Manx 1997: An epic five-way title fight remembered

25 years ago, five drivers headed to the Manx International with a chance of the BRC title. They recall the crazy battle

Manx_1997_FW-S2-E2-2-Mark Higgins

In the Ford corner, there was Gwyndaf Evans. Reigning British Rally champion, out to make it two.

Across the service park lurked the championship leader: Alister McRae. British champion in ’95, McRae was two points up the road from Evans in his Volkswagen Golf.

But the dangerman, surely that had to be Robbie Head? The Renault Maxi Mégane was an absolute weapon on Tarmac, and Head had shown that to great effect on the Ulster – even if the end result had gone begging.

And what about Ulster winner, Nissan’s Mark Higgins? Or Head’s Renault team-mate Martin Rowe? It was anyone’s guess. And anyone’s game.

All five drivers – all in with a shout of winning the British Rally Championship title. It’s little wonder that, 25 years on, the 1997 Manx International Rally is still looked back upon as one of the best, craziest and most unforgettable rallies ever.

And not just by us, but for those in the thick of it too.

There was no room for such sentiment in September 1997, though. There was a championship title on the line, and McRae was theoretically favorite given he held the points lead. But he wasn’t particularly confident.

“The Golf was very good, that car worked really well on the gravel, but it just wasn’t quite as good a Tarmac car, there’s no doubt about it,” he remembers.

“I can remember going into that rally, we always knew we would have a big struggle to beat them on pace alone, and we wouldn’t be able to sit back and see what happens. To have any chance of winning we had to be absolutely on the limit from the start.”

But despite his best efforts, McRae was anything but. Power-steering problems and a faulty handbrake were far from ideal, particularly on a rally punctuated with tight hairpins and chicanes. The overall effect was McRae was on the back foot from the off, quickly losing touch with his fellow title contenders.

Manx_1997_CTC-S17-B6-2-Mark Higgins

Higgins’ Sunny GTi bolted out the stable the quickest, but it was as close as you like. After five stages, Higgins led Head by a scant two seconds, with Evans’ Escort Maxi just another two seconds back.

But then the mood of the Manx changed. Nice, stable, dry conditions gave way to heavy rain, mist and sodden roads – and Higgins’ pace began to deteriorate with it.

A small front suspension problem hadn’t helped, and nor had a misted up windshield.

“We were quick out the box, but we had just lots of little niggly problems,” Higgins explains.

“One thing was the window misted up, we lost a load of time with that, the heater wasn’t working in the front and we had some top mounts break.

“The TV coverage actually when you watch it, I remember at the time it didn’t tell the story at all because we were up there pretty well straightaway and just little niggly things were knocking us back.”

She'd gone up arse end in the air with a slide on... Gwyndaf Evans

Higgins therefore found himself down in fourth at the first service halt, 16 seconds down on the leaders Evans and Head who were split by just a second at the head of the pack.

Fastest time for Head over Marine Drive incredibly drew him level with Evans for the lead of the rally after eight of 32 stages, but as the day wore on it was Evans who proved to be boss, taking an 11s lead to bed with him.

As it stood, Evans would be champion for a second year running as he was on for 30 points, while the 20 on offer for fifth were nowhere near enough for McRae to cling onto his slender series lead.

“At that point it’s out of your control,” McRae says today, looking back at the situation he found himself in after day one.

“All you can do is drive as quickly as you can and keep yourself hopefully close enough to the fight that if somebody does have a problem, you’re there to capitalize on it.”

But while the problems did come for his rivals on a day that completely flipped the rally – and of course, the championship – on its head, McRae wasn’t the one to capitalize.

A new morning gave way to dry conditions once more, and it was rally leader Evans who started the brightest with a scratch time on Cringle. His rally lead now stood at 15s over Head’s Renault, with Higgins’s Nissan another eight seconds down.

But then came Kerrowglass. Innocuous by name, punishing in nature.

Evans was first onto the 7.5 miler, and had no need to lick the stamp and send it given the psychological blow he’d just dealt the chasing pack on the previous stage.

Manx_1997_FW-S1-B4-1-Gwyndaf Evans

And he wasn’t. But over a long straight littered with crests, Evans’ and co-driver Howard Davies’ Escort decided to misbehave.

