1984 Circuit – Carsport

This report is reproduced from Carsport 1984.
Report by Sammy Hamill, Photos bu Harold Moffett.

Triumphant return to the Throne by the King of Irish Rallying

Not since Adrian Boyd spanned an eleven year gap back in l971 to record his second victory has a Circuit of Ireland winner had to wait so long to re-live moments of past glory. James Hunt was just beginning his world Championship year; John Watson was still several months away from his first grand prix success and Roger Clark was still king of British
rallying when Billy Coleman scored his last victory on the annual Irish Easter classic.

That was his second success in a row but those two wins he will confirm were a great deal easier and less testing on the nerve ends than 1984.

From a point only hours way from the finish, where it seemed he had accepted defeat after five of the most extraordinary days in the rally‘s 53 year history, the Mallow Farmer had victory handed to him in a final dramatic twist.

Long runs the fox…Billy Coleman turned in a cool and crafty performance while the rest of the top ten dropped out.

It has been said that spectators booed as Billy quite literally crawled through the last remaining stages on the way to the Belfast finish on that sunny Easter Tuesday but perhaps, had they had a closer insight into the traumatic 600 miles of closed-road driving that had gone before, they might have been more understanding.

To be the last ear left of an original top 10 gives some indication of the concern Coleman was still rightly harbouring for his Shell-backed Dealer Opel Team Ireland Manta 400, worrying that the fairytale might yet have another ending to play.

Alongside Coleman, the former British Champion, was Ronan Morgan who only stepped into the co-driver‘s role one week before the rally began. It was his first Circuit of Ireland win, indeed the first truly major victory for a young man regarded as next in line among Irish co-drivers behind the professionals, Terry Harryman and Fred Gallagher. Morgan not only had a significant part to play in the Coleman success but better than anyone else could observe the events that led to the third Circuit coronation of Ireland’s rally king. In the weeks that have gone by he has had to reflect on the most memorable weekend of his life.

For Ronan, recently appointed sales manager of the Dublin car accessory distributors PR Reilly, the fact that he found himself as Billy’s co-driver was an irony in itself. He was scheduled to do the rally and the whole of the British Open Championship alongside John Weatherley in the Citroen UK Visa, a follow up to their 1983 partnership and indeed earlier in the season had been helping Coleman to find a Circuit co-driver. Approaches were made to Harryman and to Gallagher but they already had commitments and as Easter drew closer the problem remained.

A thoroughly consistent drive from Ernest Kidney earned second place overall, and all they did was wash the windows and put petrol in it all weekend.

Eventually it was decided to bring Brendan Neville back from America but on the day he was due to leave San Francisco it was discovered he was suffering from suspected hepatitis and would have to wait for the results of a medical examination. On the same day in England, Weatherley was trying out Citroen‘s new four-wheel-drive Visa at the MIRA track. He crashed heavily, virtually destroying the car, and the next day the decision was taken to withdraw from the rally.

“Chris Sclater rang on the Wednesday to say there was no possibility of repairing the car in time and I immediately tried to get in touch with Billy. I wasn’t sure what the situation was with Brendan Neville or if Billy still needed a co-driver. But in fact it wasn’t until Friday that we got together and until then I really wasn’t sure whether I would be doing the rally or spectating“ recalled Ronan.

It has been Morgan, of course, who had been in the co-driver’s seat when he began his comeback with DOT-Ireland, their first outing in the Sydney Meeke-built left-hand-drive Manta 400 resulting in second place on the Galway International in February, but the Circuit would be their first time together using pace notes.

His first special stage and already looking at home. A fantastic third place overall.

Mention of pace notes provokes an immediate response from Ronan. “I have to tell you about the pace notes. We had hardly started going over the route on the Monday morning when I thought I was in big trouble. We were going along with Billy calling out the notes he wanted and I was writing them down . . . 100 fast right, 50 flat left, 60 K right, 60 ash tree…”

“After a few more birch trees and chestnuts and sycamores, Billy obviously decided I wasn‘t doing too well so he stopped and gave me a crash course in botany. After that I knew what he was talking about. It may sound a bit strange but it is an indication of the detail he likes in his notes and how precise they have to be. But for a little while he had me worried.”

It was during those three days of practice that they made a decision which could have had a significant bearing on the rally. “We decided to concentrate on the Friday stages. making out notes and checking them as thoroughly as possible. We didn’t look at the final three stages to be used on Tuesday morning, reckoning at this point that they were unlikely to be important. History shows that the rally is usually over by then. As things turned out that was to be a decision which caused us some worry later on.”

