I'd been to Mull in 1993, and I was smitten then, vowing never to miss another and regretting that I'd never been before. Unfortunately, domestic circumstances prevented me from going in 1994, but nothing short of a coronary was going to stop me from going in 1995. Initially of course, I had no idea that I might be competing, though I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit to a yearning to do just that, so it was just for the sheer pleasure of being there, spectating, walking, socialising with some good friends, and, yes, drinking horlicks and studying the Bible in that most peaceful of Island Havens – The Bellachroy Hotel, Dervaig – that I looked forward to with such barely concealed enthusiasm.
Then, some two or three months ago, Tim (Stell) approached me to ask if I'd be interested in co-driving on the Tour of Mull (is the Pope Catholic?). Apparently, Joff couldn't make it, and my name had been mentioned, not least because I was going anyway, and no doubt too because I was prepared to put in a substantial amount of the folding stuff! My first thoughts were for Joff, because I didn't want to be seen in any way to be 'pushing' Joff out, but I was assured later by the man himself that that was not the case. I readily accepted Tim's offer, and he didn't hear or see me cheering and punching my fist in the air in jubilation after I'd put the phone down!
The organisational side of going to Mull isn't difficult, since the 2300 Club make it all very easy. The accommodation was booked – Nellina Stewart's caravan, just yards from the Bellachroy, and a couple of rooms in a local Guest House. The travelling party was to be Tim and Jenny, Noel and Rosemary, Chris Hallas, Robert Barker (a latecomer, but welcome nevertheless) and your scribe. Tim, Jenny and me were travelling on the Monday – Tim driving the rally car, Jenny in my Astravan and I piloted Chris' trailer-towing Sherpa Van – with the rest due to arrive on Wednesday in Noel's trusty Carlton. So far so good, but there's always something…
Two weeks prior to setting off, Tim and I had done a small single venue to check out the car, give Tim some valuable competitive miles and for me to get to know, well, everything. Disaster struck when we punched out a large piece of gearbox casing, but then again, better there than on Mull. Some frantic hours followed in the course of the next few days to get the car prepared, but all's well, as they say, that ends well, and we duly finished the innumerable tasks. Thanks must be said, and not for the last time, to Noel, Chris and Steve Bennett for helping so unselfishly. Tim pronounced the car virtually perfect and so on Monday 9th October at 8.00am, after carefully and painstakingly packing everything we could think of the day before, we set off for Mull.
Going to Mull five days before the event may seem a little extravagant, but there is a colossal amount of 'surveying' to be done, to ensure the notes are correct and to familiarise driver and co-driver with the difficult nature of the Island's roads. On the subject of notes, I must say straight away that I was extremely fortunate to have a full set of pace notes which had been prepared the year before by Tim and Joff. Indeed these notes were the culmination of two years efforts and were, still are, near perfect. I copied them out meticulously, and pre-prepared all the notes in stage order. My preparation was as thorough as I could make it. Thanks then to Joff for all his help and valuable advice – he definitely made my job very much easier, and helped to give me quite a high level of confidence in the task ahead. Jim Kitson added his words of wisdom too, so in reality I could barely fail, unless I tried very hard! The good news for me was that by now we'd heard that Joff was going to Mull to compete after all, so I'd have help at hand if I needed it. Joff had been approached by the Icelandic rally champion, Steingrimur Ingason, seeded at seven, and had readily agreed to co-drive.
