Donnelly wins round one of new-look BRC

The new-format MSA British Rally Championship (BRC) got off to a stunning start on Rallye Sunseeker International, when an intense day-long battle between Jarkko Nikara/Petri Nikara in their Citroën DS3 R3T and Mark Donnelley/Dai Roberts in their Renault Clio R3 finally went the Northern-Irish driver’s way.

With the two crews never separated by more than four seconds throughout the 12-stage Rallye Sunseeker International – round one of the 2012 BRC – their neck-and-neck duel was finally decided when the Finnish crew retired on the penultimate stage after their car’s engine lost power.

Nikara’s exit, coupled with the accolade of setting the fastest time on the final stage, meant that Desi Henry/Niall Burns in their DS3 shot from fifth to second in the final loop of three stages, crossing the line just 0.2 seconds ahead of Elfyn Evans/Andrew Edwards in their Ford Fiesta R2. Their podium position established the Welshman as the first Class 6 car after they too were locked in a battle that saw no more than a hand-full of seconds spitting the top four cars in class for a large proportion of the event.

The 2012 Rallye Sunseeker heralded the start of a change for the BRC, the event marking the first time that only two-wheel-drive cars are eligible to score points since the nineties. And, if there was any question that this new formula might not be exciting, then all doubts were dispelled when one of the closest BRC rounds ever took place this weekend.

In keeping with the Poole and Bournemouth-based event’s tradition of being the best promoted rally in the UK, the ceremonial start on Poole Quay on Friday evening witnessed thousands of spectators watching the cars and crews ahead of the following day’s action. The competitive element of the rally on Saturday featured twelve stages in the Ringwood and Wareham Forests, with four loops of three stages punctuated by service halts at Canford Arena, located five-miles north of Bournemouth.

Stage one was to set the scene for the rest of the rally, with Nikara/Nikara stopping the clocks just 1.1 seconds ahead of Donnelly/Roberts. And, after the next two stages, the situation was little different, with the two crews separated by only 3.3 seconds in favour for the Finns as they entered the first service halt of the day.

It was much the same story in Class 6, with Jussi Kumpumäki/Jani Salo in their Fiesta just 0.9 seconds ahead of their fellow countrymen Jukka and Mikael Korhonen in the Pirelli Star Driver Škoda Fabia R2. But, with the first trio of stages held in Wareham Forest, where the sandy gravel roads have a reputation for becoming rutted in the corners, many of the competitors reported that it was difficult to gauge the level of grip. Indeed, the unpredictable conditions did not help Alex Parpottas/Chris Davies when a dislocated driveshaft brought their Fiesta to standstill on stage two.

The next batch of three stages took competitors into the Ringwood Forest complex, which included the familiar 5.7-mile run though the grounds of Somerley Park, where thousands of spectators came to watch the action. Throughout the trio of stages, the tussle at the top continued just as fiercely, with Nikara/Nikara booking into the next service halt a slender 0.6 seconds ahead of Donnelley/Roberts.

After a great start in their new Citroën DS3 R3T, Osian Pryce/Iestyn Williams were in third place, but an overshoot in the slippery conditions on stage five saw Korhonen/Korhonen slip past and hold a lead of 3.2 seconds ahead of Evans/Edwards in Class 6. Unfortunately for newly registered Christian South/Tomas Whittle, the failure of a clutch pedal clip meant that their rally was over on stage four, whereas for Chris Ingram/Joe Cruttenden, it was a driveshaft issue that forced them to sideline their Renault Twingo R2.

The third loop of three stages – that featured a return visit to Ringwood Forest and Somerley Park – were to be memorable for all the wrong reasons for Callum Black/Chris Williams, when their Suzuki Swift left the road at speed on stage eight, clipped a bank and launched itself into s series of rolls. Thankfully the crew emerged unscathed, but once out of the car flames appeared from underneath and, although the fire was eventually extinguished, significant damage had been sustained. With rescue crews having to attend, the stage was stopped and cars that had not been through the 10.4-miles of Ringwood North were diverted to stage nine and allocated a notional time.

As they booked into the third service halt of the day, the timesheets after stage revealed that Nikara/Nikara and Donnelly/Roberts were now neck-and-neck and on exactly the same time – to the tenth of a second! After a slower start than they would have liked, Evans/Edwards had picked up their pace and were now third overall and leading their class, albeit just 3.6 seconds ahead of the Korhonens.

Therefore, for the leading crews it was all to play for in the final three-stage loop. Nikara/Nikara edged ahead by 1.2 seconds on stage ten, only to have their car’s engine loose power on stage eleven and, not wanting to cause any further damage, had no choice but to stop.

This left Donnelly/Roberts in command and a steady run through the 12th and final stage saw them record their first ever outright MSA British Rally Championship victory and, in doing so, make history by being the first crew to win a round of the new look BRC.

“It’s absolutely fantastic to have won a round of the British Rally Championship”, said Donnelly at the finish. “We were flat out from the start and had a hard battle right up to the end.