Always welcome in Ireland, John Price in his Renault 5 Turbo took fourth place.

When the rally began on Good Friday morning, Russell Brookes immediately departed with his Manta breaking its prop shaft on the first stage. Coleman was not on the pace being set by the Rothmans Porsche of Henri Toivonen and the Mantas of Jimmy McRae and Bertie Fisher. He was back in sixth place, trailing his DOT-I team-mate, Austin McHale.

As the day wore on Coleman gradually increased his pace and came back to Belfast in third place, his position aided by Toivonen‘s third-stage crash; McRae’s blown head gasket and the two punctures which had slowed McHale. “The first went according to plan although maybe we didn’t expect to be as high as third place,” says Morgan. “We didn‘t intend to go too quickly. assuming that the likes of Toivonen, McRae, Harald Demuth and Fisher would be faster than us on those Northern Ireland stages. Considering it was our first day together on notes, we were very happy the way things have worked out.

“But our problems really started at Sally Gap on Saturday. Its only a few miles from my home and with Aghavannah which followed it both being stages which Billy likes, that’s where we planned to step up pace and maybe start to put some pressure on Bertie who was in the lead. But we hit a boulder lying in the road, puncturing a front wheel and losing about three minutes.

“Our whole strategy was thrown out the window but from a personal point of view it also gave me an insight into the kind of performance Billy is capable of. He was obviously angry about the puncture on Sally Gap and took off over Aghavannah like I‘ve never seen him drive before. He was magic and I can honestly say I‘ve never been over a stage quicker in my life, not with Tony Pond or Russell Brookes or anyone else.”

Kenny McKinstry drifts his way through Sunday to take sixth place at the end.

Coleman’s time of 13 minutes 20 seconds for the 17.7 miles was officially equalled by Toivonen but both of them beat the target time. Billy was actually eight seconds faster. It was the first time on the rally that anyone had broken Henri’s sequence of fastest times, other than the third stage where he had crashed and punctured two wheels. It was a much-needed boost to the Coleman-Morgan morale after the Sally Gap disaster.

Nothing, however. could halt the Toivonen charge and the Finn was back up to second place and closing rapidly on Fisher. But McRae had gone, his engine finally failing on Sally Gap, and they were reeling in Demuth’s Quattro in third place. McHale meanwhile had also lost time with a damaged front shock absorber on Sally Gap and, says Morgan, they were growing more optimistic.

Jimmy McRae checks how much time is left for service, but Sally Gap would be as far as he would go.

But their mood quickly changed to one of concern when two stages out from Waterford they passed Fisher‘s Manta parked at the side of the road. “It promoted us to second place but we were worried about what had happened to the car. Five Mantas had started and now there were only two, all because of mechanical failures. It made us very nervous, especially when we heard it was halfshaft failure.

Mantas have a history of rear axle problems and even though Billy had deliberately dropped time at stage starts by easing the car off the line rather than flooring the accelerator and dropping the clutch, we were worried.

“But in fact we never had the slightest problem from the rear axle. It was cheeked regularly and was perfect every time so there was never any question of changing it.”

So, as the rally moved into Waterford for the first time in its history, Toivonen led and with Fisher gone, Coleman was second ahead of Demuth with McHale close behind in fourth. Winning was becoming a real possibility.

Russell Brookes couldn’t believe that he didn’t even get to finish the first special stage.

“We were certainly thinking that we could win”. says Ronan. “Of course Henri was absolutely flying and we had decided that there was no point in trying to race him. He’s just a driver of a different calibre. But we still felt/hoped that the Porsche wouldn’t last, and it was still our plan to pace ourselves to the finish”.

But Sunday brought early problems, not just for Demuth who retired the Quattro with engine trouble, but for Coleman as well who dropped slightly more than a minute on the first stage when two plug leads pulled off in mid-stage. By now McHale was really into his stride and starting to charge alter two days of frustration.

“That lost minute on the first stage allowed Austin to get a bit closer to us, but other than that we virtually matched his times on the rest on the Waterford stages which, incidentally, were very good. Fast and fairly smooth, just the kind the drivers like.

Henri Toivonen with crutches after a go-karting accident on the Sunday evening.

