BREAKTHROUGH Welshman excelled on the 1986 Circuit. By
Thirty years on, the name of the stage escapes him. It was dark and on a road back through the mountains to Belfast that David Llewellin spotted a mark on a wall.
A couple of corners later a Rothmans Metro 6R4 was parked up.
After almost four days and 600 miles of flat-chat racing down the Irish lanes, Jimmy Mcrae had blinked. The 1986 Circuit of Ireland was Llewellin’s to lose.
Get through the night, one more day and history would be written. And it would be written in Welsh to mark Dai’s first international win. Then there was the small matter of the Metro’s first victory at that level.
Llewellin had jumped ship from Audi – his first professional contract in 1985 – to join Austin Rover. He was the front man in a two-car British effort with Harri Toivonen for a team-mate in a brace of semi-works Red-run Metros.
Llewellin crossed the Irish Sea in confident mood. He’d won the Skip Brown Rally, his debut in the 6R4, before running Hannu Mikkola a close second on a snowy National Breakdown.
Now for the Circuit. Like this year, the event qualified in European, Irish and British series and delivered a high-quality entry with a quattro Sport for Mikkola, a brace of Boreham’s RS200S for Kalle Grundel and Mark Lovell, a Peugeot UK 205 T16 for Mikael Sundstrom, Porsche 911 SC RSS for Billy Coleman and Saeed Al-hajri and, of course, Opel Manta 400s for Russell Brookes and Austin Mchale. The most notable absentee was Bertie Fisher’s 400. The Ballinamallard star had retired from rallying after a close shave with some spectators when his brakes failed on the Galway just weeks earlier.
Fisher’s fears for fan safety were realised on the second stage, when a spectator stepped out into the road and was hit by Grundel’s RS200 – he couldn’t hear the first-on-the-road Ford for the overflying helicopter.
The rest of the event progressed under a cloud.
Nevertheless, Llewellin was immediately on the pace against Mcrae’s Prodrive-run car. “Taking Jimmy on at the Circuit,” says Llewellin, “was like taking Hannu [Mikkola] on in Finland. He was that good.”
On his one and only previous Circuit outing, Llewellin placed a quattro A2 eighth overall on the 1985 event. He was the first fourwheel-drive car home, but still the thick end of half an hour down on Mcrae’s Manta.
Conversely, Jimmy had finished on the podium on five of the last six Circuits he’d done. And won four of them.
And, don’t forget, these were the days when the crews did a genuine circuit of Ireland: south out of Belfast on Good Friday, down the island through Saturday in time for a Sunday run around the Ring of Kerry before heading north and finishing back in Belfast at lunchtime the following Tuesday.
“It was around 600 stage miles,” says Llewellin. “Not the sort of event you could go flat-out on.”
But that’s just what the frontrunning Metros did. They left the best of the rest trailing as they tore south.
While Llewellin might have been short on experience, co-driver Phil Short was anything but – he’d won the event in 1973, alongside Jack Tordoff in a Porsche.
“It was a blind event when I first won it,” says Short, “but I’m sure we had a recce in 1986. I’m sure I remember spending a lot of days in a Montego…”
Which would have been more comfortable than the Metro.
Short adds: “The team had a bit of difficulty fitting me in the car, I’m quite tall. I was black and blue after five days on the Circuit – especially my elbow, which banged against the rollcage. In the end, they modified the cage and put a kink in the door bar to make it a bit more comfortable. Completely illegal now, but it saved me some bruises a few years ago.
“There’s no doubt, the Circuit was a big, big rally. I remember the first time Markku Alen came to do it [in 1978]. He couldn’t really come to terms with how it just kept on going and going.”
And 1986 was no exception. One by one, the big names fell. Both Porsches crashed, Mikkola’s suspension failed, the clutch went on Sundstrom’s Peugeot 205 and Toivonen went off.
Brookes chased the 6R4s, but his Andrews-backed Manta slipped further and further into the distance.
Despite the notoriously demanding Irish lanes, the two Arg-built cars ran without problems, Llewellin’s car only took on a new gearbox after it began to show the strain.
Llewellin smiles: “Jimmy and I were at it pretty much from the start. The pace was incredible.” Something had to give. “From memory, we’d just got past him,” says Llewellin. “I can’t remember the stage, but I remember the mark on the wall. Then we saw his car parked up. The reason for retirement was suspension failure, but there was definitely a fairly solid stone wall involved.
“After that it got really difficult. I had to concentrate so hard! I had a big, big moment – the biggest of the event – and I can still remember the straight and the corner now. My mind had wandered, I hadn’t been listening to the notes properly. That was a big wake-up.”
Wide-awake to the finish, Llewellin and Short bagged the Metro’s biggest win.
The party started straight after the event and ran for quite some time. “My neighbours had a couple of light aircraft,” says Llewellin, “so they’d flown a few folk over to Belfast just for the party. I remember my father telling me: ‘You drive for Wales boy, I’ll drink for Wales!’”
Not that the Austin Rover factory recognised the success immediately.
Short: “With the car being run by RED, it didn’t really register with Austin Rover. In fact, it was a couple of months before John Davenport [ARG team manager] was on the phone and said: ‘Crikey, we haven’t congratulated you yet. You must come to dinner!’”
As well as the associated silverware, Llewellin received a special momento from RED: a piece of wood carved in the shape of Ireland with a piston from the winning Metro and a model 6R4 mounted on it.
“That was special,” he says. “The best momento would have been the car itself. A few years ago, an Irish guy asked me if I wanted to buy it, saying he owned it. I said: ‘I’d love to, but I think most of it’s still at the side of the road in Brechfa, where I crashed it on the Welsh, next time out.’”
Llewellin’s parents’ kitchen wall was a constant reminder as well.
“There was an Austin Rover advert in one of the papers,” he says, “with a big picture of us celebrating with the words: ‘Now beat this’ above it. That was up for a few years.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only writing on the wall regarding Group B. And the Circuit? Well that would be a circuit in name alone. ■