… They closed the roads and the rally cars came …
Once upon a time, Dunoon was a major motor sporting mecca. Some of rallying’s greats walked on these streets, ate in these restaurants and drank in these bars. There was sport of the highest calibre in the surrounding forests and high jinks to match when the engines were switched off.
Admittedly some of those high jinks ensured their perpetrators enjoyed a night of hospitality at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ but even the Polis were in good humour. There was no malice, just over active adrenalin pumps still running at full chat at the conclusion of some of the most demanding and enjoyable forest stages in the country against some of the mightiest competition that the national sport could provide. The glory days.
And perhaps those days could yet return. The Dunoon Presents Argyll Rally wasn’t just the first round of the KNC Groundworks Scottish Rally Championship, it marked the long awaited return of the sport to a following starved of action and excitement for over 15 months.
And yet it was different. The forests remained silent. Instead, the action took place on closed public roods. The word ‘public’ may be a bit of a misnomer, the chosen roads see more sheep than cars on an annual basis and perhaps even more tractors and quads than visitors. Perhaps that’s because these roads would deter the average motorist and frighten off the inexperienced motorhome driver.
In other words, ideal rallying country. They were quick but narrow, very narrow in places. The ‘sideways to victory’ school of motoring would be hard pressed to see the rally Finish. The nature of the tests rewarded the tidy and the committed and yet there were bends and curves aplenty to test metal and mettle. Which was why some of the faster sections needed chicanes in order to comply with MS UK dictat. Once the green light flickered, both drivers and co-drivers had little chance to draw breath from stage start to stage finish. Exhausting, exhilarating and exciting as well as breathtaking.
Then scenery was intoxicating too but few had time to look as it hurtled past windscreens and windows in a multi hued blur of sun dappled greens and darkened shadows.
He’ll hate me for calling him this but veteran tarmac rallyist, Daniel Harper came up with the best description: “There’s a bit of Mull, the Jim Clark and Ireland in these roads!” Amen to that.
It will go down in rallying record that Meirion Evans and Jonathan Jackson scored their maiden rally victory on this event in Argyll in the Year 2021 but the celebrations were muted. On stage times alone, Freddie Milne and Patrick Walsh were holding the lead as they clocked in to the Final Control, but they were already aware that Penalties had been applied. They were deemed to have ‘hit a chicane’ and the resultant one minute penalty dropped them from 1st to 3rd. They were not alone, half of the top ten had incurred similar penalties.
Sadly that cast a shadow over what had been a spectacular debut closed road event in what was previously regarded as prime forest rallying territory. By the time clarification was sought and Protest heard, there were very few crews still around for the prizegiving ceremony. As this was held under Covid19 rules, the procedure was weird, very weird. Prizewinners gathered in their taped off enclosures in front of an empty stadium grandstand and physically picked up their own trophies as directed.
The rally itself got under way on the Friday evening with two short stages around the town centre streets of Dunoon. The mechanical cacophany of a Volkswagen Golf GTI R5 bounced off the tall, tightly packed High Street shops and offices as it signalled the rally Start. Encouragingly and perhaps worryingly (for Covid reasons) the spectacle had attracted huge crowds, but in all fairness, most folk seemed quite sensible as they gathered at street corners and junctions and some even sat in their gardens to watch.
The Mull Car Club organising team had not initially planned a town centre stage on their first visit to the area, but the Dunoon Presents tourist authority were dead keen. It worked, and it was well received. It is said that rallies cannot be won on such short timed tests, but they can be lost. John Stone is testament to that. The Fiesta driver shattered two of his four wheels on a rather stout kerb.
A quick visit to the Service Park at Dunoon Stadium followed ahead of the first of three closed public road tests ahead of which lights were fitted as drivers anticipated dark shadows under the trees as night drew in while later runners would experience rallying in the gloaming.
After an intensive recce, the American domiciled Milne was well up for it, the Fiesta R5 driver fastest on all three of them. “The stages were totally different to how I imagined they would be after the recce,” said Milne, “I hadn’t quite taken into account the severity of the jumps and bumps!”
