Rally review - The Circuit of Ireland International Rally

After five days, fifty-five special stages and five hundred and fifty competitive miles, the current RAC National Rally Champion and 1977 Circuit of Ireland winner won again. The odds ran true to form for Russel Brookes and John Brown.

Since last year, Brookes has been taken into the Ford works team officially. As is Ford’s way, he still isn’t front-line (these places are reserved for Finns Mikkola and Vatanen and Swede, Waldegard) but he is next in line and has proved to be their second most valuable asset, after the World Championship dominating Waldegard.

Brookes has retained his Andrews Heat sponsorship, even though his cars are now Boreham prepared, and he has retained his long-standing co-driver, Heart of England Tourist Board executive, John Brown. Brookes has also retained all his personable, quietly outgoing charm which–professional driver or not–keeps him as one of the UK’s most popular drivers, a favourite with the club driver and the casual spectator. So when the portly Midlander grasped the stem of his champagne glass at the finish and raised it to the crowd on a damp and miserable Tuesday morning in Bangor, there was quite a cheer: and by lunchtime the sun was out. For Brookes had not just driven true to form, he had beaten the best-ever international Circuit entry and he had done so from the back after an almost unique error from John Brown had led Brookes into a first stage corner much too fast. The clear superiority of the car and driver combination over Ireland’s twisting tarmac showed when Brookes turned last place into first place after just half of the event. For the remainder of the rally. Brookes and Brown merely monitored competitors’ times and drove accordingly.

The competition included three times Circuit of Ireland winner Roger Clark with his Allied Polymer backed works Escort, tow Vauxhall Chevettes for Pentti Airikkala and new team member, Scotsman Jim McRae, the Fiat (UK) 131 Abarth of Markku Alen and Ilkka Kivimaki and the Leyland Cars Triumph TR7 of Tony Pond and Fred Gallagher. Ford had also made a late decision to send “A” team driver, Hannu Mikkola.

Of the above mentioned, the first to fail–alas somewhat predictably–was the Triumph TR7 of Pond which was pulled up joust a couple of hours after the start with a cooked engine after a water hose had burst. Also out on the first day was Mikkola with transmission failure soon after an off-road excursion. One can only sympathise with Mikkola, whose luck since he re-signed with Ford has been abysmal. Airkkala was the only other drier of that bunch to retire. The burly Finn was side-lined on the fourth day with a blown engine, almost a blessing in disguise as he had suffered a variety of problems with brakes, leaking hubs, and been off the road as a result. Airkkala immediately flew out to start afresh with reconnaissance for the World Championship Rally of Portugal.

Team-mate McRae was left with the task of keeping Vauxhall in the hunt. It was far from easy for McRae, who had been leading the event before Brookes’ demoralizingly easy spring back to the front. Compounding the fact that his Chevette was just no match for Brookes, Escort, his engine suddenly started running very roughly whilst he was tackling the longest special stage of the rally, the 30 miles of Sally Gap over the Wicklow Mountains behind Dublin on the final night. At the following service point it was diagnosed that there was no compression on one cylinder and it was thought that a valve had burnt or had sheared its stem and jammed in the guide. Whatever the cause, McRae was lucky to be running and he paced his ailing car magnificently to retain second place at the finish–just three-quarters of a minute ahead of Alen’s Fiat.

The Finnish crew of the Mirafiori certainly earned their money over Easter. Alen is equally at home on pace-note or blind events, but had little experience of an all-tarmac blind event. This became a problem when it was discovered that rear brake pads were lasting as little as 25 stage miles. Without the experience of most other top competitors, Alen had to drive to what was visible through his windscreen. Driers with several “Circuits” under their belt talk of developing a sixth sense about Irish roads and they can often anticipate accurately from the lie of the land if a corner tightens, or whether it is about time to cross a river once more via a vicious humped-back bridge. Irish roads also have the unnerving habit of showing a come-hither straight in the middle distance–but not before a blind dog-leg is negotiated.

Alen’s “loose road” driving style was a strain on both car and driver and the lanky Finn admitted to finding that the rally was exceptionally physically tiring. Much of the effort expended is in overcoming the grip of such wide and sticky rubber and even Brookes had to take things slightly easier towards the end of the longer stages when the strain on arms, shoulders, and neck muscles became just too much for comfort.

During such a fast event it is easy to overlook the important group one category, but this year there was no such problem, Dealer Opel Team taking the award with seventh place overall from Brian Culcheth and Neil Wilson. Culcheth is undoubtedly one of rallying’s best ambassadors and he was employed by Leyland for many years in the dual role of driver/celebrity and was always a favourite at UK dealer evenings and North American Leyland equivalents. But Brian had been having a lean time during the past couple of years with Leyland’s only sporadically successful Triumph TR7 programme and he made the switch to Opel at the beginning of this year.

It couldn’t have been a more timely move, for Brian has put together a sting of superb driving performances for DOT in both Group One (RAC Sedan Products events) and Group Four/Five (Castrol/Autosport nationals) including an outright win on the Cheltenham Festival Rally.

Before the Circuit of Ireland, Culcheth was apprehensive of beating the group one opposition–principally the quick Dolomite RS2000 contingent which included some of Ireland’s fastest. He needn’t have worried, for the Kadett GT/E was never headed and his smooth and tidy driving was even too much for an admittedly off-form Brian Nelson with his Porsche Carrera. The RS2000 challenge never materialised and Kaby put his Karry loop. Culcheth’s exemplary drive only required the changing of just four rear tyres and two front tyres during the entire rally.

After the winning trio of Brookes, McRae and Alen came three times Circuit winner, Roger Clark, a late “waiting game” run to overhaul the Fiat being thwarted by a puncture on the final night. Into fifth place, after a steady experience-accumulating drive, was Graham Elsmore who is driving in a semi-works capacity for Ford this year with a Thomas Motors prepared and entered Escort RS1800.

The only other serious opposition to Ford came from the Chequered Flat entered Lancia Stratos of Billy Coleman. In a slightly Irish way the car left the road during the first night and in all the palaver of regaining the road with smoking clutch (and time lost) the car petered out two stages later–out of petrol.   I.S.