1985 Donegal

This report is reproduced from Carsport July 1985.
Report by Sammy Hamill, pictures by David Patterson.

Billy Coleman Master Class

The drunken loud-mouth who balled out “Austin should’a won” as Billy Coleman mounted the stage of the Mount Errigle Hotel to collect the victor’s spoils at the end of the most dramatic of all Donegal International rallies, got it right — but for all the wrong reasons.

No one needed to tell Austin McHale he should have won. He knew he should have; couldn’t believe he hadn’t; was still wondering how and why he had lost

But to imply that Coleman had stolen it from him was to cast a slur on the finest, fighting come-back I have ever seen in Irish rallying. It was, too, the greatest performance Billy Coleman has produced. Not even in his halcyon days of the mid-seventies can I remember Billy driving with such fire and conviction. This was the best of King

The menacing black Opel Manta of Austin McHale and Christy Farrell seemed helpless as Coleman hunted them down.

That, I feel sure, will be of little consolation to the devastated McHale who had victory in the palm of his hand and let it run through his fingers like grains of fine sand that somehow slip away. He simply couldn’t stop nor even slow the Coleman charge and Austin swears both he and the Dealer Opel Team Ireland Manta were on the limit of their performance.

However. what might ease McHale’s agony somewhat is the verdict of a member of Coleman’s own Rothmans team who remarked “I don’t think even Henri Toivonen could have driven the car better than Billy did over the last two days”. Anyone who remembers Finn Toivonen on the 1984 Circuit of Ireland will realise the recognition Coleman achieved within his own team with this astonishing performance.

But to understand what went wrong for McHale. the young pretender to Coleman‘s crown, it is necessary to plot the progress of the battle from the beginning.

In the build-up to the third round of the STP Tarmac championship round, the talk was about Tony Pond and the first appearance of the new Metro 6R4; about Coleman’s fourth place on the World championship Tour de Corse; about the late intervention of Bertie Fisher and about how these outside factors would affect the McHale quest for the Tarmac title.

If Pond’s Metro lasted it would win but if not, as expected, then it was down to old rivalries between Coleman. Fisher and McHale. On the evidence of what had gone before this season, Fisher was favourite in the Meeke-built, GM Dealer Sport, Shell Oils, Alumac, Dealer Opel Team Ireland Manta 400, to give the car its full and grandiose title, all of which was necessary to get it to Donegal in the first place.

There were high hopes for the Tony Pond/Rob Arthur Metro. It didn’t disappoint in terms of speed, but reliability was an issue and they wouldn’t make it out of the first day.

The scene was set for the battle which might centre around four drivers but which featured a cast of more than 130 ‘extras’ each with their own targets, their own points to prove.

Out from Letterkenny on Day One, Pond in the little ARC projectile set the pace with McHale and Coleman someway back but separated by one second only. Fisher, as planned, started cautiously and was only fifth fastest. On stage two, it was Pond again with Coleman and McHale returning times just two seconds apart. Fisher, however. was in trouble; the rear axle starting to tighten up and finally seizing on the road section after the stage. A breather pipe had been kinked during installation of the axle, causing it to overheat. One of the favourites was out.

It was Pond fastest again on stage three but McHale was getting into the groove and was five seconds quicker than Coleman. Stage four was the flat-out blast over the mountain at Glendowan where Pond was again fastest, reporting later than he had been pulling 9300rpm in fifth gear: 147mph!

Coleman, too, was flying, just nine seconds slower than Pond and 23 quicker than McHale. who had been slowed towards the end by a puncture. Coleman, however, had encountered his first problem.

Dan Daly would be running in the top 10 on the first day but crashed out on the Saturday.

A heavy landing out on the stage had bent the sump guard of the Porsche and at service repairs were carried out. However, the Porsche mechanics failed to complete the job on time and Coleman re-joined the battle minus the protective sump guard. When or how the sump guard was re-fitted is not quite clear but Coleman saw a 19 second advantage over McHale turn to a 44-second deficit over the next four stages, the Dubliner now leading following the demise of the Metro which had gone out with engine failure.

