The Long Good Friday

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To rally people Easter weekend once meant five gruelling days of the Circuit of Ireland. We took multiple winner Jimmy McRae back to explore

It was probably the closest that rallying ever came to the 24 Hours of Le Mans – except that it went on for five days, with some of the most fearsome Group B cars ever made snaking through roads barely big enough for a shopping-specification Mini Metro, let alone a Metro 6R4. The Circuit of Ireland was crazier than anything ever scripted in Father Ted, with the crews managing just two scant nights of sleep during the long Easter weekend that the rally was traditionally held over.

These stages are like nowhere else on earth. Narrow, slippery with manure, and above all, very, very bumpy. The untrammelled country roads that criss-cross the interior of Ireland have largely not been touched since the original asphalt was laid, meaning that they hug the contours of the countryside intimately, with every crease on the landscape mirrored in the narrow ribbon of tar that describes the way ahead. You’d call them farm tracks, and there are thousands of sinuous miles of them all the way over Ireland, far outnumbering the more modern roads.

On such specialised terrain you might expect the local experts to prevail. After all, this was a rally that Markku Alén – first Finn ever to triumph on a World Championship asphalt rally – said was “more difficult than Corsica”, while Michèle Mouton described it even more eloquently, shaking her right hand repeatedly at the wrist while repeating “ooh la la”, in a quintessentially Gallic expression of shock and awe. Timo Salonen said that he’d rather simply leave it to the locals in future.

The point is, this event was so specialised and complex that not even the asphalt experts of the time could properly get their heads round it. So you’d expect that one of the local heroes (and there were many) would be the King of the Circuit of Ireland.

As it happens though, the most successful driver in the history of the Circuit of Ireland is a Scotsman: Jimmy McRae, seven-time winner, five-time British Rally Champion, father of the unforgettable, sorely missed Colin – who himself contested the Circuit of Ireland in 1989. Now he’s back in Ireland to retrace old glories in a rally Porsche 911. McRae gives it plenty of thought, but even he really can’t igure out the secret of his own success on the Irish stages. “It’s just a feeling,” he says eventually. “Ever since I was first in Ireland I had a good sense of the roads, but I couldn’t be much more precise than that. It was simply always there.”

Jimmy has always been extremely modest about his superlative achievements, so perhaps it’s not so surprising to hear him say that he thinks he was never the quickest driver there. But ironically that’s probably the key to it.

At the time, the Circuit of Ireland took in every corner of the island and about 600 miles of stages. As a result, there were regional specialists everywhere who were unbeatable on their home turf, but not quite as capable of the same pace elsewhere.

“For me it was never about winning every stage as much as keeping up a decent speed everywhere,” says McRae. “The thing about the Circuit was that it was a very, very long rally. You always had to look at the bigger picture, and if you had a setback you had to remember that this would inevitably happen to others as well. I suppose one thing I did well was to have a certain degree of mechanical sympathy. That was always important, because you couldn’t go mad or you’d damage the car and not finish.”

Hence the analogy with the Le Mans 24 Hours. The McRae name is not always associated with driving conservatively, but don’t forget that one of Colin’s greatest victories was the 1999 Safari – during which he didn’t win a single stage. That rationale came directly from his father’s experiences in Ireland.

“I would have loved to have done the Safari myself,” said Jimmy. “It’s the sort of event where I think I might have gone well. I never thought I was particularly good at things like rallysprints; I always loved rallies that you could get your teeth into. And the circuit was probably the best example of that.”

The hallmark of the greatest drivers is always the capability to achieve a result against the odds. Jimmy McRae’s inest victory on the Circuit of Ireland came in 1987, after he had been promised a drive in a Lancia Delta, at the time the benchmark in world rallying. The Lancia factory in Turin was to supply the car; the RED team based in Widnes, close to Liverpool, was to run it. But from the beginning the AngloItalian alliance wasn’t working.

With just over two weeks to go, it was confirmed that there would be no Delta in Ireland for McRae, with some spurious excuse cited about a lack of parts. But McRae refused to give in, instead picking up the phone to Peter Ashcroft, who was Ford’s motor sport supremo.

