steering bent, They got the car out of the ditch and on to the end of the stage, being passed by Bonner, Richie Heeley’s Escort and McHale on the way.

Cyril Bolton and Derek Irvine in the powerful TR7 V8.

Unknown to Fisher, McHale had also been off on the same Corner. He and co—driver Christy Farrell had been caught out by the missing arrows, flying straight over the crest and through a gateway. Austin admitted afterwards that he didn’t even get the chance to attempt the corner. It was a miraculous escape.

Fisher had new wheels fitted by his Sydney Meeke-crewed chase car at the end of the stage, illegal servicing which was observed, but that was a chance that had to be taken. He still had two more stages to do and the alternative was a retirement on the spot. The suspension was wrecked and the steering wouldn’t turn, causing two huge spins as he battled to get the Manta back to Milford, where news of the drama was filtering through on the shortwave radios. The reaction was “Very funny—I’m not falling for that one”. But soon it became clear that this was no joke.

Manxman Ian Corkhill gives Mike Byron a sideways ride on the way to 8th place.

Bonner arrived first on the road, to confirm that Fisher had hit a wall and looked to be out. McHale, up to second now, said Bertie was still going but the car looked bad. Minutes later the Manta arrived looking very second-hand. The Meeke mechanics descended on it, straightening, replacing, patching up as much as possible in the few minutes available.

Bertie coolly talked into a microphone for Downtown’s Richard Young, but he was seething with anger. First man on the road usually pays the biggest penalty for any organisational breakdown. Fisher rejoined the battle now in eighth place but the car was still difficult to drive.

Austin Frazer looks on as the service crew attend to the Fisher car.

There had been no time to replace the steering rack and the Manta had virtually no lock to the right. Shortly afterwards it refused to go round a long right-hander, running wide onto rocks, puncturing another wheel and break ing the steering. Fisher was out.

Now it was a straight fight between Bonner and McHale, Vincie driving the Henley Forklift Escort better than ever but conceding that McHale was unstoppable. As the gap fell it was just a matter of guessing when the Chevette would go back in front. Another gearbox problem delayed the inevitable for a few more stages and so as the survivors of a tough second day roared round the houses in Ramelton, Bonner was still in front but only just.

Charlie McAteer and Pat Haughey from Letterkenny going for it in Ramelton.

Sunday morning was traditionally leisurely. Time for a walk on the beach or even a swim. And time too to reflect on the dramas of the day before. Or, like former Donegal king Cathal Curley, staying in bed after a long night cheering up the Fisher entourage. He and Margaret made the 100-mile round trip to lend moral support at the end of a bad day.

By lunchtime, the roads leading to Downings and Atlantic Drive were slow-moving snakes of traffic. Three runs over the Drive would make for relaxed spectating – if one could even get within eyesight of the place.

Ballymena’s George Robinson in his smart Chevette HSR.

Bonner was still holding on grimly but the gap was narrowing slightly with every stage. It was, truly, a magnificent battle and yet one just knew McHale was going to make it. By the time he returned to the Downings service area for the third time he was in front, by nine seconds. The war was over, only Bonner’s surrender needed to be negotiated.

Up on to the Drive they went for the last time, Bonner still leading the way on the road. This time the stage was reversed, or in the usual direction, if you like, and down at the Rosapenna golf course, crowds lined the road waiting for the car to complete the demanding 10-miler. Bonner roared into view, followed just over a minute later by Heeley….No McHale. Then the white Chevette came rumbling along, frayed rubber flapping from its wheels, rims clanking on the hot tarmac.

Cathal McGettigan holds on tight as Robert Moffat gets the tail out on his way to 5th Overall.

Three punctured wheels had robbed McHale of his first international win at the cruellest possible moment. He was devastated. Effectively only one stage remained plus two thrashes around the streets of Letterkenny. A nine-second lead had become a 49-second deficit. This time the war really was over.

Bonner and Seamus McGettigan returned to Letterkenny to be greeted as the first Donegal winners of the Donegal International, local heroes indeed. Second place was no consolation for McHale but Heeley was well pleased to have held off the Chevette of Downings publican John Connors for third place. The spectacularly driven Escort of Robert Moffett took fifth place just under half a minute in front of the lone Ulster driver in the top 10, Robin Lyons in his Sunbeam.

Sydney Meeke (complete with wee Biro) chats with Austin McHale, Richie Heeley and Malcolm Smith (Mass Engineering)

Changed times from the nights of revelry which had greeted the successes of Curley, of Brian Nelson and of John Lyons in the past. This year the celebrations belonged to Donegal, not just for Bonner but for James Cullen and the organising team too.

lt is a pity that the likes of Bertie Fisher and Phil Collins, who lost third place when he went off the road on a series of cautioned bumps on the second of the Saturday stages, left for home, probably never to return.

It was the amiable Welshman Collins who put his finger on the problem. “Look, it was my fault I went off. It had nothing to do with the organisation. It is the system that is wrong. I love the rally but l don’t think I’ll be back unless some form of pace notes are allowed. The speeds in these cars are just too high to be driving blind.”

It is all very well for the powers that be to sit in their Dublin office and dictate “there shall be no pace notes”. They don’t have to risk their necks or their cars. If they did, I suggest the fright might finally open their eyes.

Donegal International Rally 1983

Irish Tarmac Rally Championship, Round 2

1. Vincent Bonner/Seamus McGettigan (Ford Escort RS) 223m23s;
2. Austin McHale/Christie Farrell (Vauxhall Chevette HSR) 223m41s;
3. Richie HeeleyVincenl Meade (Ford Escort RS) 225m28s;
4. John Connor/Seamus Gormley (Vauxhall Chevette HSR) 225m49s;
5. Robert Moffat/Cahal McGettigan (Ford Escort RS) 228m48s;
6. Robin Lyons/Derek Smyth (Talbot Sunbeam Lotus) 229m11s;
7. Mark Reynolds/Alan Farrelly (Vauxhall Chevette HSR) 231m46s;
8. Ian Corkhill/Michael Byron (Ford Escort RS) 232m01s;
9. Cyril Bolton,/Derek Irvine (Triumph TR7 V8) 233m32s;
10 Mike Pattison/Dave Taylor (Ford Escort RS) 233m32s.