The legend of Torr Head returns this weekend as part of a refreshed Ulster Rally. The meandering asphalt clings onto County Antrim’s famous coastline and represents the perfect road to fall in love with rallying all over again.
Hidden crests followed by sweeping bends, its high speed the only thing veiling the spectacular views toward Scotland, which on every other day of the year is appreciated by the tourists who visit the region.
The hire cars are replaced with rally cars which don’t take time to drop by at the coastal B&Bs, instead flying past the roadside farmyards and the rallying enthusiasts who make the trek to the far North East of Ireland.
The narrow road may have two lanes but whether each side represents the width of a vehicle is up for debate. The dashed white lines do serve a purpose though, an extra guide for the drivers who will point their prized possessions through the stage on Friday.
It has left some of the world’s top rally drivers lost for words when served as part of the Circuit of Ireland in previous years. Now taken on by the Ulster Rally what can the latest consignment of the UK and Ireland’s rally stars expect when they attempt to top the timesheet between Cushendun and Ballyvoy.
WRC2 stage winner, Jon Armstrong, tackled Torr Head in 2012 in a Ford Fiesta ST and offered some advice to this year’s Ulster Rally competitors.
“Depending on which end you start at it can differ slightly,” explained Armstrong. “The year I did it we effectively did it in reverse, heading down from the top [Ballyvoy] down towards Cushendun.”
“We started on the main road which is quite wide with a white line up the middle of the road.
“It’s fast with a jump until you turn square left off the main road onto a narrow road which is more like a traditional Irish rally stage.
“This section is bumpy with some hairpins and then a bad bump that caught Keith Cronin out coming up the hill in 2009.
“After a few kilometres, you rejoin the main road for the rest of the stage which is very fast with a lot of elevation changes.
“It’s like Ouninpohja on tarmac, a rollercoaster of a stage.
“There are some fast corners over large crests which take a lot of confidence to get right.”
Considering the unique driving style required along the Torr Road, Armstrong continued.
“We don’t usually drive on tarmac roads with this much elevation change.
“It’s difficult to judge your pacenotes against the road, you can easily be too optimistic with your notes and there is no room for error.
“You can easily misjudge your line over the fast, bumpy crests and unlike gravel, you don’t have as big of a window to save any moments.
“The narrow section also makes it an extra challenge as you have to adapt your style between the faster sections and the technical part.”
As ever, it’s not just a case of driving the stage as quick as possible but the different type of road offers a chance to gain some time by finding the car’s best set-up.
“Given the bumpy and undulating nature of the road you want the car to be set-up in a way that will help damp the compressions and bumps,” said Armstrong. “But at the same time, there are areas where you want a low and stiff car to hold your line and prevent body roll as much as possible.”
“Set-up is always a matter of compromise, I don’t think it’s ever perfect but it needs to be prepared to give you the confidence to push but also to keep as much performance in the corners.”
So, what is it like sitting at Torr Head’s start line?
“It’s one of those daunting stages that holds a reputation for being extremely challenging but amazing to drive when you get it right.”
“I remember starting it and being nervous because you know that something hardcore is coming and you need to be on top of your game to perform.
“The car, driver and co-driver need to be in total harmony otherwise it is literally a life or death situation.
“I did it in the daylight and the dark, I remember pushing really hard and having moments on both runs.
“I would love to be heading there in an R5 car and show what I am capable of, hopefully sometime in the future!”
Another man with Torr Head experience is Scotsman David Bogie.
Bogie has tackled the stage twice before, once in a Mitsubishi Evo and more recently in a Skoda Fabia R5 when it was combined with Glendun to form the mammoth “The Glens” stage.
“The crests, the line over crests and corners that fall away from you make it a specialised stage,” said Bogie. “It’s one where a good set of notes is crucial but a good memory of the stage can give you more pace again.”
“I think we’ll see guys go quicker over Torr Head in relation to their competitors than what they would in other stages of the rally.”
Currently lying fourth in the British Rally Championship, Bogie understands that Torr Head will play a big part in his rally result and championship ambitions.
“When you attack any stage you have got to give 100% but I think your mental approach going into Torr Head is that you really have to nail it,” said Bogie. “There is so much time to be gained that you probably have to push harder than you would on a normal stage.”
“It is quite daunting to go into but it’s one of those that you have to attack from the word go.”
“Being early in the rally this year if you were to gain or lose a lot of time on that stage I think that’s going to be a big factor in the end result of the event.”
The Ulster Rally runs on Friday and Saturday with competitors facing Torr Head twice on Friday as SS2 and SS5.
Photos by Philip Stewart