by Michael Marshall and Padraig Reddington
In October 1979 the newly formed Killarney & District Motor Club announced that they intended to run a new two day stage rally on the first weekend in December and that the ultimate aim of the new Rally would be that it would over the years be developed into one of the great modern car rallies of Europe. Perhaps not many saw much of a future at that time for a new rally running at the very end of the year when cars are tired and budgets spent.
However the majority of the stages to be used had for decades previously been known and widely respected as the classic Sunday run of the Circuit of Ireland and it was the drawing power of these stages which ensured that every well known driver in Ireland left the start ramp in Killarney on that Saturday morning nineteen years ago. Leading away the cavalcade was the best known of them all, the legendary Billy Coleman, and in fact lead was what the Millstreet maestro did all during eighteen stages of the event, running out a clear winner in the ex-works RS1800 (STW-200R). Partnered by Brendan Neville, he had over four minutes to spare at the finish over Kanturk baker John Keating, co-driven by Nick Condon in a Mk. 1 RS 1600 (YHI-73). The Dublin pair of Brendan Fagan and Ronan Morgan followed home in third place in an RS 1800.
Overall sponsors of the event, which was based in the Great Southern Hotel, was the Dungarvan based firm of Radley Engineering.
1980 saw an even bigger line up for the start of the second Radley Engineering Rally of the Lakes. Coleman had retired and his place on the Irish rallying scene had been taken by his cousin Ger Buckley of Banteer and it was he who lead the cars away from the start that year in his EPS/DTV Ireland Chevette HSR. Partnered by John Caplice he held off a strong challenge throughout the two days from Brendan Fagan/Ronan Morgan who had also moved to one of the all-conquering Chevettes. Cahir garage owner Donie Keating with Nick Condon on the maps completed the clean sweep by Chevettes by taking a very close third. The route had remained broadly the same as 1979 but the rally had by now moved to the Gleneagle Hotel from where it has never since changed.
1981 saw the event break new ground in that it was now the Final round of the Shellsport National Rally Championship and its increased status was reflected in the record entry of 133 cars who were flagged away on Saturday morning by the then Minster of State for Tourism, Michael Begley. The Radley Engineering era had ended and had been replaced as main sponsors by the Gleneagle Hotel. Ger Buckley had sold his Chevette to Cork baker Demi Fitzgerald and with Leo Whyte in the hot seat Demi continued the winning ways of the famous black Chevette and also ensured the continuation of the tradition that the Rally of the Lakes had always been won by a Corkman. Phil Collins from Herefordshire made the first of his many trips to Killarney and with co-driver Bryan Thomas chased Demi Fitzgerald all the way to record a very fine second overall. In third place came a driver about whom nobody had any idea as to his ability so from a seeding of 48 David Llewellin and Mark James came home in third place behind Collins, who would years afterwards prepare and run Llewellin's car in his highly successful bid to become British Open Champion.
1982 will be remembered as the year of the big stages and for the epic struggle between the eventual top two. 1981 winner Demi Fitzgerald, still in the Chevette HSR lead the field away and seemed clear favourite to become the first double winner but it all went wrong when wheel studs came loose on Borlin and the axle was too badly damaged to continue. After a hard day of rallying in the Kenmare/Glengarriff area, James Doherty/Michael Curley in a Chevette and Frank O'Mahony/Bryan Curtin in the ex-Coleman RS 1800 were tied at the top when the rally restarted at midnight to tackle the longest stage ever ran in Irish rallying. Thirty-two miles of winding roads formed a complete loop around Ireland's highest mountain, and this monster stage was to be tackled twice! At the end of the first run Doherty had gone five seconds ahead but at the end of the second O'Mahony had pulled back eight to go three ahead, so as the crews reassembled at eight in the morning it was still all to play for.
