02 Mar: Donnie’s maiden Snowman

… Arnold Clark/Jurys Inn Snowman Rally, Sat 20th Feb …

Snowman by name, but not entirely accurate. There was ice, slush, gravel, sunshine and blizzards – and no extra charge! What a lottery and although it was more about survival than speed, no-one begrudged the winners their maiden victory. Donnie MacDonald and Andrew Falconer scored a superb, and some may say, lucky triumph on the Arnold Clark/Jurys Inn Snowman Rally, but in this sport you often make your own luck. Donnie did just that and coped with the conditions better than most although Andrew will need a course of ‘Fishermen’s Friends’ to soothe his throat after a day shouting at his driver to “keep the heid”.

It was a tough day all round. Not just for competitors, but for service crews, organisers and of course Marshals, but that’s what we do in Scotland. Make the most of what we get.

The result was a rather surprising top ten at the finish of a most arduous day in the Highlands, and that might just have an impact on the outcome of this year’s ARR Craib Scottish Rally Championship title. With only the best 6 scores from 7 rounds to count this year then some crews are off to a flying start. MacDonald may have scored top points but Dale Robertson, Quintin Milne and Mark McCulloch are looking good for the season ahead.

SS1, Meall Mor, 6.55 mls
1, Quintin Milne/Sean Donnelly, 7m 15s
2, Bruce McCombie/Michael Coutts, 7m 16s
3, Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry, 7m 18s
4, Donnie MacDonald/Andrew Falconer, 7m 39s
5, Reay MacKay/Robert MacDonald, 7m 41s
6, Garry Pearson/Robbie Mitchell, 7m 43s

As the cars headed south from the formal city centre start in Inverness, there was already drama in the forests. An elderly spectator had fallen ill with a suspected heart attack and the rescue services were called into action. That meant cars queuing up at the stage start for over an hour before the action could get underway. Plenty of time for drivers and co-drivers to discuss what lay ahead.

The Meall Mor test close by the A9 is notorious for all the wrong reasons. There are parts of the forest that rarely see the sun, and depending on who you spoke to, it was ice all the way or 50/50 between ice and gravel. This wasn’t a normal forest stage, this was a trip into the unknown.

Reigning champ Jock Armstrong nosed the Subaru up to the start line as first car on the road. 8m 18 seconds after starting the 6.5 mile test, the orange car slid across the Stop line and sat waiting to see what the others did. Number 2 seed Mike Faulkner was a full 20 seconds slower with number 3 seed John MacCrone a further 7 seconds behind Faulkner. Maybe Jock’s time wasn’t so bad after all.

Then Quintin Milne’s time hit the results sheets. He was over a minute quicker than Armstrong. Using the same tyres he used to win a snowbound Border Counties Rally three years ago, Milne set the pace in his Lancer Evo9 by a second from Bruce McCombie with Mark McCulloch a further two seconds adrift. Donnie MacDonald was next up from Reay MacKay with the first non Lancer in the top six, Garry Pearson’s Fiesta R5 sixth quickest.

John MacCrone admitted to a slight off: “It was at the bridge 2 miles in,” he explained, “right at the bit I had marked in my Notes to slow down!” and Fraser MacNicol went right off, with Richard Stewart following suit on a slippery right hander, the wayward VW Polo coming to rest nose first in a ditch. No damage – but no grip either.

SS2, Millbuie, 6.83 mls
1, Garry Pearson/Robbie Mitchell , 6m 40s
2= Jock Armstrong/Paula Swinscoe, 6m 48s
2= John Wink/John Forrest, 6m 48s
4, Martin Scott/Daniel Forsyth, 6m 51s
5= Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry, 6m 52s
5= Ross MacDonald/Matthew Johnstone, 6m 52s
7, Bruce McCombie/Michael Coutts, 6m 53s

Although the stage started an hour late, there was another delay in the running order when Peter Stewart’s brand new VW Polo S2000 suffered an underbonnet fire. Before that happened, Garry Pearson got the hammer down in the Buckley prepped Fiesta R5 to set fastest time by 8 seconds from Jock Armstrong, but look who tied with Armstrong, John Wink in his Mitsubishi. Martin Scott the number 25 seed was only 3 seconds behind those two while Mark McCulloch and number 35 seed Ross MacDonald rounded off the top half dozen a further one second behind.

Bruce McCombie was seventh quickest with Milne struggling for grip having changed tyres for this one: “I put gravel tyres on while the rest stayed on snow tyres. That was the right call. I was trying to save my good tyres for the final stage, so we’ll have to wait and see if that was the right tactics!” He dropped half a minute to the leaders which gave McCombie the rally lead.

Sadly Shaun Sinclair’s Subaru was going no further when it blew a head gasket, and Craig Rutherford was another down and out when a driveshaft broke in his Subaru: “We got 20 metres up the road after the start of the stage and it just went ‘bang’,” said Craig. And making it three Subarus in one stage, Ian Baumgart was another heading for an early bath when his car broke down mid stage. Dale Robertson was lucky though when the Mitsubishi sailed down an escape road: “It was gravel all the way till the braking area – then it was sheet ice!” He dropped 18 seconds to the leaders but was still in overall contention as things turned out.

