The Three Legs of Mann Rally Pits Vintage Sports Compacts Against The Infamous Isle Of Man
Photography by Will Broadhead
The Isle of Man is a special place to me, always has been. Even before I stepped foot on the luscious green hills of Ellan Vannin for the first time, surrounded by the sea, this capital of speed had captured my heart. Of course, the excitement of the Island’s motorcycle road racing was the main draw, but the most well-known racing that taks place here is just part of a history of varied motorsport. Indeed, before bikes made the place famous, four-wheeled competition featured heavily in the Island’s racing schedule, with the likes of Hawthorn and Moss racing on the narrow streets that these days echo to the sounds of super bikes.
So, when I was offered the opportunity to visit my beloved bit of green in the Irish Sea to cover some regularity rallying with the chaps at HERO Events, I jumped at the chance to switch from a two to four-wheels focus, and to discover some of the roads around the big rock that I was less familiar with.
One thing that is consistent with any motorsport taking place on the Isle of Man is the unpredictable and often terrible weather, and with the arrival of Storm Gareth in the days prior to the event—with ferries unable to traverse in and out of the harbor—for a time it looked as though the weather deities prevalent in Manx folklore would prevent the event from running at all.
Thankfully there was enough of a break for the competitors and their cars to make the journey over from Liverpool, although while all hunched over the map books for the 400-mile, two-day event, the hammering wind and lashing rain on the forecast was never too far from the thoughts inside the cockpit.
Impending meteorology aside, on the Friday morning the event began with the forty or so classic cars leaving the famous TT Grandstand on the Glencrutchery Road for a day of testing regularities and off-road driving tests that would keep the teams out in all sorts of conditions until well past midnight. The variety of this group was a treat, a trip through iconic shapes from around the world. Porsche 911s lined up alongside grunty Jaguar XJ12s, whilst whippet-like VW Golfs snapped around the heels of Alfa Romeos and Lancias. With the route of the rally remaining a secret until the crews had signed on and received their road books, it would remain to be seen which vehicles would provide the best mix of nimble handling and the power needed to negotiate the steep inclines around the mountains. There would inevitably be some gravel to cross, and the muddied tracks of the plantations, and I had some confidence that the Escorts in the grid would be well poised to tackle the island’s many terrains.
The route was full of stunning vistas of land meeting sea, and even when the weather turns a bit rotten, one cannot fail to be mentally stirred by the dramatic skies over the breathtaking views from the highlands, and as your eyes track down across the patchwork of fields and criss-cross of drystone walls, invariably they are drawn back to the sea, a constant reminder that you are never really that far from the coast here.
Back to the competition at hand though. The top-seeded cars were running extremely close together time-wise, with a family battle developing at the head of things between father and son Howard and Matthew Warren driving against one another with the help of their navigators Iain Tullie and Ryan Pickering. It was Porsche 911 vs Ford Escort, reminiscent of Björn Waldegård and Hannu Mikkola. Both cars were coping well with the route’s mixture of surfaces, between the fast-flowing tarmac that wrapped around many famous landmarks of the TT course, and then the seamless cuts into tight and twisty sections on the backroads of the Island with more to dig through.
The off-road driving tests were all about top speed rather than the navigational accuracy and average speed of the regs, and from the tarmac and expansive space of Jurby airfield, the pack of cars then had to contend with the loose gravel and mud between the trees in the Island’s various plantations. These sections proved to be the most challenging of the weekend, with most of the stages taking place in the dark—before the rally’s end, several crews were forced into retirement from issues encountered in these stages.
Despite the mechanical failures and the challenging course, everyone had a safe and sound weekend. The thorough work that goes into planning these adventures is thanks to the diligence of the team at HERO, ensuring everyone’s enjoyment and wellbeing, but not to the detriment of the challenge or the competition. The ghosts of events gone by are never far away on the Isle of Man—the corner names and placards placed around the TT Course see to that—but this was a welcome change of pace.
The roads were wonderful to drive, even in a hire car, and the awe-inspiring scenery was, well, awe-inspiring. The variety of cars provided the mechanical eye candy, and it was nice to see so many in such good shape, rather than a bunch of raggedy cars with half their tires in the grave already.
I always feel a little bereft of something vital when forced to leave my beloved Island when the racing is over, and though HERO won’t return here for a good few years yet, there is a stage rally on the Island in September and a ferry ticket with my name on it. I hope you share even a fraction of my excitement to see modern British Rally Championship cars going at it on this fabled dot in the sea.