“I explained the situation to him – I was pretty desperate at the time – and he managed to help us out,” recalled McRae. “He said he would source a Sierra Cosworth road car, and the plan was for RED to build that into a rally car, even though time was tight to say the least. The car that Peter got us was actually a Ford executive’s everyday company car, which shows how last-minute the whole thing was.”

A man was despatched to collect the car from Essex and bring it up to Widnes, but in a disappointing reinforcement of Merseyside’s reputation for car crime, the Sierra was stolen in the blink of an eye it took for him to hop out of the car and open the workshop door at journey’s end – with the keys left in the ignition…

“It was just one of those unbelievable things,” said Jimmy. “It was always going to be touch and go before, but it really did look like it was all over at that point. But then we got a call to say that the police had actually recovered the car. It had been used in a ram raid. The thieves had reversed into a television shop, filled it up with TVs and sped off. Luckily they dumped it in a council estate rather than set fire to it.”

The Sierra was looking pretty sorry for itself by the time it returned to the workshop, but at least the felons had saved the mechanics the task of stripping out many of the external and internal fittings.

As well as winning the Circuit of Ireland – a remarkable achievement, given that the first time McRae had even sat in the car was on the way to the start ramp in Belfast – that Sierra went on to win the British Championship, one of McRae’s five domestic titles, making him the most successful driver in the history of the series.

“At the end of the year there were still two or three scrapes on the rear spoiler from where it had reversed through the plate glass window,” remembers McRae fondly. It certainly gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘drive like you stole it’ and D541UVW still exists, in the hands of a collector.

If that was the “fairy tale”, as McRae puts it, his toughest battle must undoubtedly be the 1980 Circuit of Ireland, a mesmerising battle between McRae’s new Vauxhall Chevette HSR and the Ford Escort of Ari Vatanen. For three full days at the end of the rally the duo were split by only seconds. Vatanen was in front but on the ragged edge, crumpling the front right corner of his Escort against a farm gate – an incident that the spectators who were sitting on the gate at the time are not going to forget in a hurry.

McRae was only competing on his second rally with the latest wide-track evolution of the Chevette, having taken part in a small national rally as a shakedown. The Scot led initially but both he and Vatanen had slight indiscretions (McRae rolled into a ield), which put the Finn just ahead. But McRae always had a knack of adapting quickly to new machinery and soon began reeling Vatanen in. Then, on the final night, Vatanen made another mistake, enabling his Scottish rival to chalk up a irst victory on the roads he was rapidly making his own. To this day, the 1980 Circuit of Ireland is revered as one of the most epic rallies there has ever been.

The Circuit typically featured 55 special stages and a total length of 1300 miles. The competitors started on Good Friday morning, then drove all the way down to Killarney in the south of the island overnight, completing a full day of rallying when they got there. Only on Saturday night could they get some sleep before completing the ‘Sunday run’ that had its own classification, taking in legendary stages such as Molls Gap. There was the luxury of another night’s sleep on Sunday – “aye, we were spoilt,” chuckles McRae – but that was it, as the crews drove back up north during Easter Monday and the following night, going through stages such as Atlantic Drive, before ending up back in Belfast at Tuesday lunchtime.

By the end of it, every competitor was knackered, to put it politely. “But the funny thing is that none of us was especially it,” remembers McRae. “I mean, today’s drivers are athletes, with gyms and personal trainers. And we definitely weren’t athletes. But the cars back then were in many ways much more physical to drive than the current cars. We had no power steering and fat slick tyres. My son Alister drove one of my old Opel Mantas at a historic event recently and he said to me afterwards, ‘just how the hell did you do that for five days?’ None of us really questioned it at the time; it was just how rally cars were. The first time I drove a rally car with power steering I didn’t even like it: I wanted them to make it softer.”

McRae’s fitness regime at the time consisted of “a bit of cycling now and then.” He kept a vague eye on what he ate, but would never deprive himself of something he liked and certainly wouldn’t know what macrobiotic protein was if it coshed him over the head.