All day long the lead changed and rechanged over the Healy Pass, Cod's Head, Ardgroom and others but the tide finally swung in favour of Doherty when O'Mahony's Escort landed too hard on a bump in Ardgroom and bent the steering. Undaunted however Frank pressed on and followed the delighted Limerick crew back to the ramp thirteen seconds in arrears after the longest and hardest Rally of the Lakes ever. Indeed although James Doherty never won an International Rally the general agreement is that his win in '82 ranks as one of the great achievements in Irish Rallying. Bob Fowden and Hywel Thomas in the big Triumph TR8 finally overcame a variety of mechanical problems to overtake the Ascona of Theo Bengry for third place.
1983 marked another milestone in the history of the Lakes, which had now become an International Rally and the Final round of the STP Tarmac Rally Championships. Suddenly out of the blue came a provisional entry for the 'retired' Billy Coleman in an Opel Ascona. Details began to emerge that the car was to be hired from Sydney Meeke and partly funded by STP and others. Con Murphy was entered as co-driver and all the paperwork was in order at the Friday scrutiny but one vital matter was still missing: there was no car! As the long hours of Friday night went by frantic phone calls revealed that customs officials had stopped the Meeke team at the border and were demanding a bond of ten thousand pounds in cash before the car could come south. Paddy O'Callaghan, the father figure of the motor trade in Munster heard of the demand and set about getting the cash together late on Friday night, long after all banks had closed up for the weekend. From filling stations, supermarkets and others the cash was collected, and following high level political intervention, the customs people, at four in the morning, relented and agreed that the cash could be delivered, not to the border post, but to the Customs at Cork Airport. And so the weary convoy, after fourteen hours at the border, moved on south, eventually reaching Killarney as the cars lined up for the start. The scrutineers examined the car as it stood in line to the start ramp while at the same time Sydney Meeke explained the location of the various switches and knobs to Coleman who had never seen the car before.
1984 saw Coleman, now in the Dealer Opel Team Ireland Manta 400 take his place as the No.1 seed with the Tarmac Championship already under his belt following wins in the Circuit, Donegal and Cork and a third in Galway. Team mate Austin McHale in the second DOTI car followed at 2 and the battle was really between the team mates in two identical cars. The rally too had a brand new image with a sponsorship deal from Carling Black Label, a deal which was to last until 1990.
Coleman went into the initial lead but a puncture in Churchtown, three stages from the end of the Saturday run, saw him fall behind his team mate by almost a minute. Over the following bumpy Liberty Hall stage he pulled back eighteen seconds and on the final Saturday stage over Molls Gap from Kenmare to Killarney, starting 30 seconds after McHale, Coleman put on a display of sheer speed which scared even co-driver Ronan Morgan as Billy totally disregarded the notes and took everything on the absolute limit. Those spectators who were lucky enough to be on the lower end of the Gap on that frosty moonlit night will never forget the spectacle of two Mantas in full flight, side by side at over a hundred miles an hour for several hundred yards before Coleman finally squeezed through to finish the stage three seconds in front of McHale, who it transpired had failing brakes at the start of the stage and none at all at the finish.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny and McHale, with a different ratio axle fitted in the morning, was back on the attack with fastest times over the opening stages putting him back into the lead. Then disaster struck for McHale when he went off after the finish line of Zetland Pier and although he lost no stage time the back of the car was wrecked and it required a superhuman effort by the Dubliner to nurse the battered Manta into service in Castletownbere where the service crew virtually rebuilt the entire back end and sent him on his way, still in second place and still attacking. Coleman however now took a firm hold of the rally and with a string of fast times reasserted his authority, and whatever chance McHale had of fighting back disappeared with his oil pressure three stages from the end. However, such was the lead that the two Mantas had built that he was able to nurse the car home and hold on to second place in front of James Cullen and Seamus Gormley who coaxed their RS1800 home with both back springs broken and the bodywork sitting on the tyres at every bend.