The trip up the Glen road to Dervaig raised the hairs on the back of my neck in anticipation of what was to come, even though that was some four nights away. The three of us fitted very nicely into Nellie's caravan, and we duly unpacked, prepared an excellent meal and retired to the Bellachroy to meet Joff and Sue. We discussed our plans for recceing, (for which we were using the trusty Astravan, complete with its non-dangly new spots, competition pads and uprated front struts), and decided to do more night runs than day, since the bulk of the event was at night. Joff advised us that going out at 5.00am for two or three hours was the perfect time due to the almost complete absence of cars – this worked well, though with due deference to the Muileachs, Tim did drive quietly past the odd residence to be found here and there. We did do some recceing during the day, but by Wednesday this was a complete waste of time due to the sheer volume of rally traffic. Tea time, from 6.00pm to about 8.00pm worked well too, especially down at the southern end of the Isle – Gribun and Scridain (see map). I had wondered beforehand just what crews did when out recceing. First thoughts tend to suggest that it is undisguised practising, but the Organisers' had made it very clear that inconsiderate driving would be dealt with very severely, and for that I cannot blame them in any way. After all, Monday to Friday is just another working week for the Muileachs, and though they are extremely tolerant of rally traffic, it is essential that we 'comer-inners' drive respectfully, or that tolerance could easily evaporate. So, Tim and I drove relatively steadily, concentrating our efforts on checking and perfecting the delivery of the notes. Only on the morning sessions did we drive at anything approaching a fast pace, though it has to be said that the pace of an Astravan cannot measure up in any way against the pace of the GTE rally car. Nevertheless, we did manage to have the odd close shave…
One such was when Tim chose to ignore my call of 'medium right, tightens' and got the van usefully sideways. His only comment was a rather laconic "well, it focuses the mind John, doesn't it?" Two more incidents were due entirely to Tim's propensity for gazing around everywhere but in the direction in which we were supposedly travelling. The first involved a rather bumpy drive along the edge of the road, simply because only two wheels were actually on the tarmac, the other two were indulging in a spot of 'agricultural driving' (Tim's words). He was fiddling with the heater controls that time. The second, potentially more serious one, occurred when an enthusiastically driven Volvo (surprised me, too) rounded a tight hairpin largely on our side of the road and swerved violently to avoid contact. The sound of flying gravel led Tim to gawp in the rear view mirror to see if the Volvo had 'gone off'. Whilst in the process of gawping, a van towing a rally car on a trailer rounded the same hairpin and Tim was steadfastly driving directly towards it, all thoughts of rounding the hairpin temporarily suspended. A polite and gentle reminder from me, registering 7.3 on the Richter scale, resulted in the van stopping dead, just inches away from a bruising conjunction. Otherwise, all went extraordinarily well, once more a testament to the excellence of the notes.
A notable feature of the rally is the sheer enthusiasm of the local kids. Being in Dervaig, I can only talk about the Dervaig kids, but I'm given to understand that they are all the same. At the junction of the Glen Road in Dervaig, a group of kids flagged us down for our autographs. This does one's ego no harm at all! Tim noticed a picture of a girl in the wallet of one 12 or 13 year old, and politely asked if she was his girlfriend. Tim then remarked that she was very pretty, to which this young teenager replied, in all sincerity, "Yes, and she's a good s–g too!!!" I must be getting old!
A potential problem arises on Mull due to the intelligence of those most vacant of domesticated creatures – the sheep and the Highland Cow. The sheep tended to move out of the way fairly swiftly, no doubt due to the discrepancy in size between vehicle and animal. Not so the Heilan' Coos. Two particular incidents spring readily to mind.
The first was when we met a herd of the shaggy giants at the end of Scridain, two of whom were standing right in the middle of the road. The nearest one was facing us and after staring balefully at us for a while, it ambled off, sedately, to one side of the road. Its mate was facing directly away from us, and a quick blast on the horn achieved precisely nothing. Tim cautiously nudged the nose of the Astravan into the immovable rear end which elicited a response. It took one step forward. Again Tim tried a gentle nudge, and again it moved another foot forward. As it was going in our general direction, we weren't getting very far, and with the rally only three days away, we were a little worried that we wouldn't make the start. However, with a bit of strategic manoeuvring we eventually outflanked it.
The second was quite remarkable, and we have it on video to prove it! A farmer was herding six or seven of these gentle giants along the road in his pick-up. We were quite content to follow behind, but to our astonishment, he signalled left, the cows dutifully pulled over into a passing place, stopped, and let us past!!! How did he do that?