“It was at the end of the Sunday Run that I think we really started seriously considering the possibility of winning. The thought had been there for some time, of course, although the Porsche was lasting better than we had expected, but then…Henri injured himself in a go-karting accident and we heard he was quite bad. We wondered how well he would be able to drive, or if he would be able to drive at all.”

The Monday re-start brought confirmation that Toivonen would continue, but armed with crutches and cushions to ease his injuries. The Finn appeared from rally headquarters at the Ardree Hotel looking like a wounded soldier. But irrespective of how serious his injuries were, Henri is not the man to let an opportunity like this pass. There were promotional and psychological points to be scored and Toivonen knew how to exploit them.

“We still weren’t sure whether his injuries would effect him but with a deficit of six minutes to make up I don‘t think we really considered we could increase our speed enough to catch him and still keep our own car in one piece” remembers Ronan.

“But at the end of the first stage out from Waterford the timekeepers told us they though Henri was in some kind of trouble with gears. I checked his time and he was only seven or eight seconds slower than us so we couldn’t be sure he was really having problems.

When we got to the finish of the next stage we were told there was no sign of Toivonen. It was a bit of a mystery really. We knew he started the stage ahead of us but we hadn’t seen him on the way through. We just didn’t know what had happened.

After a string of fastest times and building a huge lead, it all came to nothing on Monday.

“We started thinking where he might have gone off, places where he might finish up out of sight but really we hadn’t a clue what was happening — or even if we were now in the lead.

“At the start of the next stage the marshals and spectators were cheering Billy, telling him he was leading. They seemed to know more than we did.

“In fact there was a delay at the start of the stage and while we were sitting, the Porsche arrived. Henri was about eight or nine minutes late and he said he lost all gears in the stage and had pulled off the road. He said he had hammered the selectors with a rock until he got a gear — any gear — and they had got out of the stage; but he was very depressed and unhappy. He said he didn‘t think the car would go much further.

“In fact he was back to third place, and we were in front by about a minute from Austin. It was a marvellous feeling to be in front, but we were both well aware that we hadn’t won the rally yet – not by a long way“.

Out of luck this year again, Bertie Fisher was out at SS19.

Indeed the battle was far from over. McHale was charging hard, consistently beating Coleman by a few seconds on almost every stage and the gap as gradually closing. By the Galway supper halt, it was down to less than 30 seconds and the Coleman camp was clearly worried. Both are technically team-mates and there was talk of team orders, otherwise it was probable that neither car would finish. Billy wasn’t joking when he told third place Ernest Kidney, nearly half an hour behind, that he would win this rally yet.

“It would have been sensible for a team decision to have been taken at that point” says Morgan “but there was never any question of it. Both may be DOT-I-backed cars but they are run independently and with different sponsors and no one from Opel Ireland could have taken a decision like that. Even if they had, no one would have listened

Alan Johnston in full swing on Hamilton’s Folly. 5th Overall would be their reward.

After Galway came the Partrey Mountains and Coleman eased back. “That is a bad, dangerous stage and in recent years I’ve been off there twice with Brendan Fagan and John Weatherley. We concentrated on getting through safely, accepting that Austin would take time off us or go off the road. In fact he cut our lead back, and on the next stage too, so that in the middle of that night we were actually tying for first place. Amazing after all that distance.”

It was then that Coleman made what was thought to be a controversial decision. He hung back at the Castlebar time control, taking a one-minute road penalty (10 seconds on stage time) and allowing McHale into the lead and first on the road. They also dropped another minute (10 seconds again) at a stage start in an effort to confuse the other Opel crew.

Morgan explains: “It was a really a fierce battle at that point and it was a question of trying any tactics that might somehow create a breakthrough. We were aware that by running first on the road we were leaving warnings for Austin with big black tyre marks on the top of the blind crests. They were clearly helping him.

Winston Henry spent a lot of time welding his exhaust over the weekend. SS36 would be his last.

“As well as that we though that it would be a new situation for him, leading the rally and running at the front. He hasn’t had too much experience of a situation like that and we were looking for a mistake from him. But all credit to Austin, he went in front and really had a go, and still kept it on the road.

“In Donegal he opened the lead out to about a minute. Billy hated those stages. They were rough and the bumps were very bad. He injured his back on one of them, and things looked bad for us, but don’t believe any talk that we had given up. We were determined to have another go but we had no intention of telling that to Austin.

“I went into breakfast at Letterkenny looking down in the mouth and giving the impression it was all over while Billy slipped away for a bit of a rest. In fact the Cork Mafia gave him a bit of a roasting. They thought he had given up too.