“There’s just a slight left on one of the jumps,” Evans explains, “and I knew as soon as she’d gone up, arse end in the air with a slide on… my skill level wasn’t going to save that.”

“Well you’re not a pilot are you in fairness!” quips Davies. “As it went up he said ‘oh no, oh no’ and I knew then, and I just clenched.”

“When we say that as a driver,” adds Evans, “you know, this is going to be a problem.”

Evans had a tank slapper on and was therefore quickly in a spin, pirouetting down this narrow yet fast section of stage and eventually coming to rest in a passing place layby.

“We spun round and round, but it was bloody lucky really that it was so little,” says Evans.

But that slice of fortune within the misfortune equally presented an opportunity. The car wasn’t a wreck, so Evans tried to press on.

“In the layby, there was a passing place post there, we were up against the passing place,” remembers Davies.

“The thing was we got the car going, the car started, but he went and stuck it in first because obviously he didn’t see the post. You’ve got to go back mush!”

Evans did, and they were back underway. But not for long.

“We went down the switchbacks,” Davies continues, “and then we turned left at the junction, 90 right and then that was it, the wheel came off, it split and we stopped.”

“Yeah the rad had also gone,” Evans points out. “If it hadn’t done the rad, we’d have drove out and somehow got away with it.”

The Manx had claimed its first victim, but it was about to claim another. And on the very same stage.

Evans’ demise should’ve been sheer delight for McRae. He remembers: “I saw him at the side of the road which at that point it’s then like ‘oh well maybe this is actually on'”.

But the sometimes precarious handling characteristics of the unhinged, front-wheel-drive Formula 2 Kit Cars bit McRae too. McRae was about to have a crash of his own, and in even more dramatic fashion.

“That bit of road, it’s flat to that junction from where we crashed. OK there’s a bump there, but it’s a straight piece of road. I still remember the notes were flat jump, I can’t remember the distance whether it was 200 or whatever, and then junction square right.

When it goes obviously you correct it as best you can but it wasn't a case of 'we might get away with this' Alister McRae

“For me, it came out of the blue. I’d been over that [stretch of road] previously and you didn’t lift. You can look at it and come up with all different scenarios and ideas but basically when the car landed it bottomed out and for some reason it just… whether the car wasn’t 100% completely straight or whether when one side went down there was a bit more weight on one side than the other [I don’t know] but the back end just went.

“And as soon as it went at that speed, then obviously it just turned into the bank. So for me it wasn’t an accident where we ran out of room on the road or we had a wrong pacenote or we were pushing too hard, it was just one of these things that’s hard to explain, sometimes that happens.”

It was scary to watch, particularly for McRae’s mother Margaret who was standing watching at the square right junction just down the road. But it was all over in seconds. Foot pinned, having just changed up into top gear, the Golf becomes unsettled over one particular jump and the rear immediately grips up, spearing McRae into the bank on the right without a second’s hesitation.

Manx_1997_CTC-S17-A2-3-Alister McRae

“When it goes obviously you correct it as best you can but I already knew myself that it was hitting the bank, and whatever happened when hitting the bank who knew. It wasn’t a case of ‘we might get away with this’ I didn’t think we were getting away with it, it just depended on how badly it was going to be damaged.

“But once it started to roll, I knew we weren’t going to be starting the thing up again and drive off. Basically once it stopped at the side you obviously get out the car and the disappointment sets in.”

It was a feeling echoed by McRae’s rival Evans, just a few miles up the road. But he at least had a coping mechanism.

“When we crashed, we would get pissed,” he laughs. “That was it to be honest. I didn’t drink a lot, but when we crashed I had to go on the piss.”

But how had it gone so wrong for the two highest crews in the championship?

“That was the problem with those types of cars, the back end was so light, it didn’t have the travel, it couldn’t absorb it,” Evans believes.

Davies adds weight to the argument: “They used to crash down [after jumps] and it was like pulling the handbrake then.”

The rally had delivered its first major curveball, and then immediately replied with another. Two were down in an instant, and just three remained. And one thing was now sure: there would be a brand-new British champion in 1997.

Head must have fancied his chances. He was ahead but dropped the ball on the very next stage, overshooting a junction and allowing Higgins and team-mate Rowe to creep ahead.

But the knockout blow was reserved for the second pass of St Judes. Attacking a wide open section, Head decided to shift down a cog for a slight kink, but it’s a fatal move. The immediate change in the engine note from howl to growl spelled the end of Head’s rally, and championship challenge.