At the end of five stages, Daniel Harper and Chris Campbell were 18 seconds adrift in the MINI WRC saying: “Those are some of the hardest stages I’ve ever driven, especially after 18 months off. The car is as wide as the roads.” David Wright and Paula Swinscoe were just 2 more seconds behind in the Fiesta R5 Evo2. “That was frantic and fast,” said Wright, “I lost all the brakes by the end of SS5, I just boiled them. This is my first time with Paula and my first proper run out in the car, it’s brilliant, there’s more to come.”
The remarkable Ford Escort Mk2 of David Bogie and John Rowan were 4th ahead of Hugh Hunter and Paul Beatson in the Focus WRC with Evans and Jackson 6th in the VW Polo R5 saying: “These stages reward confidence and I’m still learning the car.”
One of the first retirements was posted by Garry Pearson. Apparently a faulty oil pressure valve blew the filter off and the Fiesta blew oil out through the bonnet vents and all over the windscreen. And then came the first hint of trouble. Melvyn Evans was penalised a minute for ‘hitting a chicane’ in SS4, so he promptly put the Fabia R5 on the trailer. Donnie MacDonald was looking a mite troubled too: “It overheated on the third stage,” said MacDonald, “I hope it’s not the head gasket. We backed off for the next two using no anti-lag and just shifting from 1st to 4th all the time. It wouldn’t pull 5th at all, just spluttering and misfiring.”
John MacCrone lost time with a puncture in SS4 and Bob Adamson also had a lucky escape on the 4th test in the Fiesta: “I was braking into a right hander when a wheel came off and disappeared into the undergrowth. The spokes had sheared but there was a group of guys handy who helped me lift the car and change the wheel. They were English too, good lads!”
Overnight, Barry Groundwater had to change the gearbox in the Subaru and Scott McCombie had gearbox trouble with the Mitsubishi, but that put him out, although Groundwater was only to last a few more stages on Saturday. First time out in his recently acquired Mitsubishi, Ross Hunter had a bad start: “It broke a driveshaft on the first stage and then another on the second!”
John Rintoul had a wee chuckle to himself after the town stages: “I was doing 87 mph on the High Street – I didn’t have time to stop for a newspaper!”
As Saturday dawned millions of starving ‘spectators’ descended on the peninsula – midges! It was dry, bright and slightly muggy, but thankfully conditions started to improve as the breeze built up!
Milne took up where her left off but David Wright was the quicker of the two over the four morning tests before Merion Evans finally got to grips with the Polo and the timing screens started to light up as these three were joined by Harper, John MacCrone, Gordon Morrison, Hugh Hunter and a mighty impressive Damien Toner in his Escort Mk2. “This is my first time on a Scottish rally,” said Toner, “these stages are as good as they get!” He did have a wee fright on the first stage when the ‘no charge’ light came on, but was able to do the second test before a broken wire was fixed at service.
As for David Bogie, the Escort was parked well off the road in Glendaruel after hitting a bump, landing on the grass and spinning like a peerie. Hugh Hunter wasn’t far behind, but it was an intermittent misfire which halted the Focus and John Wink also planted his Hyundai in the undergrowth.
Michael Binnie and Claire Mole lost out big time in the second morning test when the Mitsubishi punctured a tyre and they were forced to stop and change it. Then on the next road section they had another puncture – and no spare!
After Service the crews faced the same four stages and the competition was getting ever fiercer. It was Gordon Morrison this time who demonstrated the outcome of a landing beyond a jump which wasn’t inch perfect, the Fiesta ending up in a ditch amongst the bushes.
Meanwhile Evans had looked at the gap between himself and the leader but given the twisty, bumpy nature of the tests there was only one where he could really make up time, and that was the 5 mile shore-side Loch Fyne test. The trouble was, Milne and Wright were up for the fight too and although they were slightly quicker over Glendaruel and Bealach, Evans responded with a magnificent 7 second quicker time over the penultimate test.