“But alter all we had been through, second place wasn’t worth a damn at that stage and we were prepared to risk everything on the last group of stages.“

Willie John Dolan and John Crossle would finish 17th Overall.

That’s how Morgan recalls the situation but it will be viewed with more than a little scepticism considering their position was more than a little desperate. McHale was 70 seconds ahead with just five stages remaining: two in Donegal and the final three in Northern Ireland — and, remember, Coleman and Morgan had earlier decided not to do pace notes for that final section. The possibility of them catching the McHale Manta at a rate of some l5 seconds per stage was remote.

In fact McHale, knowing that they did not have pace notes for the last three stages was prepared to concede more than 20 seconds on each of the two Donegal stages, feeling he could drive faster more safely on co-driver Christy Farrell’s notes when they crossed the border.

Whatever the truth. Coleman. restarted with a major assault, slicing 23 seconds off the deficit and despite his outward composure it most have shocked even McHale. But just one more stage and then Austin felt he would be safe. The it all went wrong.

Warren Craig brought his Escort home in a great 9th place overall.

“We tackled that second stage just like we had driven the first after breakfast, going absolutely flat out,” says Morgan. “Somewhere in the stage, I don’t really remember where, I caught a glimpse of the other Opel ahead and I think I shouted ‘Oh Jesus‘. Billy hadn‘t seen them and he thought something was wrong.

“Then we were up to the car and Austin was standing in front, signalling that they were out. Billy had been really screaming our car, pushing it to the limit in every gear and I remember it so well, he selected fifth gear and dropped the revs to about 3000 and just cruised the rest of the way. In fact, we even shook hands in mid-stage. “I think then we started to realise our celebration might be a bit premature. That was four our of the five Mantas gone and we still had three stages to go. It was an extraordinary feeling, knowing we were about 30 minutes ahead of the next car and the rally was ours but still we were worried that the gremlins would get to us too.

Kenny Colbert and Manus McKenna – a fine 12th place overall.

“We never went above road speeds for the rest of the way and we caused a bit of a traffic jam in the stages with Ernest Kidney. Davy Evans and John Price all closing up on us. We didn‘t realise Davy still had a problem with Price getting close to him and when we heard we immediately told him we would move over and let him through if he caught us on the last two stages. There was no way we were going to speed up…”

So Coleman came home to his third Circuit success in a 15 year career and even if the margin was one of the greatest in the rally’s history, he felt sure it was the hardest of the lot.

“Billy was absolutely thrilled” says Ronan. “People may not realise it but he is very serious about his come-back and the prestige that goes with a Circuit win is very important. I have to say I think he did a tremendous job, using his experience to judge it perfectly and take care of the car which never gave us any trouble.

“Yes we had some luck, but you don’t win a rally as tough as the Circuit of Ireland without it”.

King Billy is back on his throne.

It meant victory too for Sydney Meeke who brought the ex-Vatanen Manta back from Germany in pieces and reconstructed it in January with his team of mechanics at the Bush near Dungannon. It was a unique tribute to him that three of his cars led the event, Coleman going one step further than Fisher who had driven a Meeke car to second place in 1983.

It was a success also for DOT-I who only launched their restructured team on the Galway International and faced criticism in some quarters for splitting their resources to bring Billy in from the cold.

Now it is on to Donegal with Coleman holding a commanding lead in the STP Tarmac championship. But Billy would like to look further afield and hopes that his return to rallying will see back on a more international setting in the not too distant future.

FOOTNOTE: For the record, Ernest Kidney finished in second place behind Coleman with ex-world hot rod champion Davy Evans third at his first attempt on any type of rally. Welshman John Price took fourth place ahead of Group A winner Alan Johnston.

  1. Billy Coleman / Ronan Morgan, 539.39
  2. Ernest Kidney / Seamus McCanny, 559.43
  3. Davy Evans / Roy Kernaghan, 571.18
  4. John Price / Derrick Davies, 573.30
  5. Alan Johnston / Bobby Willis, 576.07
  6. Ken McKinstry / Robert Philpott, 583.21
  7. David Mann / Dave West, 586.02
  8. Tim Brise / Steve Bond, 593.58
  9. Warren Craig / Colin Kniveton, 596.21
  10. Julian Roderick / David Holmes, 597.24
  11. Mike Dunnion / Dave Stone, 609.08
  12. Kenny Colbert / Manus McKenna, 609.51