Five of the Fiat Stilo Rally Cup protagonists arrived for the start of the championship's fourth round in Kelso, ready for the new challenge of asphalt. The change of surface, together with uncertain weather conditions, would make tyre choice...
Five of the Fiat Stilo Rally Cup protagonists arrived for the start of the championship's fourth round in Kelso, ready for the new challenge of asphalt.
The change of surface, together with uncertain weather conditions, would make tyre choice difficult and the stages potentially treacherous if it rained, and rain it did. The first stage was a short 6.6 miles in the Lammermuir Hills to the south-east of Edinburgh, and Scots Willie Bonniwell/Ian Fraser took the early advantage, having treated the wet stages with some respect. They were followed by series leaders Chris Davies/Nathan Parry just six seconds adrift and determined not to lose sight of the leader. Davies was relieved to see his car at the start, since it arrived straight from the body shop, having been damaged while testing two days before the rally.
Within 0.9 seconds of the championship leaders was the chasing pair of Tom Metcalfe/Kirsty Riddick, who had instructions from their team manager to take it easy on the early stages. Paul Tod/Iestyn ap Dafydd had a moment on the grass but managed to stay within 0.2 seconds of Metcalfe, while Shaun Woffinden/Howard Pridmore's rally nearly got off to a disastrous start, as they took a wrong turn on the way to the stage start.
At the first service halt after two stages a new leader emerged with a 4.9 second advantage. Metcalfe had set a storming time and leap-frogged into the lead, with Bonniwell slipping to third behind the improving Woffinden, now second. Paul Tod arrived with the rear offside wheel toed-out ,having clipped a kerb on the exit of a gravelly corner. The only crew missing from the fray was the championship leader Chris Davies, who telephoned in with an explanation; "We'd changed the tyres on the road section before stage two and the car fell off the jack," he said, "but we went into two full of confidence until we reached the corner that caught Paul (Tod) out. The car went into a four wheel drift and hit the kerb hard. It bent the rear beam, broke the wheel and snapped a front strut so we're resigned to spectating. Obviously we're disappointed, but it's just one of those things."
The next five stages were topped and tailed by the Langton spectator stage. At just two miles long, it boasts a famous water splash and a huge jump where many great drivers have come unstuck.
Bonniwell blitzed the opposition in the first run through and re-took the lead, with Metcalfe second, a mere 0.5 seconds behind. Woffinden took it easy in the slippery conditions and dropped to third, with Tod setting third fastest and maintaining fourth position.
Stage four was a re-run of stage two. The technical 13 mile Abbey St Bathans stage climbs the Lammermuir Hills from the south with plenty of crests and unseen corners to catch out the unwary. Metcalfe's first run through was not to be repeated as he suffered a puncture and dropped over seven minutes when his car also fell off the jack whilst changing it. Kirsty was lucky to escape unscathed from a bizarre incident when another competitor lost a wheel at speed. "While we were changing the tyre his wheel came off and flew about twenty feet in the air. It landed a yard away from me then bounced off into the river, I was very lucky." she commented. After the stage Bonniwell still led from Woffinden, while Tod emerged having bent the rear beam on the other side. This left him third, and 18 year old Metcalfe a distant fourth.
The final three stages of the day left the positions unchanged, with Bonniwell opening up a lead of 50.9 seconds. The gap could have been less but Woffinden caught and passed the struggling Tod on several stages, the Welshman fighting just to keep the car in a straight line. With good pace notes Metcalfe was able to push, and had closed the gap on Tod to just 18.6 seconds. All the competitors were relieved to reach the overnight halt, although most did not have much sleep, with a late finish and early re-start on Saturday.
More changeable weather awaited the remaining four Stilos on Saturday, and although the roads were dry, the front runners had dragged mud onto the roads, leaving the conditions unpredictable.
Bonniwell was the first to be caught out, spinning in a farmyard on the 7 mile Blackadder stage. He dropped around 20 seconds, allowing Woffinden to close the gap. Tod continued to suffer with a wayward rear beam, the metal weakened by repeated bending and straightening, but he and Metcalfe retained their positions, running further down the field after re-seeding overnight. Woffinden took 5.1 seconds on Ayton, but lost the advantage when they realised they had the wrong notes as the countdown for the next stage began. "It was six or seven corners in before Howard had found the correct page and we could push." rued Woffinden.