1985 saw Coleman back once again, but by now he had left Dealer Opel Team and his deal for the following year with Rothmans was still unfinalised. He was determined to do the Lakes and a car was eventually acquired. Sean Delaney very kindly lent his G3 Escort and a week of furious checking, adjustment and alteration followed in Coleman's garage in Millstreet before the G3, in a variety of sponsors colours, took its place at the start. Austin McHale in the Manta set fastest time on the Gap and it was clear that Billy was going to have a struggle in the vastly underpowered Escort but suddenly the Rally was virtually all over when, in a most unusual lapse on the second stage at Ballaghbeama, Austin slid wide on a bend, into the bog and into irretrievable retirement. The first day saw an unusually high level of retirements and as the remaining forty five crews clocked into Parc Ferme on Saturday night we had the unprecedented situation of three Millstreet crews occupying the top three places as John and Willie Moynihan had brought their Escort up to second place just ahead of Barry Duggan/Philip Moynihan in another Escort. Sunday changed little with Coleman showing once again his great ability to pace himself in a way that kept him far enough ahead to provide for the unexpected and yet conserve the car and the tyres. Indeed it must be somewhat of a record for a two day International Rally to be won on one set of tyres! John and Willie Moynihan duly followed home in second place and on the very last stage down Molls Gap James McDaid and Rory Kennedy in a Manta got ahead of Barry Duggan to take third place.
1986 was the year when it finally all came good for McHale in Killarney and despite constant pressure from a hard charging James Cullen and Ellen Morgan in the left hand drive Nissan 240RS, McHale with co-driver Ronan McNamee lead from start to finish in the wettest Rally of the lakes ever run. Phil Collins and Robbie Philpott brought a development Sierra to Killarney and finished a very good third in yet another fine drive by Phil over the Killarney stages, which he knows and loves so well.
The 1987 Lakes started with a fine entry and the promise of a cracking Rally. Mark Lovell and Roger Freeman in the Andrews Sykes works Sierra set the pace from the outset and despite a valiant attempt by Phil Collins, co-driven by Robbie Philpott in the pink Sierra, there was little they could do about hauling back the works crew. Austin McHale speeded up as the Saturday wore on and all looked set for a cracking battle on day two. But it was not to be. On the very last stage on Saturday night, down Molls Gap, car no. 55 driven by William O'Brien from Mitchelstown with Sean Conlon from near Castleblaney co-driving, went off on a deceptive bump on a right-hander and went over the low wall into the Lake. O'Brien, who could not swim, stood on the submerged car and was rescued but Sean Conlon, probably disorientated in the darkness, swam away from the car and drowned. The rally did not restart on Sunday morning and at a low-key prize-giving in the Gleneagle on Sunday afternoon, shocked crews gathered to see Mark Lovell take the Overall award and so became the first overseas winner of the Rally of the Lakes. Collins took second place and just seven seconds further back came McHale in his Manta. The Sean Conlon Memorial Cup for the winners of the two litre Clubmans class commemorates the man who died and since then the No. 55 slot has not been used on the entry list.
The rally needed a boost in 1988 after its traumatic experience of the previous year and it certainly got it in the form of a top class entry, a big overseas contingent and an entry from Tour de France and World Championship winning hero Stephen Roche.
Sports Minister Frank Fahey flagged away the first car and, co-driven by Declan O'Riordan of Cork, he also drove one of the 00 cars, displaying an unexpected turn of speed before he finally ran out of road on Ardgroom and retired with damaged suspension. McHale, by now acknowledged as the kingpin of Irish rallying, set the pace from the outset and although James Cullen and Ellen Morgan, running as always on a shoestring budget, tried and tried to the very end, their Ascona simply could not match the lighter and better shod Manta of McHale. Phil Collins and Robbie Philpott suffered on Saturday over the tighter stages and although they had a higher top speed for the faster Sunday stages, there simply were not enough miles to claw back the deficit so they eventually had to settle for third.