We were so confident that the notes were as damn near perfect as they could be, that we decided to have Thursday off, and explore this fairest of all Scottish Isles. I persuaded the mob that we should visit Staffa, which meant trekking down to Fionnhport, the most south westerly point of Mull and just a few hundred yards, as the fish swims, from Iona. At this point I must mention that Chris Hallas was not a well man, and though it was largely self inflicted the night before, in fairness we all agreed that there was probably more to it than that. As we left the lee of Iona, the swells grew to interesting proportions, and Chris was looking decidedly second hand. On enquiring as to how long it would be before landfall on Staffa, I replied about 45 minutes, whereupon Chris threatened to 'stab' me. I suppose that was fairly justifiable, as I had told him it was only a ten minute trip before setting out, but had omitted to mention that that was to Iona. To compound his misery, the swells were so large that landfall was impossible. In their wisdom (whoever they may be), they had built the jetty at a point where the full fury of the Atlantic Ocean was most in evidence, so with 10 to 15 foot swells crashing against the solid concrete buttresses, the Captain, probably wisely, decided not to risk his boat or his third party liability policy and turned for home. Chris' malaise was therefore redoubled, and I doubt that he saw more than a fleeting glimpse of the magnificent Isle of Staffa. We have the evidence on film, so you too will be able to share in our mirth at the abject despondency of a fellow human being! Tim meanwhile was 'treating' us to Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave Overture, written, it is said, after seeing the inspirational caves of Staffa. On hearing it for the twentieth time, however, the tune was losing a little of its attraction!
Thursday night was 'Diddly-Diddly' night. Angus and Jimmy entertained with their own brand of folk songs, but it has to be said that they weren't as good as I remembered. Prior to that, Noel and I had disappeared off to Tobermory to the Rally Forum, run by John Fyffe of Autosport fame (who?). This consisted primarily of interviewing Mull notables, and Ian Grindrod had us laughing with an anecdote about he and Jimmy MacRae. Apparently one of Grindrod's favourite wind-ups was to call 'flat over crest' and then, just as Jimmy reached it, add, quietly, 'I think'. Cressey also raised a titter or two when he mentioned that one of his co-drivers favourite get-outs as they banged and crashed through the undergrowth, having just gone off, was to add, again quietly, 'and tightens.' We had a good day and a good evening, despite the fact that Tim and I were drinking with astonishing moderation as Friday was the BIG DAY!
The start area was very busy, with a fancy start ramp, well floodlit, and the usual commentator. Seeded at 44 meant we weren't off until 19:44, though due to non-starters that had been amended to 19:38. We watched the first few cars through, including Joff and Steini, and Paul Kirtley with Jon Geldart. Paul seemed very fired up and more than a few people had tipped him to do well. The favourite was car three, the young Callum Duffy in a MkII Escort fitted with a naturally aspirated Cosworth engine, but it would be a brave man who dismissed the many times previous winner Neil Mackinnon, running at one, and John Price in his 6R4 at two. At last came our turn to mount the ramp, whereupon the commentator promptly announced us as Tim Stell and Joff Haigh! Obviously, he was clinging to old info, and I pointed out the error of his ways. What I hadn't realised was that our booking in time of 19:40 was two minutes late, though we had been held up in the queue and I didn't attach any significance to it – it could have proved costly, more later.
The Action Commences – Friday Night Stages
The Glen Aros/Hill Road stage is a long one – 14.59 miles, and a stage record time of 12m 16s by Callum Duffy in 1994. Conditions were good, we were on sparsely cut intermediates (there were some damp patches) and we were going to give it a good go. Tim flew. I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer speed and I admit now that I struggled to keep up a meaningful flow of information. I was used to looking up and around regularly on the recce, but now I scarcely had time to glance up, except on the longer straights. I did remember the offending medium right from the sideways moment when recceing, and forcefully told Tim that it was definitely medium, and it definitely tightened! However, despite promising to blow the horn as we went through the Dervaig junction, I simply had no processor cycles left to perform such a function. Indeed I was barely aware of the crowds which inevitably congregate round the junction, such was the extent of my concentration on the job in hand.
The notes were working tremendously well, and let it be said here and now that any driver who considers the notes to be a waste of time ought never to do Mull, as they'd be completely wasting their time. There are so many blind brows or brow flat right/lefts, along with the dreaded brow, jump into immediate 90 right/lefts etc., that any driver deluding themselves that notes weren't necessary would be either so slow as to be laughable or go off in a very big way.