SS3, Strath Rory, 13.76 mls
1, Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry, 14m 41s
2, Donnie MacDonald/Andrew Falconer, 14m 56s
3, Dale Robertson/Stuart Loudon, 15m 07s
4, Jimmy Christie/David MacFadyen, 15m 24s
5, Garry Pearson/Robbie Mitchell, 15m 26s
6, Quintin Milne/Sean Donnelly, 15m 27s

It was Mark McCulloch in here, a full 15 seconds up on Donnie MacDonald with Dale Robertson a further 11 seconds adrift and might have been closer but for an intimate encounter with a ditch. Former Scottish champ Jimmy Christie was fourth quickest ahead of Pearson and Milne but McCombie was way off the pace. He dropped a minute and a half and lost the rally lead to McCulloch.

As for Mike Faulkner, this wasn’t a good day: “We don’t have snow tyres. We were already here when the decision was made to declare this a ‘Winter Rally’. Nothing we’ve got is working, so we’ve borrowed some tractor tyres from Ivor Clark!” You think he jests? You should have seen them. Probably something Ivor took off a Model T and kept in his shed.

Martin Scott’s promising run was ruined when he blootered a chicane and Barry Renwick on only his second gravel rally was going no further in his Proton: “We just slid off and couldn’t get back out without help, but it was fun while it lasted.”

SS4, Scotsburn, 6.18 mls
1, Brian Ross/Ryan Thomson, 7m 23s
2, Scott Mutch/Greg McDonald, 7m 24s
3, Jimmy Christie/David MacFadyen, 7m 31s
4, Dale Robertson/Stuart Loudon, 7m 32s
5, Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry, 7m 35s
6, Simon Hay/Calum Jaffray, 7m 36s

The form cards were upturned again in Scotsburn when Brian Ross set the quickest time in his Lancer by a second from the number 44 seed Scott Mutch in his Subaru. Jimmy Christie was still on the case third quickest from Robertson with McCulloch doing enough to hang on to his rally lead. According to Dale the reason for his speed was: “The anti-lag switch is a big knob on the dash that I can reach easily – so I can switch it off quickly!”

Another upset was caused by the 65 seed when Simon Hay scored sixth fastest time in his Lancer finishing just one second clear of the tie for 7th fastest time. And here there was a real turn-up for the jotters when Chris Collie in a Peugeot 205 (see Roundup) equalled Steven Ronaldson’s time in his Lancer.

Donnie MacDonald looked at the times and just shook his head: “We bounced off so many bankings I thought we were on a Scandinavian rally.” He was also getting an awfy shouting from Andrew Falconer: “Stay out the ditches, don’t hit the trees, feather the throttle, don’t go so hard out of the corners.” I wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to see, and hear, the in-car footage from that test, eh?

McCombie’s chances of victory were well and truly scuppered in here: “I just lost the rear end on the wrong tyres and ended up in the undergrowth. We got it out pretty quickly though, so we were lucky.” A further spin on the final stage ensured there was no comeback.

Unfortunately there was yet another delay in the running order when another spectator fell and broke an ankle, so with one stage to go, the rally was running seriously late and in three groups. Darkness was falling too, and there was more snow in the air. Happy days.

SS5, Raven Rock, 10.92 mls
1, Quintin Milne/Sean Donnelly, 12m 41s
2, Dale Robertson/Stuart Loudon, 12m 48s
3= Donnie MacDonald/Andrew Falconer, 12m 58s
3= Bruce McCombie/Michael Coutts, 12m 58s
3= Garry Pearson/Robbie Mitchell, 12m 58s
6, Andrew Gallacher/Jane Nicol, 13m 27s

Going into the final 11 mile test at Raven Rock, it was now well after 5pm and what light there was, was fading fast. The falling snow was getting thicker and yet McCulloch had a 51 second lead over MacDonald, surely that was enough?

The first five miles of the test was pretty much gravel, but the final six miles on the other side of the hill had snow. No tyre choice could be perfect for this one.

Rallying can be such a cruel sport, and so it proved. “I didn’t hit anything, I just felt it go down,” said McCulloch when the front near side tyre punctured. MacDonald could only manage third fastest time behind Milne and Robertson, while McCulloch dropped over a minute and a half to the fastest trio. Adding insult to injury, Armstrong had a puncture too dropping him out of the top ten after almost getting back on the pace.

With the leaders through the last stage, the organisers were finally forced to cancel it for the later runners. It was pitch dark in the hills by this time, the snow had turned to a blizzard and spectators were struggling too. For most of the 20 mile run back to the rally finish, MacDonald and Falconer were unaware of their final rally position. “Dale was on it today,” said Donnie, “and Dave Weston told me about Mark so I was still unsure how we’d finished. It wasn’t till we were 3 miles from Inverness that we got the message, so we were prepared for the welcome at the finish.”

For sure there was disappointment all round, from McCulloch and Robertson to Milne about what might have been, but no-one bregrudged this popular crew their first outright victory. As MacDonald was congratulated by his peers and rivals he laughed: “If I was insufferable before, I’ll be a lot worse now!” We’re all looking forward to it.