Six of one
It was with a feeling of disappointment that the front-runners in the British Open Rally Championship approached the Circuit of Ireland rally, for the premier tarmac event of the championship had been somewhat emasculated this year by the lawmakers in Paris.
Gone are the days when the event was 600 miles and five days long, for now it only consisted of 26 stages spread over three days and it was located on the eastern side of the island only. It turned out, however, a great deal better and tougher than many thought it would be.
Having won the opening round, the Cartel Rally, Pentti Airikkala came to the event as championship leader, but his Mitsubishi Starion Turbo was an unknown quantity on tarmac. Favourites for the event were the Ford runners, with Jimmy McRae, Phil Collins, Mark Lovell and local man Bertie Fisher hotly tipped to take top honours.
There were plenty of others around, however, who were going to give their all to stop this from becoming a Ford benefit.
Welshman David Llewellin was entered in a David Sutton-prepared Audi 200 Quatro, Kalle Grundel and Louise Aitken-Walker were entered in the Coventry-based Peugeot Talbot Sports team (the Swede in a 309GTi and the Scots lass in the proven 205GTi) and General Motors were represented by Malcolm Wilson and David Metcalfe who were driving Astra GT/Es.
Although unlikely to win overall honours, John Haugland and Warren Hunt would be looking for class wins in their Skoda 130Ls, and in Group N battle would be joined between the Cosworths of Gwyndaf Evans and Steve Hill, John Lyons’ Lancia Delta HF and David Maslen’s Mazda 323 Turbo.
This first day’s run took the competitors from Belfast to Dublin with nine stages being held in the province and one very rough one in Eire. The Mark Lovell/Ronan Morgan Cosworth took an immediate lead, dominating the event with fastest times in the first six special stages, while pursuing them were Phil Collins/Bryan Thomas.
Rather than allow it to go too much Ford’s way, David Llewellin and Phil Short in the Audi were giving chase, but this was to last only until the fourth stage when a piston gave up the ghost. The Audi’s demise immediately gave Jimmy McRae fresh heart, for on that stage he set fastest time, equalling that of Mark Lovell and moved ahead of Collins into second place.
Before entering the eighth special stage, Lovell’s mechanics discovered a cracked anti-roll bar mount. Without any time to change it he was despatched onto the stage, but unfortunately he never reached at end –coming to grief against a tree on a sharp right-hander. Jimmy McRae was now in control, a position he is used to but particularly so on the Circuit of Ireland, having won it five times before.
By the overnight stop in Dublin he was 1min 13 sec ahead of Collins, who in turn was 25sec ahead of Malcolm Wilson’s impressive Astra GT/E. Pentti Airikkala in the Mitsubishi was having a fairly torrid time, but at least was in fifth place, while the Peugeot duo had both been in the wars but were still mobile.
The following two days saw McRae tighten his grip, setting fastest times in ten of the remaining sixteen stages. Collins fought valiantly, but by the end of the rally was three minutes adrift. Malcolm Wilson remained in third position and, encouragingly for General Motors, Dave Metcalfe in his GT/E beat Airikkala into fourth place.
Next up was Kalle Grundel in a battered 309GTi, while Aitken-Walker in the 205GTi was two places down on him after a trouble-filled run. The most interesting result, however, was that of Andrew Wood and Brian Rainbow, who drove a 16-valve Golf GTi fitted with a standard 139 bhp engine borrowed from Volkswagen’s press fleet into seventh place.
In Group N, victory went to David Maslen/Andrew Balfour in the Mazda 323 Turbo, taking the lead after others had fallen by the wayside, and John Haugland and Warren Hunt finished first and second in their group.
For McRae it was a record-breaking sixth win, and it has given him that extra impetus for retaining the championship this year. But a challenge to him and all the other Ford runners approaches –the 16-valve Astra GT/E is scheduled to make its debut on the Ulster Rally, and the results should be interesting. WK