FLAT OVER THE HALFWAY CREST The fiftieth year of the British Rally Championship has already had twists, turns, drama and intrigue reminiscent of the earlier years when we remember battles for supremacy involving Bengry and Fisher, Coleman and...
FLAT OVER THE HALFWAY CREST
The fiftieth year of the British Rally Championship has already had twists, turns, drama and intrigue reminiscent of the earlier years when we remember battles for supremacy involving Bengry and Fisher, Coleman and Clarke, Vatanen and Mikkola or McRae and Brookes. The epic battles in the days of Lovell, Burns or the McRae brothers can't be dismissed either, but every generation has its favourite fight and there will be plenty who favour the more recent Evans and Higgins era.
But history lessons aside, the 2008 season is going to be remembered, as the fight is likely to go down to the wire on the final round, as it did in 2007. The shrewd amongst rally followers will have already started to calculate dropped scores, working out that the present positions could easily and dramatically change in an instant.
Despite an eight point lead at the head of the Tesco 99 Octane MSA British Rally Championship, Team TQ.com's David Higgins and co-driver Ieuan Thomas' cannot rest easy as the season starts its run for the finish on round four, the Todd's Leap Ulster International Rally.
The leaders are there by virtue of three podium finishes in a new Impreza, albeit in the bronze medal position on each of the preceding rallies. It could be said that they deserved a place better on both the Jim Clark and David's home event, Rally Isle of Man in July, but their performances have been excellent considering the season is a development programme for a new car.
Mark Higgins and Rory Kennedy, however, reigned supreme on the Manx lanes, even seeing off the might of Irish Champion in waiting, Eamonn Boland, to take their second win on the trot after a shaky start. They have a bit of a reputation to uphold on the Ulster too, as they took a fine BRC victory here in 2007 and will want to maintain the momentum for three in a row in their Atlas TEG Sport Impreza
James Wozencroft has been a revelation this year, adapting to a four wheel drive Impreza and the new Revolution Wheels Rally Team incredibly quickly. He struggled a little on the opening gravel round, punctures costing him time, but he and Chris Ridge set some cracking times on both asphalt events, missing the podium by one spot on both occasions.
The top four is only separated by ten points, and it is the reigning champ Guy Wilks whose Mitsubishi Motors UK Lancer sits menacingly close to the rest of the pack in fourth. Having won the opener in April, the memory of the inferno that engulfed their car on the Jim Clark was difficult to extinguish, particularly as it left them with no car and no points. David Moynihan replaced Phil Pugh on the Manx after a back operation sidelined the Welshman and despite dropping to fifth; the pair rebounded to take runner up spot behind Mark Higgins.
Jonathan Greer and Jonny Hart are the first Ulstermen in the top ten, Carryduff's Greer lying fifth and top privateer in his first full season in the BRC. He climbed to third after the Jim Clark, but a difficult Manx, coupled with a hefty time penalty and the resurgence of Migins and Wilks, has left him a point adrift of the reigning Champion.
Stuart Jones and Andy Bull's season started slowly, but a stunning second on the first tarmac event made the others sit up and take notice; notice that continued early on the last event. Lying third after three stages, a defective wheel bearing robbed them of any chance of a continued battle for overall BRC honours, but they promise more to come and hold sixth.
MSA BRITISH TEAMS' CHAMPIONSHIP
Atlas TEG Sport were on track for a driver shake up at the start of 2008, but after a single event outside the fold, Mark Higgins re-joined Wyn Humphreys in the Lancashire based team line-up. They lead the Team's standings by five points, but it will be Liburn's Phillip Morrow who scores in place of Humphreys, following his release from his Mitsubishi contract. Team TQ.com is second with Mark's brother David driving the lead car, but his team-mate is actually in charge, team boss Hugh Evans ably assisting in putting the brace of new Imprezas in runner-up spot.
Mitsubishi Motors UK lead driver Guy Wilks has a new team-mate on the Ulster, Gwyndaf Evans returning to help secure the 2008 Team's crown. The decision has not gone without criticism, but it stands and Wilks will hope the experienced former Champion can stay close at the top. The Revolution Wheels Rally Team may benefit from the change of personnel in the red team, but they will need Rob Swann to get to the finish mechanically and physically unscathed to assist new boy James Wozencroft in the task.
MSA BRITISH JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIP
The Juniors are imitating the battle at the top of the leaderboard, the four highest scorers closely matched with just three points between them. More astounding than that is the fact that Luke Pinder and Niki Bjerg share first place with a tally of 43 each. Yorkshire versus Denmark may play into the hands of Draperstown's Martin McCormack, as he is posed just two points behind, although a team entry from TQ.com in the form of Nick Rowland is a single point further back.
County Cork is represented by Brian O'Mahony who also won the Rally 3 class on the Manx in his Super 1600 Clio. Another Clio, this time a group N machine, rounds off the top six at the hands of the round two Pirelli Star Driver nominee Adam Gould.
BRC PIRELLI STAR DRIVER COMPETITION
The concept of the Pirelli sponsored initiative is to assist talented drivers to progress and prove their potential, with a view to moving up in the sport. In 2007 the prize of a fully funded drive in the BRC was realised by Armagh's 19 year old Darren Gass, following a rigorous selection process.
Darren will contest the Ulster International Rally with regular co-driver Neil Shanks, the fourth time the youngster has contested his home International. He comes to the event fresh from an excellent fourth place on the ever-popular Lurgan Park Rally, where he was just eleven seconds adrift of second placed Mark Higgins, both in older specification World rally cars.
The Pirelli Star Driver scheme, which continues in 2008, still allows any registered BRC driver, irrespective of class or nationality, to be eligible for the scheme. Three drivers have already been chosen to go forward to the end of season shootout; Juho Hanninen, Adam Gould and Andreas Sjolander.
In addition to this, the highest placed junior drivers in both the Citroen C2R2 and Suzuki Swift Sport Cups will also take part in a final selection competition, when the winner will secure a fully funded drive in the 2009 BRC. The 2007 prize of an Evo 9 was deemed an appropriate step up for young Darren, but the prize car will be announced depending on the eventual winner's aptitude and experience.
RALLY 3 / DIESEL CUP
In the battle for supremacy for the Rally 3 class, three events have netted three winners, but in front is English domiciled Irishman Fin McCaul. His BMW heads round two winner and Astra driver Steve Graham in both Rally 3 and Diesel Cup categories, but they were both bested by Cork's O'Mahony on the Isle of Man. Returning to the series after a two-round lay-off should be Stefan Davis, who may give O'Mahony a run for his money, albeit in an older spec Puma S1600.
RALLY 2 / CITROEN C2R2 CUP (see sep story)
Luke Pinder may lead the Juniors in his Puma, but he plays second fiddle in the Rally 2 class by a man who is, by his own admission, twice his age. Martin Roberts has a slender two point advantage over the 25 year-old, but in turn, trails Andrew Hockridge for the lead of the Citroen C2R2 Cup.
As if that isn't complicated enough, it is Hockridge that trails Pinder in Rally 2, with Matt Cotton a point behind and Gould and McCormack making up the top six.
The rally starts in Armagh on Friday 22nd August and finishes back on the Mall on Saturday 23rd August with the podium ceremonies at around 5pm.