1989 saw the renewal of one of the oldest and most successful partnerships in rallying when Russell Brookes teamed up with the long retired John Brown in the Andrews Heat for Hire Sierra in an attempt to clinch the Tarmac Championship. For Russell and John it was like a trip down memory lane as they had been together when they won the Circuit of Ireland over these same stages back in '77 and '78. Although Bertic Fisher and Austin Frazer jumped into an early lead in their BMW over the first stage and James Cullen took over the lead in his Manta after stage 2, gradually it was the experience, ability and superior machinery of the many times British Champion which took over and when Bertie Fisher retired on Caragh Lake 2 with a faulty crankshaft sensor the battle was really all over. Cullen however never gives up even in the face of overwhelming odds and battled right to the finish but there were to be no late dramas and Brookes went on to take the Rally and the Tarmac Title by a comfortable margin. Yet again the ever-smiling Phil Collins had come out of year long retirement to enjoy the thrill of driving an RS1800 over the Killarney stages, and co-driven by Kevin Shaw he once again filled the third slot.
In 1990, as had often happened in previous years, the final winner of the Tarmac Title was down for decision in Killarney. In theory all the Championship leader Austin McHale had to do was finish fourth or higher and then even winning outright would not be good enough to give the title to second placed man Bertie Fisher. The odds seemed to favour McHale to take the title at least, if not the Title and the Rally. From the outset however it was clear that this would be no ordinary rally. First signs of trouble came early on Saturday morning when the Arrowing Crew radioed back that they were stuck on thick ice on Ballaghbeama, and that the stage was impassable. Decisions had to be made quickly and while a 4x4 rescue truck was dispatched to get the stranded arrowing crew, scouts were sent out to drive the other stages and an alternative route was planned, using only the stages of Caragh Lake and Churchtown. Bill Connolly and Tom Meaney set out in determined fashion in the ex-McHale Manta and set fastest time on Caragh Lake but by the end of stage 2 at Churchtown, McHale had taken his Xtra-Vision BMW to the top of the leaderboard. Another loop of these, the only two driveable stages of the Saturday route, followed in darkness and when crews clocked into overnight parc ferme, there was a new leader. Bertic Fisher and Rory Kennedy in the ToughMAC BMW had just two seconds to spare over the sensations of the Rally, Russian twins Nickolai and Igor Bolshihk in a Prodrive BMW M3 and indeed the Soviets would have been the overnight leaders had they not incurred a ten second road penalty. Their sensational display of sheer speed and courage on the icy final stage of the night at Churchtown became the talking point of the weekend and is still spoken of by those who braved the bitter cold to spectate there. Bill Connolly was third and McHale, suffering a succession of problems, was fourth, but fourth would still make him Champion even if Fisher won.
All through the night the organisers had people out monitoring the stages and by morning it was clear that part of Molls Gap and the Healy Pass was too icy to use but all the others were safe. Austin McHale's troubles continued with a misfire on Molls Gap and petrol problems on Kilmackillogue but eventually the car ran cleanly over Ardgroom and Cods Head, and he set two blistering times to get himself back up to second behind Fisher. With a second loop of these same stages to follow, it suddenly seemed that McHale was on his way to another Lakes win but on Cods Head 2 the dream exploded with the differential and gone was the Rally, the Championship and the year long campaign to recapture the Tarmac title. All Fisher now had to do was drive to finish, and take the Rally and the Championship. But the Russians had other ideas and with Molls Gap having cleared during the day to allow its full length to be used, Nickolai launched a blistering attack on the final sixteen mile stage and actually had Fisher in his sights at the finish. For Fisher, and for Rory Kennedy whose first International win this was, it seemed as if Christmas had come early with not only the Rally of the Lakes victory, but almost against all odds, the Tarmac Championship in the bag. For Nickolai and Igor Bolshihk it was a sensational drive in their first ever rally in Western Europe. For third placed man Bill Connolly it was yet another fine result on his last drive in the ex-McHale Manta and for the Killarney & District Motor Club it represented a triumph of organisation in salvaging the maximum usable stage mileage in seemingly impossible weather conditions and still managing to run safely and without falling a single minute behind time throughout the weekend.