“Serious?” asked co-driver Bryan Thomas.

“I think so.”

Higgins now led the rally, and was suddenly in prime position to claim the championship too. But he had the blinkers on. The news that three of his rivals for the championship were out in the space of three stages hadn’t affected his drive one bit.

“I mean the championship was definitely very important in our head [but] I just felt comfortable and was happy to try and win,” he says.

“I was 1,000,000% just trying to win that rally. To win the rally and the championship would’ve been the absolute icing on the cake.”

Manx_1997_CTC-S3-A3-8-Martin Rowe

Rowe meanwhile was a driver unleashed. Employed as number two to Head for ’97, there was absolutely no chance of a repeat of the Ulster where Rowe stopped on a stage to let the recovering Head past on the road and the leaderboard.

His shot at the championship was slim, but the prospect of a first ever BRC and international rally win were very real indeed.

“That made it pretty simple then,” Rowe says of Head’s retirement.

“I remember we were staying in the same hotel as Mark, he’s one of my best friends and he was probably in the room across the corridor from me.

'I'm going to go flat out, what's your plan?'

'Well, I'm going to go flat out'
Martin Rowe & Mark Higgins' hotel conversation

“We went in the lift on the Saturday [sic Friday] night together, going up to the same floor and having a chat going down the corridor, and it was like ‘what’s the plan then?’

“‘I’m going to go flat out, what’s your plan?’

“‘Well, I’m going to go flat out.’

“‘We’ll see what happens tomorrow then.’

“‘Alright mate, good night.’ It was one of those!”

Higgins was in the right position on the leaderboard, but it was Rowe who held the psychological advantage.

“All we had to lose was losing the rally, effectively. Whereas Mark could lose the championship,” Rowe explains.

“So I think it was a conversation like I’m going to win the rally, you’re going to win the championship and everyone’s going to be really happy. That was the best outcome for me anyway!”

Higgins, unprompted, recalls the exact same conversation. DirtFish lets him in on the fact that Rowe actually told the very same story.

“Well that’s the beauty of rallying,” Higgins smiles. “I’ve been in racing for quite a while, and everybody tends to hate each other in racing. They can influence each other’s race, whereas in rallying it’s up to yourself.

“It’s up to your car, you, and your co-driver and you can’t really blame anybody else for interfering in any way which is a lovely part about it, and that’s what I do really enjoy about rallying.”

Manx_1997_CTC-S17-E5-2-Mark Higgins

That night, Higgins had a 29s lead over Rowe with eight stages left to run on the final day. The championship had almost become an afterthought. Now a Manx International win was at stake for two very hungry Manxmen.

As Rowe puts it, there was “nothing left on the table”, and he emerged quickest on the final morning to gnaw three seconds out of his deficit. But then, incredibly, things started to go wrong for yet another title contender. This time it was Higgins as his Sunny popped a driveshaft on Ballagyr.

Higgins jokes at the start of his call with DirtFish that he “can remember things clearer then than what I can last week”, and that certainly begins to show when he recalls the moment the shaft let go.

“It was braking in a little bit of a dip into a square left, nothing I’ve ever even thought of or marked, and I just got on the power afterwards and had very, very little drive,” he says.

“We probably had about three miles to go and I just was thinking ‘I can’t believe this, I don’t believe this’ time was just going by. I got to the end of the stage and there was Martin right up my chuff.”

I remember I could actually smell rubber. I remember that like it was two minutes ago Martin Rowe

Rowe was now into a 22s lead, but Higgins still had a fighting chance. In the days of remote servicing, the issue was quickly fixed and he was back out on a charge. For the drivers’ championship second place would do, but Nissan also wanted the manufacturers’ title to seal the perfect double and Higgins was steelily determined to grab a maiden Manx win.

“I thought ‘let’s see where we’re at,'” says Higgins. “The next stage was Maughold, it’s a very small stage and it was probably about four miles long, and I went in there and took seven off Martin.

“Now he’d obviously maybe backed off a bit and I was obviously pushing extra hard, but at the same time as doing that I broke the top mount.”

The broken top mount would become crucial later on as it would be responsible for yet another unexpected twist in the complexion of the rally and the championship. But, even with something now to lose, Rowe hadn’t relented. He was trying everything he knew to fend off his rival.

