(McGrady Insurance Stages 2018 at Bishopscourt Race Circuit.)
By Allan Cathers
It’s been a frustrating time for Organisers, Marshals, Competitors and Rally fans alike due to the unusual weather conditions and the “Beast from the East”. After a long layoff from Rallying, since early September 2018, Rory and I hoped to kick start the season with two local favourite Rallies, the Malcolm Wilson and the Border Counties. Unfortunately it was not to be, as both rallies had to be cancelled due to the adverse conditions generated by the “The Beast”.
What could we do? The answer was simpler look for another event that would fit in and not be affected by extreme weather. So we had a good look at various calendars and Dommy (Buckley) suggested the Mayo Stages Rally over in the far west of Ireland on 10th and 11th March. It is run solely on Achill Island comprising of 3 x closed road stages run three times on the Sunday with Recce and scrutineering on the Saturday. Unfortunately this wouldn’t fit in as Rory needed to return home on Sunday evening due to business and family commitments and this was not possible.
We had considered a tarmac single venue event in Northern Ireland based at Bishopscourt Race Circuit near Downpatrick, but thought it might not be suitable. How wrong we were! Beggars can’t be choosers as they say, so we contacted the organisers who allowed us a last minute entry at number 82. Dommy and Colin Reay, already had a customer wanting a test in Monaghan so they would be travelling over on the Wednesday prior. This was our chance to get back in the car after our layoff and would also allow me to stay on after the event to visit with family near Omagh in Co. Tyrone and near Ballyclare, Co. Antrim.
On Friday 9th March, I was up at Kirkgunzeon for 13.00 to collect Rory and on the 15.30 Ferry to Belfast from Cairnryan. The weather was glorious but the forecast for Saturday was not good. We arrived in Belfast at 17.00, bang on rush hour, so a 40 minute journey to Strangford, across Belfast took an hour and a half! Strangford is a quaint fishing village on the western shores of Strangford Loch and where we stayed in a very nice guest house. We were up next morning at 6 for our “Ulster Fry” to heavy rain and strong winds, what a change overnight.
Our first time in the car after nearly 6 months was the 6 mile drive to Bishopscourt from Strangford in driving rain with lots of standing water and it was interesting to say the least!. We were using Eamon Boland’s 2016, left hand drive Ford Fiesta R5. Rory prefers left hand drive and hasn’t really used a right hand drive car since we started together about 12 years ago.
On arriving and setting up at Bishopscourt it was time to familiarise ourselves with the course and stages. As we were not due to scrutineer until 08.30 the organisers gave us the road book maps early. The organisers had quite strict rules for the site, no re-fuelling on site so the car had to be fuelled before arriving. No tyre warmers permitted but they did provide a small area to warm tyres and brakes. It was more like a stunt arena for the spectators than anything else. No pace notes were permitted, only the organiser’s stage maps although competitors were permitted to walk or cycle the course and write any information on the maps only. There were 6 stages totalling 39 miles with Service after each stage. Each stage comprised 2 laps and were split into 3 pairs. Stage 1 and 2 were the same. Stage 3 and 4 were slightly shortened versions of 1 and 2 and 5 and 6 were reverse direction of 3 and 4. The service area was in the centre of the circuit and as well as utilising the circuit the organisers created quite complex technical route in two outfield areas including a couple of nasty jumps. No one could leave until after the last car on Stage 6.
After familiarising ourselves with the start and finish area and procedures and because we only had one bike, Rory set off to have a look at the course while I retired to the seating area in the truck. It’s a hard life being a co-driver! Rory went round the track on the bike talking to me in the truck and I marked the notes next to the corner on the map. For the later stages I just reversed the notes on that map which worked pretty well.
I have to say the event was well organised and really friendly; nothing was a drama or too much bother. This was the first round of the Northern Ireland rally Championship and fielded a really strong entry led away by Derek Mcgarrity a past multiple winner of both this event and also the championship. Kenny McKinstry was also a late entry in his Subaru Impreza S14. The organiser reseeded us to start in 11th just behind Dennis Biggerstaff in his Mckinstry run Impreza.