In 1991 there were five drivers in with a mathematical chance of claiming the Tarmac Championship on the Lakes, but in reality Kenny McKinstry was almost home and dry. His nearest challenger James Cullen did not enter due to family reasons, and Colin McRae chose to compete in Spain the same weekend, so McKinstry had only Bertie Fisher and Bill Connolly to contend with. Kenny and co- driver Robbie Philpott had started the year with a Group N Sierra Cosworth, and wrapped up the Tarmac Group N Championship on the Manx Rally in September. Having had a number of high overall finishes as well, they found themselves in with a chance of taking the overall title. Kenny purchased the ex-Saeed Al Hajri Group A Cosworth and won first time out on the Cork '20', leaving him with a comfortable margin over his rivals going into the final round in Killarney. Fisher also had a Sierra, albeit the Sapphire 4x4 version. The Boishihk twins were also back with the BMW M3.
Fisher and McKinstry maintained a constant one-two throughout the event, Fisher's biggest drama coming on the final run over Molls Gap on Sunday evening, when a misfire set in, and a glance at the gauges by Bertie resulted in a spin, the rear of the Sierra hitting a pillar a glancing blow. McKinstry's runner-up position guaranteed him the '91 Tarmac Championship, having a 15 point margin over Fisher in the final standings. Nickolai Bolshihk took third from Bill Connolly on the final stage, the Russian decimating his own record for that particular version of Molls Gap in the process. He had started slowly on Saturday, not helped by overheating problems, finishing Day 1 in fifth place. Sunday saw his pace upped considerably, overhauling John Price (who later retired two stages from home when his Metro broke a cam follower) and Connolly (who had brake and steering problems).
The 1991 Rally also saw the Gleneagle Hotel sponsor the event as well as provide the headquarters - an arrangement that would continue for 1992.
The 1992 event marked the end of an era, being the last Rally of the Lakes to be run in December. Bertie Fisher had begun a very successful association with Subaru, which exists to this day. He arrived in Killarney needing only a top seven placing to be crowned Tarmac Champion for the second time in three years. Frank Meagher had an outside chance of snatching it from under the Ballinamallardman's nose, but realistically it depended on Fisher retiring. The entry also included the Toyota Celica GT-4 of Austin McHale, Nickolai Bolshihk's BMW M3 and Kenny McKinstry in a Subaru Legacy, similar to Fisher's.
For Nickolai and brother Igor, their rally came to a dramatic end even before it started. They took their BMW out the Cork Road for a test (in the days before the official test stage was introduced), and promptly wrote it off. All efforts to find a replacement car failed. Bill Connolly, who had entered his BMW and had brought it to Killarney, but was not starting the event, was only interested in selling his car, rather than hiring it. An attempt to ship over John Price's M3 from Britain ran out of time, scuppering any chance of a third Lakes appearance in a row for the Bolshihk brothers.
Fisher again led throughout, he and Rory Kennedy completing a hat-trick of Lakes victories. McHale and co-driver Dermot O'Gorman took over second spot on stage 2 (Ballaghbeama) when McKinstry went out with gearbox failure, and retained it to the finish. Frank Meagher and Michael Maher were third on Saturday evening, but a heavy landing second time through Caragh Lake resulted in suspension damage and a puncture, subsequent road penalties adding to the time loss, leaving the Sierra crew ninth overnight. They climbed back to sixth on Day 2. John Price and Mike Bowen retired their Metro for the second year running, leaving David Greer and Michael Reid in third place, while Enda Nolan and RTE presenter Michael Lyster took four fastest stage times on Sunday, jumping from seventh to fourth in the process.
In 1993 the Killarney & District Motor Club applied for European Championship status for the Rally of the Lakes for the following year, so the '93 event had the presence of an Observer from the FIA, Mr. Peter Cooper. His report indicated that the Rally of the Lakes had a standard of organisation on par with the top co-efficient 20 events in the European series.