Stages 11, 12 and 13 were run together before the next service, but Bonniwell found 11 and 12 to be his unlucky numbers. He dropped around 10 seconds on stage 11 with an excursion into a field through an open gate. But more importantly, he suffered a front puncture two miles into the soaking nine mile Eccles stage, driving on the flat and dropping over 30 seconds.
This left Woffinden the surprised new leader; although he admitted he had pushed hard, the gap was small at just 13 seconds. He was even more astonished to see Metcalfe's time on stage 12. The youngster was 32 seconds quicker than the next Stilo, and took not only the stage win but had set a top 20 time overall, beating all but two Super 1600 cars in the treacherous conditions. He passed Tod for third and took another stage win on the new three mile Mack's Hill stage, albeit by just two seconds from Bonniwell.
Stages 11, 12 and 13 were used in the same order again after service, but the rain had stopped and the stages dried quickly. Paul Tod set his first fastest stage time, with all the wheels pointing in the same direction and the car behaving in the dry. Metcalfe was second quickest, but Bonniwell's car was beginning to show the signs of his hard charging. With a bent front strut and too much camber on the rear he was just 0.7 seconds quicker than Woffinden through the Swinton stage, after the leader had a near miss with another car, narrowly missing it as he slid off, and losing a few seconds in the process.
Bonniwell took the bit between his teeth and pushed hard on Eccles, determined not to let his first run through faze him. The strategy worked and he emerged 0.8 seconds ahead of Woffinden, with Metcalfe extending his lead over Tod.
Once again, Metcalfe took the Mack's Hill stage from Bonniwell, both extending the gaps to the crews behind, with Bonniwell now 13.6 seconds clear of Woffinden. Tod was unable to push Metcalfe as his beam had sagged again, although final service beckoned.
The last seven stages began and ended with a pair of runs through Langton, and the first, stage 18, was to prove controversial. Woffinden was quickest but there was an error in the results which put him a full seven seconds quicker than his actual time. With many championships this may not have mattered, but with the Stilos so close it proved crucial at the finish.
Woffinden took the lead on the next stage which he held until the last pair of tests through Langton. Bonniwell had begun to struggle with the gearbox, but he maintained his pace, staying in touch with the leader. Metcalfe clipped a tree stump in stage 18, spinning 360 degrees and bending the offside rear suspension. Thus, Tod inherited third, and with no more service halts before the finish, Metcalfe had to pray the suspension, and his nerve, held, just so he could make the finish.
Following the cancellation of stage 21, the final pair of stages (22 and 23) saw another two trips through a rainy Langton. The first of the pair was where the error on stage 18 was to come to light when there was confusion between the event results and the competitors'. Nevertheless, Bonniwell pushed hard and took an astonishing 9.1 seconds off Woffinden. This left him seemingly still trailing by 3.2 seconds with one stage to go. He closed the gap to 1.8 seconds on the final run, but it appeared to be too little too late.
Woffinden duly took the champagne at the finish ramp in Kelso but the drama was not over. When the results were declared final at 8.30pm on Saturday, the seven second discrepancy was discovered and included, leaving Woffinden blissfully unaware of his demotion from first to second and Bonniwell equally oblivious to his elevation to joint championship leader. It did not change the final places though, Tod taking the junior award and finishing third ahead of early leader Metcalfe.
Championship points are being awarded as per the final results, and battle will recommence at the end of July on the all-tarmac Manx International. As usual,the event is based in Douglas, and takes place over July 29/30/31.
<pre> Jim Clark Memorial Rally Final Results
No Driver Co-Driver Time 60 Willie Bonniwell Ian Fraser 2:38:44.1 63 Shaun Woffinden Howard Pridmore 2:38:49.3 62 Paul Tod Iestyn ap Dafydd 2:46:28.3 61 Tom Metcalfe Kirsty Riddick 2:50:19.8