“it was disappointing that Jussi and Petri (Nikara) had to retire, we would like to have beaten them on performance. The closeness of this event has proved that the two-wheel-drive format is the right way to go and I hope other events and championships take notice.”

A huge push in the closing stages saw Henry/Burns snatch second place ahead of Evans/Edwards by the most slender of margins, the Welshman eventually clamming Class 6 honours.

Rallye Sunseeker International podium:
Exiting the rally in the closing stages were Alastair Fisher/Daniel Barritt, who’s excellent run in their Fiesta came to an end when their car got stuck in second gear on SS10, whilst Jack Rowe/James Aldridge’s similar car left the road on the same stage.

Another to fall at the final hurdle because with the curse of driveshaft failure were the Fiesta crew of Niko-Pekka Nieminen/Passi Haataja, the Finns disappointed not to make it to the end of their first BRC event with just one stage left to go, after successfully keeping out of trouble up to that point.

MSA British Manufacturers Rally Championship:
With the news hours before the start of the event that Ford Motor Company was joining Renault UK and Citroën UK as registered manufacturers for this season, there is now a three-way battle between the brands.

Therefore, with scores calculated from the two leading cars from each manufacturer, it meant that with Donnelly/Roberts finishing first and Peter Taylor/Andrew Roughead fifth, Renault top the table with 34-points following the first round. Henry/Burns’ second place, coupled with Pryce/Williams’ fourth puts Citroën second on 33 points, whilst Evans/Edwards’ third and Kumpumäki/Salo’s sixth sees Ford with a score of 29 this weekend.

MSA British Junior Rally Championship:
Class 10 and top placed junior was Garry Pearson with co-driver Craig Wallace. They hung on in their Renault Twingo R1 with some new car teething troubles, but were disappointed that the championship battle with Norwegians Steve Røkland/Dag Nordstrand didn’t materialise.

Pirelli Star Driver:
After the podium presentations had taken place, it was announced that victor Donnelly had also won the coveted Pirelli yellow jersey and a nomination towards the end-of-season Pirelli Star Driver shoot-out for the top prize.

Reigning Pirelli Star Driver Jukka Korhonen was passed for the class lead on stage seven by the 2010 winner Elfyn Evans, but was another to be stopped by a driveshaft problem, frustratingly close to the finish on the final stage.

Citroën Racing Trophy:
Maximum points in the Citroën Racing Trophy UK were awarded to Desi Henry/Niall Burns, their striking new DS3 R3T out-gunning Welsh pairing Osian Pryce/Iestyn Williams but two places in the event’s overall results.

FordFiesta SportTrophy:
FordFiesta SportTrophy honours went to 2010 FST champions Evans/Edwards whose stunning performance put him on the overall podium’s second step. The Welsh pair overhauled Finns Kumpumäki/Salo half way through the day, never looking back.

Twingo Renaultsport R1 Trophy UK:
Pearson/Wallace added to their tally at the finish of the single day event, becoming the first ever winners of the Twingo Renaultsport R1 Trophy UK. Their ‘hare’ in the guise of twice British Rally Champion Keith Cronin with co-driver Seb Marshall, was never going to score Twingo points, but nevertheless was disappointed to get a puncture, finally stopping on stage ten with a broken driveshaft.

BRC Teams Cup:
Five teams have registered for this year’s BRC, with a maximum of two cars able to score points. Unfortunately for the Millers Oils 586 Team, with Callum Black/Chris Williams failing to finish due to an accident on stage eight, they come away from the event without any points.

Topping the Teams’ table in round one were M-Sport Ford with 20 points, after Evans/Edwards third place – and even taking into account their team mates’ Fisher/Barritt retirement. The Ford Finnish Junior Team comprised Kumpumäki/Salo and Nieminen/Haataja and, although only one of them finished, the team currently hold second in the standings with 20 points.

The points from Gethin Jones/Kevin Devine’s tenth place, added to the 12th of Matt Cotton/Glyn Thomas, sees the AVS Motorsport team in fourth on 16 points. As the oldest driver in the BRC this year, Jones proved a point with Class 8 victory after several years away from the championship. Arron Newby‘s excellent 13th place on his BRC debut with co-driver Julian Wilkinson in their Škoda Fabia, means that the Pirelli TEG Sport team hold fifth with 15 points – although it could have been more if it wasn’t for Korhonen/Korhonen’s 11th hour retirement.

BRC on Sky Sports:
Catch up with the action from the BRC runners on Rallye Sunseeker International on Sky Sports this Tuesday (28th Feb) on Sky Sports 4 & HD4 at 8pm and if you missed the preview programme, it is repeated at 4.30pm on Monday (17th Feb).

Mike Brewer and Robbie Head present the Greenlight TV-produced programme with interviews from the buzzing Poole Quay ceremonial start, action from the stages and insight into the BRC’s front wheel drive stars. Full listings are available HERE.

Next event:
The second round of the MSA British Rally Championship takes place on 23/24 March, when competitors head to Welshpool for the start of the Bulldog Rally of North Wales.
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