The Rally had moved to an early May date, seen by the officials as an essential measure if it was to progress. The early summer slot in the calendar meant that for the first time, all stages would be run in daylight. This allowed competitors to do without the extra lights required for night time driving and servicing. The move to May was also more attractive to the sponsor of the day, Carling, and brought an end to the situation where crews decided not come to Killarney at the end of the season, when budgets were spent, cars tired and championships sewn up.
Bertie Fisher and Rory Kennedy were in a class of their own throughout the 1993 'Lakes', indeed such was their superiority in the Prodrive/Sydney Meeke Legacy that they had a lead of over four minutes at the end. Their faultless drive brought them a fourth win in a row in Killarney. Austin McHale and Dermot O'Gorman were expected to challenge Fisher/Kennedy, but they had a disastrous event in the Celica GT4. An hydraulic pipe burst on the first stage, subsequent repairs bringing road penalties, and the then Tarmac Championship leader dropped to tenth, before climbing back to fourth overnight. McHale was struck by misfortune again on Molls Gap on Sunday morning, when he picked up a puncture and understeered off the road. A delay of over ten minutes ensued, so that all the Dubliner salvaged from the weekend was eighth place and three championship points.
James Cullen and Ellen Morgan finished second in the Group N Escort Cosworth, going through a number of gearboxes throughout the weekend. Belgian visitors Dominic Bruyneel and Catherine Clause were second for much of Saturday in their BMW M3, before overheating and fuel feed problems dropped them behind Enda Nolan/Mick Morrissey and Cullen/Morgan. Nolan dropped into the lower half of the top ten on Saturday evening when a driveshaft broke on his Sierra. The Belgians thus were promoted to third place, which they maintained to the finish despite a loose fuse causing the engine to cut out on Ballaghbeama on Sunday. Welsh driver Bob Fowden, with Corkman Jerry Hynes calling the notes, was fourth.
The 1994 Rally of the Lakes was listed as a round of the European Rally Championship, being given co-efficient 2 status, as are all new events to the series, although the Lakes was in reality deserving of co-efficient 5, 10 or 20. The Regulations for the event had been submitted to the FIA well in advance, as required by the strict European Championship rules, and the Killarney & District Motor Club were subsequently informed that they had been approved by the FIA. These regulations made it clear that non-homologated cars would run in the main field, and not at the rear of the field. The KDMC had looked for a derogation on this matter and was informed that it had been granted, and the field was seeded accordingly. On the evening before the start of the Rally, the organisers received a fax from the FIA stating that no such derogation had been granted, and that the Group B cars would have to run at the back of the main field. This was rejected by the organisers as being an unsafe situation, to have the likes of MG Metro 6R4s running behind 1300cc Group N cars, and elected to withdraw the Rally of the Lakes from the European Championship. Some months later the FIA Rallies Committee ruled that the KDMC could not remove the event from the Championship without prior FIA approval, and European Championship points were awarded to the top finishers of the event. The only adverse effect to the event was that it lost Observer's points for not running a separate event for the non- homologated machinery.
Bertie Fisher and Rory Kennedy were back again, bidding to extend their run of victories even further. They now had the new Subaru Impreza model at their disposal, but faced strong opposition from a quality entry, including Kenny McKinstry/Robbie Philpott in a Legacy, (who were at No. 1 by virtue of Kenny's FIA B-seed), Austin McHale/Brian Murphy in the Celica GT-4, Frank Meagher, (who had 2FM DJ Gareth O'Callaghan as co-driver) in an Escort Cosworth, and perhaps one of the fastest drivers this country has ever produced, Stephen Finlay (partnered by Philip Mills) in the Malcolm Wilson Motorsport Escort Cosworth.
Fisher was fastest by 19 seconds on the opening run up Molls Gap. The surprise second place crew was Liam O'Callaghan/James O'Brien, and they were still closest to Fisher on stage four when a front driveshaft broke and the wheel parted company with the car, forcing retirement. Finlay pushed Fisher hard for the rest of the day, but the Subaru driver had the cushion created by the stunning first stage time. Meagher had one of the biggest accidents of his career, when he rolled the Escort at 120mph on Gortnagane. McHale held third overnight, only five seconds ahead of McKinstry, who was finding the Legacy curiously off the pace. Both of them were already two minutes behind Fisher.