Most drivers of the era would probably equate that to Guinness, particularly the locals. Of all the Irish drivers McRae went up against one name stands out: Bertie Fisher. The Northern Irishman won the Circuit three times and it was impossible to play the law of averages against him: he was quick everywhere. Tellingly, McRae says that he wasn’t so concerned about the huge international stars like the Mikkolas and the Aléns – “I knew that if things went OK I’d probably have the beating of them” – but Fisher was always one to watch, no matter what car he was driving. Of the others, there was Billy Coleman: mightily quick in a Porsche 911, similar to the Tuthill car that Jimmy drove on the stages for this feature, and also rapid in a Ford Escort and BMW M3.

A hallmark of the Circuit of Ireland has always been the huge variety of machinery on the (permanently oversubscribed) entry list, which was often due to drivers swapping between cars from year to year in an attempt to find the perfect Circuit weapon: a quest that was ultimately as productive as the search for a unicorn, due to the sheer diversity of the event.

“It’s always been a huge compromise,” says McRae. “The Sierra, for instance, had plenty of power but it was physically a bit too big for some of the Irish lanes: you’d have two wheels in the grass most of the time. But the most important thing to get right is the suspension: if your car can’t handle the bumps, then you’re going off.”

Which is exactly what happened on McRae’s very first attempt at the Circuit in 1976, with a Vauxhall Magnum. Having skipped over a bump in Killarney and landed nose-first in a
ditch, it eventually took a crane to ish the car out.

McRae describes the event as “a typical Circuit accident”. The attrition rate was always savagely high in Ireland, due to the non-stop mechanical strain that the cars were under as much as the treacherous conditions. Even many of the road sections were tight on time – something that would be unthinkable now – so brakes, clutches, gearboxes and differentials took a hammering even when the car wasn’t strictly speaking competing. The first four-wheel-drive systems in particular were notoriously fragile on the Circuit due to the number of bumps, which meant the car would always be landing on one wheel or another first. This sent a huge amount of uneven strain across the entire 4WD transmission, with failure inevitable.

McRae himself could probably have added at least two wins to his total in Ireland had it not been for mechanical issues, but the biggest missed opportunity was probably the Metro 6R4 – the closest that anything came to the ‘perfect’ Circuit of Ireland car.

The V6-engined Group B monster may not have used technology that was especially cutting-edge – it was launched around two years too late to make a genuine impression on the world stage – but it was extremely nimble, with decent suspension travel. The four-wheel-drive system also held together well, and McRae led out of the box on the 1986 event, the only year he contested the Circuit in a Metro. But then the problems started. The brand new car was running a dog ’box, which wasn’t working properly, so they had to revert to a standard syncromesh unit. Even so, the Scot was still irmly in contention until he clipped a rock in the dark while trying to make up time. That broke a track rod end, which meant that he was unable to continue. Gallingly, his team-mate Dai Llewellyn went on to win.

That was really the story of McRae’s whole 1986 season with the Metro. There were moments of incredible speed – he led Hannu Mikkola’s Audi Quattro on the Rally of Wales by more than a minute and a half before something broke, and he was on course for yet another British Rally Championship title on the Manx, until the cam belt failed on the inal day.

“It was frustrating: I had such a love-hate relationship with that car,” said McRae. “It was perfect for Ireland and if we’d had no problems I think we could have won again. That was the one that got away. I absolutely loved driving the Metro: we had some great results in it, but we also had some very big disappointments, with the Circuit that year being one of them. The following year I would have loved to have driven the Lancia in Ireland too; it would have been quite special as a Delta had never been there before, but of course what happened then was another story entirely…”

Just like the inhabitants of all the tiny villages on the rally route – each with its own idyllic pub serving an impeccable pint of the black stuff – this is what the event is all about: stories, hundreds of them, most of which you wouldn’t believe, some of which are deliberately embellished by their charismatic narrators. More than just a rally, the Circuit of Ireland is a glorious blast through some of the roads that the urban planners forgot, from an age when health and safety meant nothing more than low-tar cigarettes and four-point harnesses.

Powering through the countryside with the symphonic harmony of a thoroughbred race engine bouncing off the ancient stone walls, and the undisputed master of this rally behind the steering wheel, it’s like those days never went away. And the memories certainly never will.

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