FEW drivers achieve their first outright victory as quickly as Dunmanway’s Liam McCarthy, who won the Marine Hotel Fastnet Rally in 1988 at the wheel of a 1600cc Ford Escort.
That was just 12 months after he made his debut in the sport with Kieran Murphy as his co-driver, a partnership that continued until McCarthy’s final two years in rallying.
McCarthy drove some iconic cars, a few years in the Ford Escort was followed by an Opel Ascona 400, a Metro 6R4, a TPR Metro, a Sierra Cosworth 4x4, an Escort Cosworth, versions of the Toyota Celica and Subaru WRC’s and finally Toyota Corolla WRC’s.
While his rallying life was never dull, success was never guaranteed and often some marques were dispatched out of sheer frustration. Following that first Fastnet and over a 21-year period McCarthy delivered two more Fastnet wins, a Circuit of Munster victory and in 2009, a West Cork Rally win.
Asked if his 1988 Fastnet win was a shock, he replied, “I suppose it was a surprise, I had only competed in three rallies up to that point.”
Remarkably, just one of the top 10 seeds actually finished the rally (two were non-starters). Driver after driver - Limerick’s James O’Mahony, Glounthaune’s Luke McCarthy, Banbridge man Eamonn McAleenan and North Cork’s David Meade fell by the wayside as McCarthy/Murphy took the laurels. Waterford’s Don Butler and McCarthy’s friend and later co-driver for one rally, Tim O’Donovan, were second and third respectively.
Although he moved up to a two-litre Escort, by early 1991 he had acquired the ex-Donie Keating Opel Ascona 400.
“It was an animal of a thing to drive really. I remember on the Rally of the Lakes, the skin was completely gone from underneath my thumb and forefinger.”
Ironically, it was until the car was sold to Denis Cronin that its true potential was seen as McCarthy explains.
“They decided to replace the running gear and cross member with Manta gear and it transformed the car.”
McCarthy chuckled as he added, “Apparently, they had been on the Ascona originally.”
McCarthy’s propensity for change saw the arrival of all-powerful Metro 6R4 in 1992, one that came from the renowned Sam Nelson engine builder.
“It was a terrific car but I suppose we didn’t realise it at the time as we had no real knowledge of the car and how to maintain it at that level. We were a bit green really we just bought the car and ran it ourselves.”
He led the West Cork Rally but transmission woes saw him finish fourth. There was also a maiden voyage to the Donegal International Rally. “We didn’t realise how big that event was at the time, we did ok considering it was our first time, we would have finished around sixth or seventh were it not for a puncture.”
The car yielded a second Fastnet win in late October the same year. He regrets parting with the car so quickly, it was replaced within a few months by the TPR Metro – a Metro 6R4.
“It was big mistake to get that car but luckily we didn’t keep it too long.”
At the end of 1993, an ex-Jimmy McRae Sierra Cosworth made its debut at the Rally of the Lakes. “That was more of a gravel car, it was too heavy.” Akin to the TPR Metro it received a quick shift.
After all the changes, a Ford Escort Cosworth brought several years of stability albeit without any major results. Instability returned in 1999 after a switch to an ex-TTE Toyota Celica ST185, its subsequent replacement, a Celica ST205, was equally problematic due to its mapping.
As the rally era began to change, McCarthy’s acquisition of a Toyota Corolla WRC (2001) marked a new dawn. “That was a good car, Didier Auriol drove it to second place on the Acropolis Rally.” Interestingly, McCarthy added that Auriol has recently acquired the car after all these years.
McCarthy flirted with a Subaru WRC for two events in 2002 before a full season in 2007 with an S12 that he took to its first victory in Ireland on the Circuit of Munster.
Another year (2008), another car change and another Fastnet Rally win - this time in another Toyota Corolla WRC. It was also the car that provided him with the hitherto elusive West Cork Rally win in 2009. Two outings in 2010 and a national championship bid in 2011brought the curtain down on his rallying.
After realising that running rally cars was a far more complex issue and not sustainable or practical anymore, McGeehan Motorsport oversaw much of McCarthy’s rallying while he also campaigned cars from McKinstry Motorsport.
“It took up a lot of time, but it was great to do it at the level I did while I was able. The crack is gone out of it now, you have to have a specialised mechanics, it’s all technicians and computers.”
McCarthy doesn’t hesitate when asked to name his favourite rally stage. “Lough Allua, the South Lake Road, it’s a real classic.”
McCarthy has no regrets and is quick to highlight the relationship with the late Paddy Keohane and Keohane Readymix.
“They stood by us in the bad times. They were as delighted as we were when we won and especially, the Fastnet and the West Cork. We just could not have done our rallying without their support really.”
As for the future, McCarthy joked that it depends on what type of Brexit we will get, he didn’t rule out a return but intimated it would be in the Historic category. That may change but not as quickly as the Dunmanway driver once replaced his rally cars.