Following an 11-week summer break, teams competing in the MSA British Rally Championship are back in action this weekend for Round Five, the Todds Leap International Rally NI. Based in Antrim, the event takes place on Friday 17th and Saturday 18th August on closed roads in the Counties of Antrim and Londonderry and represents the second of two asphalt rallies this season’s six-round BRC calendar.
The International Rally NI forms part of the overall Ulster Rally, which is sponsored by Todds Leap outdoor activity centre. As well as hosting the MSA British Rally Championship, the event also features the NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge and a series of national rallies that encompass rounds of the Irish Tarmac Championship, the MSA British Historic Rally Championship and the Northern Ireland Rally Championship.
The phrase ‘it’s anyone’s race’ is often over used, but in the battle between the BRC crews it’s not, as the change to a two-wheel-drive only formula this season has provided some of the closest ever competition in the Championship’s 54-year history. Out of the four rounds that have taken place so far, the role of honour has seen three different winners, with Bantry’s Keith Cronin the only driver to have claimed victory on more than one occasion.
Whilst his commanding performance in Round Four – the Jim Clark Rally – may make him favorite for the top step of the BRC podium in Ulster, the Citroën DS3 driver accepts that it won’t be easy and his aspirations to net a third British title could be influenced next weekend. Even with two wins under his belt, Cronin goes to Ulster lying second in the championship standings, albeit just two points behind joint leaders, Elfyn Evans and Tom Cave.
Whilst Cave – also driving a Citroën DS3 – has been a winner in the UK this season by taking a home victory on the Bulldog Rally of North Wales (Round Two), he has also tasted success overseas when he won July’s Rally of Thailand outright driving for Proton. For his fellow countryman Evans, it’s been supreme consistency of pace in his less-powerful Class 6 (R2 category) Ford Fiesta that has given him the mantle of joint-championship leader with just two rounds remaining.
Evans comes to Northern Ireland fresh from his convincing WRC Academy victory on lthe recent Rally Finland, a result that sees him head the points table for this global series as well as the BRC. Another Fiesta driver and WRC Academy front-runner – who was lying second in Finland until a throttle problem struck – is Alastair Fisher, who returns to the BRC fold for his home event and will certainly be looking for better luck, having scored just one finish in the Championship so far this season.
Adding his name to the list of possible Class 6 (R2) winners is another twice-British Champion Guy Wilks. The former JWRC and IRC contender returning to the BRC for the first time since 2008 when he guest-drives Renaultsport’s Twingo R2 Evolution.
Currently lying fourth in the BRC standings is Mark Donnelly. He be doing all he can to close the gap of 11-points between him and the championship leaders and will be desperate not to experience a repeat of the misfire that plagued him on the Jim Clark Rally two months ago – and during last year’s Rally NI too!
Osian Pryce is next in the points table, five behind Donnelly and another man who is hoping to get back to his early-season form. Behind him is Citroën DS3 driver Jonny Greer. He currently shares sixth place with Carlisle Renault Clio driver Peter Taylor who is unable to make it to Ulster this year.
There’s also a tie for eighth position currently, with Desi Henry hoping he can make the most of a home advantage in his Citroën DS3. He shares his points total with the highest placed Finnish driver Jukka Korhonen, the reigning Pirelli Star Driver hoping that he can score his first Class 6 (R2) victory in his Skoda Fabia.
Rounding off the top ten championship positions is another competitor from Finland Jarkko Nikara. Having challenged for the overall lead in all of this season’s four events, the Citroën DS3 driver’s tenth place is certainly not a reflection of his pace and, due to a recent spell of bad luck, he is another who has opted to miss next weekend’s event.
Moving from ones to watch in Class 5 (R3) to those competing in Class 6 (R2): just outside of the top ten in the standings – following his impressive performance on the Jim Clark Rally – is Fiesta driver Matthew Cathcart and is another that hopes a home crowd will spur him on. However, he will have to fend-off the challenge from the two Finnish Fiesta chargers Jussi Kumpumaki and Nimo-Pekka Nieminen, both looking for a clean run this time around following accidents of varying severity in Berwickshire.
Another aiming to climb the Class 6 rankings will be Arron Newby, who’s Skoda Fabia has been repaired following its roll on the Jim Clark Rally. Pleasingly, the youngster’s confidence has been somewhat restored following his third outright victory this year at a single-venue event. Others hoping to make an impression in the R2 category will be Ruary MacLeod and Alex Parpottas – both in Fiestas – plus Renault Twingo Evolution driver Chris Ingram, who showed good pace on asphalt last time around.
Whilst Class 10 (R1) will be fought-out by the two Junior drivers of Garry Pearson (Renault Twingo) and Steve Røckland (Ford Fiesta), the only runner in Class 8 is Gethin Jones in his Fiesta ST.
BRC organisers are pleased to report that making their BRC debut this weekend will be Jonny Leonard and Stephen Turner – both driving Ford Fiestas R2s.
The Todds Leap International Rally NI is based at Antrim’s Junction 1 retail outlet park which, as well as providing the venue of the service area, is also the location for the rally’s start and finish. At 13h00 on Friday cars leave the shopping centre for a leg of six stages and 80 competitive kilometres in the afternoon and evening, before returning to Antrim for the overnight halt at 21h00. A further eight stages totaling 115km take place on Saturday, with the finish scheduled to take place at 17h20 back at Junction 1.