Innovations in 1931 paved the way for our WRC stage


PastImperfect: Rally Ireland's predecessorAfter Ireland's first World Rally Championship event - Rally Ireland - which introduced several innovations to the series, it may surprise readers to learn that its predecessor, the Circuit of Ireland Rally, was, when first run in August 1931, even more innovative.

The Ulster Motor Rally, which became The Circuit of Ireland Rally, was itself the successor to the car section of the Irish end-to-end motorcycle trial which was first run in 1928. For the 77 competitors who entered in 1931, it was a completely new experience as it was the first event of its kind to be held anywhere in Britain or Ireland. Based on the successful format of the Monte Carlo Rally, the event had five starting points - Belfast, Bantry, Dover, Land's End and John O'Groats. Each competitor had to cover at least 500 miles to qualify, with numerous route checks along the way. The last 24 miles was a regularity test in which the competitors were required to achieve a steady 24mph average speed.

The leading light behind the event was Wallace McLeod who, along with Harry Ferguson, had been responsible for bringing the Tourist Trophy Race to Ards three years previously. The Craigantlet Hillclimb was held annually a few days before the TT Race, and McLeod now added the Ulster Rally and a concours d'elegance to create an annual fortnight of motorsport activity.

That first event in 1931 with its new format was something of a mixed success. It attracted a good entry including Donald Healey who had won the Monte Carlo Rally earlier in the year and would go on to manufacture his famous Healey sportscars. Also among the competitors were Norman Gerrard driving a Talbot who later became competitions manager of Rootes, and Lord de Clifford in a Lagonda.

The 500-mile qualifying drive didn't pose much of a problem for the majority of competitors, and so the regularity test became the deciding factor in the event. Ulsterman Jimmy McCaherty - who had started from Belfast covered the 24 miles into Bangor at an exact average speed of 24mph driving his 16hp Austin, thus completing the event without losing any marks and being declared the outright winner. Paddie Naismith won the Ladies Cup in her 8 hp Standard which also won its class in the concours d'elegance.

All this is a far cry from Rally Ireland with its work supported teams fighting it out for the World Championship, but from these small but innovative beginnings, the event grew into the Circuit of Ireland, which for a number of years formed part of the European Rally Championship before the introduction of the World Rally Championship.

The pressures on competitors were very different and the speeds much slower but that first event in 1931 was no doubt just as competitive for the crews as Rally Ireland turned out to be in 2007.