WHILE Citroens, Mercedes, Peugeot and Saab were bathing in glorious East African mud, B.M.C., Ford and Rootes were wooing leprechauns in an attempt to win the Circuit of Ireland. This was the first time far some years that the British manufacturers had shown any real interest in what is after all a rather parochial event. B.M.C.’s interest extended as far as supplying a 1275 Cooper S for Paddy Hopkirk who was to be navigated by Terry Harryman, the navigator to Ronnie McCarteney when he won last year’s event in his Cooper S. The. Ford and Rootes teams were much better represented with three works Cortinas (Vic Elford/David Stone, David Seigle-Morris/David Michael and Brian Melia/Geoff Davies) and three works Imps (Tiny Lewis/Robin Turvey, David Pollard/Barry Hughes and Rosemary Smith/Sheila O’Clery). Add to these three works Renault Gordini R8s for local drivers including Ronnie McCarteney, a lone works Triumph 2000 and a Rover 2000 and a host of privately entered Minis and Cortinas up to a total of 100 and you have the entry for the Circuit of Ireland.
The biggest point of controversy was the traditional way the Ulstermen run their international rally, for a large number of people seemed to have assumed that since the established works teams were competing, all the navigation and complicated timing had been suppressed. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but the fact that the winners, Hopkirk and Harryman, were hard pressed by English crews right through the event, suggests that it was not beyond the competence of the average navigator to comprehend the maps and the timing system. It is certainly true that should the Ulster Automobile Club wish to attract the foreign teams away from an event such as the Safari, then they would have to drop any idea of navigation off maps in the form that it is at present. If you ignore the intricacies of navigation which, if taken seriously, are not so much of a problem its people would have you believe, the Circuit of Ireland emerges as a pretty fair test of a motor car with speed tests on both smooth tarmac roads and dirt roads and forestry tracks. The only trouble is that there are not really enough of these stages to keep the interest going on their own which is one reason why the organisers use navigation to keep the driver and navigator on the ball. Much improvement has been made both with the number and the extent of the special stages, especially when you consider that a few years ago they were a very small part of the rally which was primarily decided on driving tests and navigation. Whether it is possible under the laws of Northern Ireland and Eire to increase the total mileage of the special stages on public roads, or whether the extra length must come from private land, is for the organisers to determine but in order to increase its international status the emphasis must be turned more on the stages so that the navigation can be dropped. The R.A.C. Rally has done this as have the Scottish and the Welsh and with the tremendous additional advantage that they have in Ireland of being able to close public roads, the Circuit could become a number one international rally.
It is always debatable whether they would want to change from their traditional formula of navigation intermixed with speed tests and two night halts in Killarney separated by a difficult daylight section termed the ” Sunday run.” The biggest factor here may be the matter of budgeting, for this year the tobacco firm of Gallahers sponsored the rally and donated some large sums of money for cash prizes. This may have been one reason for the full entry of 100 cars that they received and it is just possible that if Gallahers sponsor the event next year, they will be somewhat disappointed if the potential works entries are seared away by the thought of navigation, while if there is no sponsorship there may only be a handful of works entries and no private owners.
Whatever happens next year, this year’s event saw a most interesting duel between the Hopkirk Mini and the Elford Cortina to which the other cars and crews were merely bystanders. Because a lot of the speed tests had been lengthened so that they ran uphill as well as down, there was very little to choose between the Cooper S and the Cortina CT, but quite early on Paddy Hopkirk took a very small lead and gradually managed to extend it until he was to marks ahead at the end of the rally. Although the Mini-Cooper may have possessed a very small advantage on the speed teats by virtue of its size and the properties of the front-wheel drive, the rally as a whole was not very kind to a Mini and several of the Irish humps penetrated sump guards et al to retire over a dozen ADO 15 variants. It is thus something of a tribute to the way that the works cars were prepared for a tough event that this car not only got through but won the rally as well.