“That’s the first time I’ve actually used split times in a stage,” Rowe reveals. “I remember seeing a board telling me I was five seconds up on Mark. We were trying everything we possibly could to have an advantage, I’m sure they were doing the same thing. We were pushing as hard as we could.”

Manx_1997_FW-S10-G3-8-Martin Rowe

But it turned out Rowe didn’t need to. On that same Kella stage, the penultimate test of the rally, where his team had shown him a split board, Rowe would literally begin to smell victory.

“I remember that like it was two minutes ago. I remember I could actually smell rubber – in the car with everything else I could actually smell rubber – and I was like [sniffing], have we got a puncture?” he says.

“No, we’re OK. I kept pushing, pushing, pushing focus on the notes and then I saw two little lines of rubber – where you see the tire deflates but the sidewalls of the tire leave two little lines of rubber down the road, and I saw these two little lines and I’m thinking ‘oo, oo has he had a problem?’.

“I don’t think we caught him on the stage but then we realized what had happened and we’d taken a huge chunk of time out of him.”

“The top mount was broken, but the problem was because I’d taken so much time out of him on a big push, it was potentially on to try and win the rally, because I think I went into the [second to] last stage about 10 seconds behind him,” Higgins adds.

“As the top mount had broken, the tracking was slightly out and it wasn’t right for the last stage, and I was trying to do stuff that was not really doable, and hence I did a silly mistake over that jump.”

Over some yumpy crests, Higgins got out of shape and landed awkwardly on the rear-right; the Nissan standing on its nose and when it bumped back down to earth, the wheel folded over on itself.

“Turn it round somehow, anyhow,” called co-driver Phil Mills as panic began to set in that they were in very real danger of becoming the fourth of the five contenders to retire from this nail-biting showdown.

“I remember how it felt, watching the whole championship flash in front of me,” Higgins says, replaying the incident in his mind. “When I look back now, if I’d got back on the power rather than braking it probably would’ve sorted itself out, but we were lucky to get to the end – and especially lucky because we were on three wheels.

“You’ve got the wildlife park which is at Quarry Bends, and parked on the left there was a police car and it was the back-right wheel that was off. I knew he was going to stop me if he saw me scraping this wheel down the road, so I waited to overtake a car at the same point I passed the police car.

“So as I overtook it, there was a car in between me and him and he potentially couldn’t see it. But they did see it, and he followed me into St Johns where the service was and thankfully by the time we’d got there we had most of the wheel back on and it was ready for the last stage.”

That short blast around Ramsey became a victory parade for both drivers. Rowe was essentially on a lap of honor, on course for the Manx victory he so craved and Higgins, despite the heart-stopping late peril, was just one mile away from his first ever British Rally Championship title.

“It was very special and particularly because it was on home soil as well,” says Rowe, who won the rally by 1m05s over Higgins.

“All my friends were out watching. My friends were Mark’s friends, we were all good friends so everyone was all out watching who was into motorsport or knew us, so that was a good time. That night as well, it was a big night. I can remember going in and just ordering the whole team drinks and yeah, it was a good party.”

Weirdly, celebrating wasn’t the first thought that entered Higgins’ head. His overriding feeling, initially, was one of disappointment.

I think I was more gutted about losing the rally than being excited about winning the championship! Mark Higgins

“It was bittersweet really.

“I think the nicest thing about the year is we’d had the most fastest stage times of the whole season, but just hadn’t strung the results together. So we went to the Manx with no pressure, all I wanted to do was win the rally. That was all I wanted to do.

“And ironically that was the most disappointing thing, I ended up winning the championship but when the driveshaft broke we lost the rally.

“And I think I was more gutted about that than being excited about winning the championship,” he laughs

But retrospectively, 25 years on, it’s an achievement that means a great deal to him.

“Yeah definitely [that one was the most special], just because of the people we were competing against,” Higgins, an eventual triple British champion, admits.

“The one in the Focus we didn’t have the same competition, the Group N was hard but there was only a couple of us really fighting for it, but the first one regardless of what it was [would mean a lot], but especially in that particular year, it was something quite special.

“It’s a great little memory.”

It certainly is. A story nobody would believe, played out on a magical island with utterly gorgeous cars driven by extremely decorated drivers. Rallying really doesn’t get much better than that.