When we proceeded to the Stage arrival control for Stage 1, the Marshal turned out to be Jonny Greer who is an old friend and known to quite a few of the Spadeadam members. He has been a regular competitor on both BRC and Scottish events in recent years and is co-driven by Kirsty Riddick from Haugh of Urr, near Dumfries. It turns out he is a member of Ballynahinch and District Motor Club and is building a new Citroen C3 R5 which he was due to test on this event, but it’s not ready. We enjoyed a good bit of banter with Jonny throughout the event especially as the weather was atrocious and didn’t really let up until the very last stage!
On the first stage we had a fairly clean run with no mistakes although in the twisty outfield I found an extra R3 corner that wasn’t on the map which through me for a couple of corners but got it back fairly quickly without drama. There was only one significant area of standing water which we managed to avoid and at the end of Stage 1 we were lying 6th overall which was tremendous. Derek McGarritty was in a league of his own, 9 seconds clear of 2nd with only 5 seconds splitting 2nd to 6th. As the rain seemed to be easing we opted for a harder intermediate tyre for the second stage, this turned out to be a mistake for the heavens re- opened just as we started the stage and in the words of Rory, “it was like driving on glass”. On the second lap we arrived over the big jump into R3 into turn R5 onto the circuit about 30mph too fast spinning up the tract quite a distance before stalling. It wouldn’t restart properly as we both forgot to turn the R5 antilag off. Then it took and age to turn the car in the right direction. The drama wasn’t over as near the finish we understeered into a big tyre luckily without damage. We dropped 37 seconds which seemed like a disaster however we were still in 11th place overall.
Stages 3 and 4 were pretty good really we had the right tyres and although it was still a downpour and like driving across a flood we managed a 4th fastest and 6th fastest which brought us up to 8th overall. After Stage 4 was the lunch halt and as it was raining we retired to the truck to watch the Rugby! Me (1st Generation Irish) and 3 Scots watching Scotland versus Ireland. Good Crack!
For stage 5 and 6 it stopped raining although for 5 the standing water made it slippery. We managed a 6th fastest despite grass tracking on the infield. I asked Rory where he thought he was going at one point; his reply was that the car seemed to have a mind of its own. On the last stage we decided to push as hard as we could on the rapidly drying conditions. All was going to plan until on the second lap we started to catch a yellow Mitsubishi Evo 9 who was on his first lap we caught him on the narrowest and most technical part of the track, about half a mile from the split/Finish. We were right on his tail when he exited the final corner R9 back onto the circuit where he needed to be on the right for his second lap and we needed to be on the left for the flying finish into the pit lane. The Evo slid onto the infield grass which means we would have to cut across. Eventually he realised as we had just about stopped then he let us across. Not what we wanted.
We finished in 8th position overall and 3rf in class, although we received the award for 1st in Class 9 due to the first three cars not eligible for class awards. The time difference between 4th overall and 8th overall was just over 5 seconds, but as they say “That’s Rallying!” At 17.00 the event ended and Rory, Dommy and Colin headed for the 19.30 boat via Belfast International Airport to drop the truck off. I headed for the awards ceremony, which was well attended to collect our awards. There had been 4 x juniors entered in the Junior event running at the end of the rally, young guys aged between 14 and 16, some for the first time including a young lad from Nairn in Scotland. They all finished and really drove well.
Me? I had a leisurely drive up to Ballynure near Ballyclare for supper and a nice glass of wine. Only took me just about an hour from Bishopscourt. The organisers of this event tell me they also run the Down Rally in July which is based near Lisburn just outside Belfast. It’s a proper closed road Irish tarmac rally run over two days and includes Hamilton’s Leap which is a proper Circuit of Ireland stage. All this for under £400 entry fee.