By the end of the first day the gap was 40 seconds and McHale was well pleased with the position. He had gained a useful lead without having to over-extend either himself or the car and the battle was finely poised for the Saturday stages, the real heart of the rally.

It was McHale, however, who had a fright when the time came for the re-start – the Manta was reluctant to fire up. The word at the time was that the Opel’s engine had not been running when it left parc ferme, an offence which carried a Donegal penalty of 30 seconds. Austin insisted it was running, albeit on only two cylinders, and the marshal on the spot couldn’t be certain either way. The outcome, however, was no penalty even though Coleman‘s co-driver Ronan Morgan tried to lodge a protest but was refused on technical grounds. It was a narrow escape for the Opel team.

Stroke of luck No. 2 for McHale came on the second stage of the morning, Atlantic Drive, where Billy who had trimmed one second back off the lead on Derrylaggy, slid wide into a rock, puncturing a wheel. He dropped 40 seconds to McHale on the stage and a further 50 when he was late into the next time control. The gap increased by another eight seconds when the unsettled Coleman was slow over the next stage.

One of the starts of the event was James Cullen.

Theories that the whole rally might well be won or lost on Atlantic Drive began to hold some credence when McHale pulled into the Milford service area his lead now extended to two minutes and 18 seconds. Coleman apart, there was hardly a person who didn’t believe he already had it in his pocket.

But what went wrong from that point on — and why? — is at the heart of the whole debate. Complacency or miscalculation or shrewd tactics by Coleman and Morgan. Perhaps a combination of all three. The facts of the matter are that McHale and co-driver Christy Farrell made a crucial error on the next three stages which looped out over Knockalla. Fanad Head and Kindrum Lake.

Coleman lit up the Porsche like we have never seen him do before. slashing 40 seconds off the gap, 20 of them taken back on Kindrum alone. McHale brushed it off saying he had “fallen asleep” on those stages but in truth he didn’t know what times Coleman was producing, the Porsches crew having fallen back and deliberately hiding from the leaders.

Another Donegal Non-finish for Bertie Fisher and Austin Frazer in the Alumac Opel Manta 400.

The realisation of the situation only became clear back at service again where Farrell at first said they had eased back, letting Billy take “10 or 12 seconds” from them. When he eventually saw Coleman’s times he was visibly shocked but the official word from the team was that all was well and still going to plan.

However. it is now clear that Coleman had pulled a master stroke, the result of which was better than ever he could have hoped. McHale was now caught in a dilemma of trying to find a pace to preserve his dwindling lead and preserve his car. A lead of 30 seconds at the end of the day would be enough to see him through to victory on Sunday, he maintained.

It was negative thinking, an untypically defensive approach by McHale. He seemed to ignore the basis on which his reputation has been built — attack is the best form of defence.

Austin was certainly quicker round the Knockalla-Fanad-Kindrum loop the next time but another 17 seconds went from his lead and it might have been more if Coleman had not made a slip on Kindrum — it was never admitted that he did, but his was almost the only time slower than on the first run.

No matter, he had cut the two-minute 18-second deficit by a full minute and the gap was falling much faster than McHale could afford. Beneath a still calm exterior in the Opel camp, the alarm bells were starting to ring. This was not going to be a cosy run home to comfortable win.

McHale could no longer afford to play a tactical game. He had to get back on the pipe and work that Manta to the limit. But still Billy kept coming — 10 seconds on the next stage. 6 on the next, 6 again on the next, 7 on the next, 7 more on the next and 4 on the final stage of the day. The gap was down to 37 seconds.

McHale’s claim that he needed to be just 30 seconds in front was about to be put to the test. Sunday would not be a day for the faint-hearted in either camp.

Vincent Bonner and Seamus McGettigan had a close shave on the Kindrum Jump, damaging the oil pump. Nobody quite knows how they made it to service.