But even with notes, accidents do happen. Steini and Joff were some way along the Glen Road when they were caught by Paul Kirtley and Jon Geldart. Cars were being started at minute intervals, so you can imagine how fast Paul must have been going. Regrettably his rally ended savagely when he lost it just a few hundred yards from the end of the stage in Torloisk, rolling several times and completely destroying his immaculate car. It was quite unnerving for Tim and I when we saw the aftermath, but I was enormously relieved when we saw Paul at the stage finish and he confirmed that he and Jon were fine. Putting his performance into some perspective, he'd nearly caught his two minute man – awesome! I reckon that he would have matched Duffy's time very closely – 12m 3s and a new record. Mackinnon wasn't even close in his Escort Cosworth, so young Duffy must be spectacular to say the least. We posted a time of 14m 9s and that felt quick. The mind boggles at 12m 3s!!!
One thing I hadn't prepared for was the fact that I was wringing wet. You'd expect the driver to be dripping with exertion, but after all I'm just sat there, reading for my life granted, but not doing anything physical, and yet there I was, hair slicked down and racing overalls damp. As to whether my underwear bore the evidence of biological staining, I cannot recall!
A long run down to Gribun rocks allowed us time to reflect on our performance, and we both pronounced ourselves happy, though already it was clear that some of the flat left/right calls were a bit iffy, due to the speed we were travelling at. Next year (all being well!) we'll look closely at some of those calls and add the odd flat left/right maybe, the maybe meaning if it's grippy, dry etc. it is flat, otherwise a lift might be in order! I confess to being worried about Gribun. It seemed to have more than its fair share of cautions, bad cautions and even an 'Oh, Shit' call, as well as lots of jumps, and it also contains the longest 'straight' in the rally too! The proximity of the cliff wall and drops into the sea probably contributed to my sense of unease, but I needn't have worried. Tim was well up to the job and we posted a competitive 8m 24s. Just Loch Scridain to do before service, and I must admit I quite like Scridain – short and sweet with no nasties, but quite fast. A 4m 32s time proved most reasonable, and we set off on the long 37 minute run to service at Craignure.
By letting crews in ten minutes early, we had about 1½ hours service time, and though Chris and Noel had little to do, the same could not be said for me. Ros whisked me away from around the car, reasoning that I'd only be a hindrance and she was undoubtedly correct in that assumption, and accompanied me to the results room in the cafe. To my horror I saw that we, along with several others, had been penalised two minutes for booking into MTC1 two minutes late. I was aghast, as without the two minutes we were just about into the top twenty or so. It quickly became apparent that the Organisers were going to take a lenient view and cancel the penalties, but I hung around until I received a set of results with the penalty thankfully deleted.
Again we had a longish run up to Tobermory for the Mishnish Lochs stage, sometimes known as the Dervaig hairpins. This was followed by the full Calgary Loop and Loch Tuath, before service once more at Craignure. This time we only had about half an hour, but it was sufficient to find out that we were lying about 20th overall, with just two stages to go on this leg – Scridain and Gribun. We learned that Joff and Steini were out with a broken gearbox, and quite a lot of cars had gone to meet their maker – this was becoming a rally of attrition. However, Tim made no mistakes, and by now I was getting the hang of reading the notes, so we finished with no real problems, though extremely tired, and returned to Dervaig via the Glen Road for a well earned and needed rest.
Saturday Afternoon Stages
About half way through, and just before the hairpins, we lost all bar 3rd and 4th gears. Tim knew exactly what had happened, but elected to carry on and effect temporary repairs before the next stage. Exiting tight uphill hairpins in 3rd is never going to be quick, but Tim did his best and in fact was only 1 second slower than his time from the previous night! We quickly repaired the car just outside Dervaig and dropped only minimal road time before arriving at the start of Calgary Bay. A straightforward run through this and the next two stages, Ensay/Laganulva and Killiemor (supposedly 'new' stages, but in reality only existing stages split up differently), and then we rushed back to Tobermory for an essential service to repair the car permanently. We only had about half an hour service, and whilst realigning the gear selector shaft (I think that was what they were doing) they noticed a substantial oil loss from the bottom of the engine. We had cracked the sump and oil was running steadily out. With no time to do anything about it, we stuffed a couple of plastic oil containers in the back of the car, promising to check the level before the start of each stage.