“I’m going a bit canny now,” said Milne, “just holding on to what we’ve got. I could go harder but I’ve seen a lot of folk off the road. I learned a lot from yesterday. I lifted at a crest
in Loch Fyne, but not today. I took it flat even though I was desperate to brake! Patrick screamed.” Wright was in press-on form too: “I pushed on the first three tests but not the new one at Whistlefield.”
It wasn’t quite enough, Milne ran out the winner by an impressive 17 seconds from Evans and Harper with Wright taking fourth. First time out in an R5 car, Jock Armstrong and Cameron Fair managed to master most of the switches and buttons to take 5th. “On Friday night I couldn’t see over the steering wheel, all I could see was bonnet and sky,” said Armstrong, “so we raised the seat on Saturday morning – and raised it some more for the afternoon.”
John MacCrone and Stuart Loudon fought back to 6th, sorting out the suspension and still getting used to the Skoda Fabia after his Fiesta.
Gareth Sayers was 7th in his Fiesta R5: “It was a bit too tight for me,” said Sayer, “I like sliding about, but I couldn’t do that here.” In one of the drives of the rally, Damian Toner was 8th in his Ford Escort Mk2. “It was a pity about David (Bogie),” said Toner, “I’d like to have seen how I would have got on against him.”
In another Mk2, Greg McKnight was on course for a decent finish – till Loch Fyne. The car landed badly after a jump with black lines on the tarmac showing where it had gone so far off the road it was hard to glimpse the yellow through the shrubbery. Andy Horne was rather more fortunate. He punctured a rear tyre in the Metro 6R4 although the flailing rubber removed the rear o/s quarter bodywork taking the tail lights with it. The Scroots said he could continue if he could fashion a mudguard and replace the lights, but there was just a wee bit too much work required within the service time allowance.
Aiden Wray was 9th first time out in his Fiesta R5 and first time in a left hand drive car while Richard Hill rounded off the top ten in his Mitsubishi Lancer having earlier lost time with a puncture in SS7 and soft tyre in SS8.
Then the realisation that the Penalties were going to stand sunk in and the final results remained as they stood. Of the top ten finishers, no less than five crews had been handed a penalty. Evans scored his first major event win and Milne missed out, dropping to 3rd behind Harper, but still scored maximum points in the KNC Groundworks Scottish Championship. Target achieved.
1 Meirion Evans/Jonathan Jackson (VW Polo GTI R5) 52:29
2 Daniel Harper/Chris Campbell (MINI JCW WRC) 52:49
3 Freddie Milne/Patrick Walsh (Ford Fiesta R5) 53:12
4 David Wright/Paula Swinscoe (Ford Fiesta R5 Evo2) 53:32
5 Jock Armstrong/Cameron Fair (Ford Fiesta R45) 54:58
6 John MacCrone/Stuart Loudon (Skoda Fabia R5) 55:00
7 Gareth Sayers/Gareth Gilchrist (Ford Fiesta R5) 55:10
8 Damian Toner/Denver Rafferty (Ford Escort Mk2) 55:20
9 Aidan Wray/Kieran McGrath (Ford Fiesta R5) 56:24
10 Richard Hill/Steffan Evans (Mitsubishi Lancer) 56:49
Innes Mochrie/Kirsty Mochrie (Rover Metro Gti); Keith Riddick/Mairi Riddick (MG ZR); Anthony McCann/Damian McCann (Ford Escort Mk2); Will Rowlands/Richard Birch (Ford Escort Mk2); Ewan Tindall/Andrew Roughead (Ford Fiesta R2T); Stephen Thompson/Larry Higton (Ford Escort Mk2); Damian Toner/Denver Rafferty (Ford Escort Mk2); Niall Devine/Joe McNulty (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo9); Richard Hill/Steffan Evans (Mitsubishi Lancer); Meirion Evans/Jonathan Jackson (Volkswagen Polo Gti R5)