On Sunday, the battle recommenced at Molls Gap, and Fisher set an equally dominant time to that he set the previous morning. Any hope Finlay had of overhauling him ended when the Escort started jumping out of seventh gear on Churchtown, and he was further hindered on Ballaghbeama when a driveshaft broke, and had to settle for second. McHale found his Celica down on power, and had dropped behind McKinstry by the time the problem was traced to a blown intercooler pump fuse. McKinstry found his Legacy running better on Day 2, and was able to keep McHale behind to the finish. Despite a late off, Peadar Hurson held off the late Mickey Farrell for fifth.
Fisher's fifth victory beat the previous record of four wins on the Rally of the Lakes, held by Billy Coleman. The Historic section was won comfortably by former World Rally Champion Bjorn Waldegard, driving Beatty Crawford's Porsche 911, Beatty himself in the co-driver's seat.
Fisher did not enter in 1995, in fact the only previous winner on the entry list of the main rally was Mark Lovell, and he was in a Group N car, so it looked inevitable that there would be a new name on the winners trophy. (Four time winner of the main event, Billy Coleman, was entered in the Beatty Crawford Porsche in the Historic Rally, and he went on to win it). Former National Champion Frank Meagher and co-driver Pat Moloughney in the Escort Cosworth set the pace from the start. Liam O'Callaghan and James O'Brien were having their first year in a Toyota Celica 4WD Turbo, and were knocking on the door of the "big-time". They soon settled into second spot, Meagher holding an advantage of less than half a minute. Throughout the day O'Callaghan took time off Meagher on certain stages, particularly Gortnagane, but Meagher would regain the upper hand and he maintained a cushion over O'Callaghan. Peadar Hurson and Ian Porter took the MG Metro 6R4 into third ahead of the Subaru Legacy of James Leckey and George Millar, Leckey impressing on his first attempt at the 'Lakes'.
Sunday's opening stage saw Meagher break a front strut, and he had to wait until after the next stage, Ballaghbeama, before it could be replaced. Then his chase car lost a wheel and Meagher had to complete much of the work himself before going on to Caragh Lake. He was late arriving at the stage and incurred road penalties, resulting in his once comfortable lead being whittled down to just one second. However, the Tipperary driver re-established his lead, O'Callaghan unable to match him, not being helped by a loose pipe on the Celica's wastegate. Meagher eventually won by 28 seconds. O'Callaghan was still happy with his performance, which established him as one of the major players in Irish rallying.
Scottish legend Jimmy McRae, making his first Rally of the Lakes appearance, entered the event in a Gantspeed Porsche 911, but he spun into a wall on Molls Gap on Sunday morning, and, although he was able to finish the stage, he had damaged the steering and suspension too severely to continue.
Hurson saw his third place come under serious threat from Leckey when the Metro encountered gearbox problems. A replacement was fitted at service, and both Hurson and Leckey had minor offs in the all out battle that followed, Hurson (another former National Champion) putting himself seven seconds in front by the finish.
(The KDMC elected not to seek European status for the 1995 event, as too high a proportion of the entry was running non-homologated cars. Although the event always attracts the country's top drivers, clubman entries form the backbone of the Rally, and it would be wrong to force them out of competing).
Bertic Fisher returned in 1996, he and Rory Kennedy again Impreza mounted. Liam O'Callaghan and James O'Brien had the latest ST205 version of the Toyota Celica GT-4, while James Cullen/Ellen Morgan, Peadar Hurson/Ian Porter and Eamonn Boland/Damien Morrissey all had full-house Escort Cosworths. Fisher opened up an early lead, until O'Callaghan set fastest time on Gortnagane, twelve seconds quicker than anyone else and a full 25 seconds faster than his own time on the identical stage the previous year. Fisher retook the lead over the following two stages, but O'Callaghan moved ahead again before the overnight halt. The day's action finished with a spectator stage around the grounds of Drishane Castle, near Millstreet. Both O'Callaghan and Fisher left Killarney early on Saturday evening, O'Callaghan going home to Kanturk to fight off the effects of 'flu, while Fisher took his service crew to see 'Riverdance' in Millstreet's Green Glens Arena! Cullen had solved earlier suspension problems and was third, close to the pace of the leading duo.