The Sunday stages were said to be bumpy in the main and at least one had most of its surface eaten away by the hard winter. A puncture might settle it but for both crews it was simply a matter of going as hard as both they and their machines could stand. Now even the rev limiter was removed from the Opel’s engine. McHale could ignore the normal 8000rpm imposed in the interests of reliability.

Eight stages to go and 37 seconds between them. Coleman needed something close to five seconds a stage. McHale had to stop him taking the time back. Neither camp would have been prepared to place any bets on the outcome. There was already a great deal at stake for both of them.

For McHale, a first victory over his old DOTI team-mate, a chance to step out of the shadow of the acknowledged master; for Coleman a first win for the Rothmans team who has had little real success in the British Isles since Toivonen departed.

Stage one on Sunday afternoon saw the Coleman charge continue with another eight seconds trimmed off the lead, well within the required target. Stage two brought four more and McHale’s situation was getting desperate. The gap was now just 25 seconds. Somehow he held the Porsche to just one second on the third stage but by the time they returned to service in Letterkenny, the margin was down to 20 seconds exactly.

Local driver Eammon Harvey, partnered by Michael Pearson, gives the spectators something to remember.

The same loop of four stages were all that remained of the rally but already there were rumours that the final stage would not be run because of spectator problems. Would its cancellation save McHale? Deny Coleman? If they were tied for the lead would Clerk of the Course Jim Callaghan have the nerve to call it off prematurely?

The tension had reached an almost unbearable level as the cars moved out from service for the last time, the Rothmans helicopter hovering overhead, tracking Billy’s every move.

Perhaps Coleman had heard the cancellation rumours too, for he literally flew over the Killydonnell stage, cuttng what remained of McHale’s lead in half. Only 10 seconds between them now and three stages left. The odds were swinging heavily in Coleman’s favour. But somehow McHale held him to two seconds on the next stage and it was back in the balance again, the Opel man maybe having the edge if the final stage was not going to be run.

There was about eight seconds between them as the time-keepers counted down the start to stage 32, the penultimate stage, just four and a half miles long. Somewhere in the middle of it McHale made a marginal error, fractionally overshooting a junction. He had to brake hard and turn back into the corner, the Manta losing all its momentum. In that instant the lead changed hands. Coleman was nine seconds quicker over the stage and for the first time. he led the rally — but by only a single second.

If McHale still harboured hopes of pulling victory out of the fire, still had not conceded defeat, then officialdom was about to declare Coleman the winner. Word filtered back that the final stage was, indeed, cancelled. Some say there was never any real intention of running it, knowing the dangers and congestion it would present as almost every spectator in the county congregated for one last look.

It was over. Coleman had won by the tiniest margin possible, the smallest victory gap in the history of international rallying. Yet there was no real sign of emotion from either driver. They sat in their cars, drained by their efforts. Perhaps neither of them were quite prepared to accept that the battle had been won — and lost.

Even the spectators back at the finish ramp seemed unsure, disbelieving. Their greeting for Coleman was somewhat low-key and half-hearted. Maybe they didn‘t understand that they had been witnessing the greatest performance ever seen in this country.

It was another giant-killing performance from John Lyons in the Honda Civic CRX.

Certainly few of them could understand how Billy had performed such a miracle, least of all the defeated McHale. Hindsight reveals that he committed a serious error on Saturday afternoon by going too slowly. But that apart he did almost nothing wrong and the simple facts of the matter are that he and the Opel were outperformed by Coleman and the Porsche.

It was Bertie Fisher who said later “You have to hand it to Billy — he is a man you must never underestimate”. McHale will never make that mistake again.

The supporting cast:

Cyril Bolton and Derek Ervine [Opel Manta] — Probably the finest performance in Ireland by Lancastrian Cyril whose third place kept him at the head of the Tarmac championship. His Saturday charge brought him up through the leaderboard at such a rate that even co-driver Ervine couldn’t believe their pace. “I think he must have taken his brains out” said Derek.

Phil Collins and Roger Taylor [Opel Manta] — A finish at last in Donegal after crashing in the past two years. Phil was always in the thick of the battle with Bolton, Mike Pattison and Vincent Bonner. He recovered after frightening himself silly on the second stage on Fridav to take fourth place but couldn’t quite get to grips with Bolton.