Straight into Mishnish 3 and we went 9 seconds quicker than before with the benefit of all the gears, but were astonished to be caught (we were running at 30 second intervals) at the top of the hairpins by a flying car 87, also an Astra. Mind you, we had backed right off a couple of times when the engine had stuttered very badly and great clouds of oil smoke had erupted from the exhaust. On the third occurrence, I ventured to Tim that it was probably overfilling that was causing the problem, and with a very healthy oil pressure he readily agreed, so we got back on pace. Calgary, Ensay/Laganulva and Killiemor the second time round were driven with respect for the fragile nature of the sump, our worry being that an over-enthusiastic landing would break it altogether with disastrous results. We dropped ten seconds on the second Calgary, but surprisingly went quicker on Ensay/Laganulva and Killiemor. Funny sport this rallying!
By now the unforgiving nature of Mull was taking a tremendous toll on the entry. Price was out, as was Duffy, Kirtley and several more of the top seeds. Mackinnon had gone off on Mishnish but regained the road, albeit down the running order. We were now up to 17th overall. We had everything to go for and amazingly, a top 12 placing was no longer looking out of the question. For those who don't know, the top twelve overall placings get their picture on the following year's calendar, and it is regarded as something of an honour.
The service crew did a sterling job from the minute we arrived back in Dervaig to the minute we set off for Salen and the start of the last leg. The sump pan was duly changed, along with numerous other small but vitally important checks. The car was pronounced perfect and we were buzzing in anticipation of a best ever result for Tim and a fairy tale debut for me.
Saturday Night Stages – The Final Leg
Though the car was sliding around, especially at the back, Tim was giving it his all in pursuit of that 'calendar position', and on an innocuous 90 right the back end slowly and gracefully came round a quarter of a turn, the nose gently touching the steep banking, but disastrously the front wheels just dropping into a shallow gully. It was fourteen minutes before we managed to extricate it by jacking up one side and simply driving it off the jack. No damage whatsoever was done, except to our chances of a good finish. It took quite a while to get back on the notes (and here is a good example of the value of notes, since until we picked up on where we were, the car behind was catching fast, only to be subsequently left easily when we got back on the notes), and I thought that I'd lost my glasses. At the finish control, I did find my specs, so at least I could see, but both Tim and I were wet through, muddy, tired and thoroughly disappointed. A last run over the Mishnish Lochs, at a relatively steady pace, and we arrived at last at the end of the best rally in the world.
We finished 36th overall. Hugely disappointing considering what might have been, but then we'd all be winners 'if only…'
To finish Mull is an achievement in itself. 36th is no disgrace, and as Jim would say (so I'm led to believe) 'we know.' There were 79 finishers from over 140 starters. There were some very sorry looking non-finishers, too. So in retrospect, we have no reason to feel ashamed of what we have done. Tim drove magnificently, I felt that I did a good job, Chris and Noel were brilliantly efficient and Jenny and Ros kept us going with moral support and sustenance. Robert helped too, and the whole team had nary a cross word.
Sunday afternoon was spent viewing the island before the main festivities of Sunday night, when the Bellachroy was featuring Banny and his guitar. What a night!! It was brilliant. All who attended will testify to the fact that it was one of the best night's entertainment any of us had had for a long time. Even Dave, the Landlord who had a reputation for being a touch anti-rally (justified or not I have no idea), had a superb time and we suspect he was very reluctant to call it a day at 1:00am in consideration of those miseries staying in his Hotel. We retired to the caravan and drunk ourselves into oblivion by about 04:00.
Luckily for our heads we had packed the day before, so by 11:00am we were ready to set off in convoy down the Glen Road to the ferry terminal in Craignure. Just as well we had packed too, because the weather was atrocious.
So, we bid farewell to the fair Isle, and I was sad to leave. But I'll be back. The Mull Magic is coursing through my veins. I'm still buzzing even now as I write this (a week since I returned). I have not been fortunate enough to experience many 'big' tarmac events, so I do not have a basis for comparison, but I have been around motorsport for a good long time now, and I know that for any event to be better than Mull it would have to be outstanding. It is not just the rallying, it is far more than that. Mull is special. Above all, it is fun!