Sunday morning saw Fisher break his own record on Molls Gap, his time being the first sub-ten minute run for that particular version of the 'Gap' ever recorded. O'Callaghan was caught out by a wrong tyre choice, and fell back from Fisher. In fact Cullen was closing rapidly, but his challenge was stymied when his gearbox began to play up, and at the same time O'Callaghan put in two fastest stage times. Fisher sensed danger and upped the pace again for the final three stages, winning by 27 seconds. His record of six Rally of the Lakes wins will probably never be broken, although he may try and extend it further. Hurson also encountered gearbox problems and lost fourth place to Boland on the third last stage.
The Gleneagle Hotel returned as main sponsors for the Rally of the Lakes for 1997, the year that marked the Gleneagle's 40th Anniversary. Fisher had entered once again, but received an offer he couldn't refuse for the Impreza from Tom Spense a few days before the event, and was a non-starter. The battle for victory looked set to be an all-Toyota affair, Liam O'Callaghan/David Hogan in the ST205 model Celica and Austin McHale/Brian Murphy in the earlier ST185. The Escort World Rally Car would make its Irish debut in the hands of Eamonn Boland, while Peadar Hurson, double National Rally Champion Stephen Murphy and double Motoring News Rally Champion Pete Doughty had 'conventional' Escort Cosworths. Paul Harris, in his first drive in a brand new Subaru Legacy, would prove to be the dark horse.
Fog greeted the crews on Saturday morning. McHale made the right tyre choice at first, and was the initial leader ahead of O'Callaghan, but the roles were soon reversed, with O'Callaghan getting his compounds right all day and finishing Saturday with a lead of over a minute. McHale remained in second, also having to cope with differential trouble. Hurson and Murphy fought closely all day to be the leading Escort pilot (Boland's WRC version developed an untraceable misfire and he withdrew on Saturday afternoon), Hurson having eight seconds over his rival at the end of Day 1. Doughty and Harris completed the top six.
McHale took over 20 seconds out of O'Callaghan's lead on the first two stages on Sunday morning. The Kanturk man took back fifteen seconds on Dunloe. An early morning downpour had eased to showers, going into Caragh Lake, and O'Callaghan chose to put on intermediates. However, his chase car only had two on board, so these were put on the front of the Celica, with wets on the back. The handling deteriorated greatly with this combination and, three corners into the stage, a front wheel clouted a rock and punctured the tyre. The lead was lost, and at the Killorglin service which followed, O'Callaghan withdrew, fearing that the suspension had been damaged. McHale thus had a comfortable run to his third Lakes victory. The battle for what was now second place was resolved when Stephen Murphy/Joe Deacon crashed out on the penultimate stage. Peadar Hurson/lan Porter kept their good finishing record in Killarney, taking the runner-up spot, with Pete Doughty/Lyn Jenkins, Paul Harris/Don Wilmont and Campbell Adams/Noel Orr (the Group N winners) rounding out the top five. John O'Sullivan/Jakes Kelly upheld local honour in sixth.
The past eighteen years have seen huge changes in the cars that win and the crews who drive them. Yet in other ways the Rally of the Lakes has changed little. Many of the original members of the organising team are still involved, and the route still has all the same incomparable classic stages, and the original aim of constantly striving to be the best has never changed and hopefully never will.
Photos: 1981: Autofocus; 1983: Richard O'Rourke; 1984: Williams Photography; 1985: Denis Minihane; 1986, 1988, 1994, 1995 & 1997: Donal Reddington; 1987: Autosport; 1990: Robert O'Mahony; 1992: Seamus O'Shea; 1993: Michael Chester.