Vincent Bonner and Seamus McGettigan [Opel Ascona] — Looked to have third place all sewn up until a flat-in-fifth leap over the big Kindrum jump smashed the oil pump. Somehow he made it to service with a dead engine. a feat witnessed by half the crews in the rally but not. apparently, by any rally officials. A puncture cost him more time but still Bonner battled home to a creditable fifth.

Mike Pattison and Dave Taylor [G3 Escort] — Mike kept up his fine run of tarmac rally results. his Gartrac Escort always in amongst the Opels. He had fourth place for a while but fell back as the Bolton-Collins battle hotted up.

Kenny McKinstry and Mark Crowe (Ford Escort] — Kenny will probably be disappointed with his seventh place but it was nevertheless a good recovery after a slow start when he felt unwell and then had the seat break beneath him in mid-stage. But he was back on the pace on Saturday and Sunday although damage to the rear suspension cost him some time.

Pat Dunnion and Neil Fitzsimmons [Lotus Sunbeam] – Pat always was going strongly in the top 10, losing ground when he put the Sunbeam off the road and into a bog on the High Glen stage and then dropping more time when the axle was bent on Sunday but still maintaining his position on the leaderboard.

Pat Kirk and Godfrey Crawford [Nissan 240RS] — Always a real charger, Pat did a great deal of damage to the bodywork on only the third stage when he spun into a bank blocking the stage for a short time. But even if the Nissan didn’t look pretty from then on it still kept going to bring Pat a well-deserved top 10 finish.

Stephen Emerson and Ken McEntee [Ford Escort] — The best international result for another real Ulster charger. Stephen has done a fair amount of damage to a lot of Sunbeams in the past but this time he kept the Escort running strongly all the way to the finish for a fine 10th overall.

Jody McGrath and Walter Cuddy had a fantastic run to finish 12th, having been seeded at number 71.

Among other performances worth noting, Jody McGrath’s great drive to 12th place from a start number in the Seventies; Dan Daly and Stanley Orr who were both on the edge of the top 10 when they crashed out on Saturday; James Cullen whose 11th place is still the subject of an RIAC hearing but he was one of the stars of the rally; Lawrence Gibson who brought the big TR7 home to 14th place and, of course, James McDaid who was right up among the leading bunch until his enormous accident at the end of Kindrum Lake.

It wouldn’t be Donegal, however, without a spectacular performance from John Lyons and he did it this time in a road-standard Honda CRX. John won his class unchallenged; beat all the Group N cars by nearly 10 minutes and all but two from Group A as well. At one point he was considering whether to have a go at pulling in the Dealer Opel Team Ireland Kadett of Frank Fennell which was just 55 seconds in front of him starting out on Sunday morning. In the end, discretion proved the best decision and John concentrated on getting the little Honda (which three weeks ago was sitting in Harold McGarrity’s showroom) home to another Tarmac championship class win, and 16th place overall.

Donegal International Rally 1985
General Classification

  1. Billy Coleman/Ronan Morgan (Porsche 911SC RS) 3h 00m 45s
  2. Austin McHale/Christy Farrell (Opel Manta 400) 3h 00m 46s
  3. Cyril Bolton/Derek Ervine (Opel Manta 400) 3h 07m 23s
  4. Phil Collins/Roger Freeman (Opel Manta 400) 3h 07m 31s
  5. Vincent Bonner/Seamus McGettigan (Opel Ascona 400) 3h 07m 57s
  6. Mike Pattison/David Taylor (Ford Escort G3) 3h 09m 05s
  7. Ken McKinstry/Mark Crowe (Ford Escort RS) 3h 11m 57s
  8. Pat Dunnion/Neil Fitzsimmons (Lotus Sunbeam] 3h 12m 38s
  9. Pat Kirk/Godfrey Crawford (Nissan 24ORS) 3h 14m 58s
  10. Stephen Emerson/Ken McEntee (Ford Escort) 3h 19m 02s