Challenging Conditions at MSN Brands Winter Rally

The Motorsport News MSN Circuit Rally has been in full swing since the conclusion of the 2017 season and with the 2018 season around the corner; it was a quick chance to review what had already happened. The opening venue for the 2017/18 season was Oulton Park on the 4th November, showing the strength of the championship with a massive field and a variety of rallying beasts. A competitive opener set the foundations for the season ahead and by January, three rounds were done and attention had switched to the remaining five. Cadwell Park followed Oulton on the 19th November before the teams headed north to Knockhill a few weeks later on the 3rd December. The Autosport International Show would open the 2018 season at the NEC Arena on the 13-14th January and a week later the UK racing calendar would start, Brands Hatch the venue for round four of the Motorsport News (MSN) Circuit Rally, sponsored by MGJ Engineering. The Indy circuit at Brands Hatch on the 20th January would be converted into eight stages, testing the drivers on various configurations including pit lane, outer paddock and the purpose-built gravel/mud Rally stage. 90+ drivers were registered for round four and varied with iconic 70s and 80s Ford Escorts, 90s Subarus and Mitsubishis and lastly modern-day WRC cars, including some WRC2 prepared R5s. The championship is made up of multiple classes, all competing for overall honours, as well as individual class titles. Points are awarded to the top twenty-eight finishers at each rally and in terms of the outright championship, seven of the eight rounds count towards the overall tally. For class honours per rally, points are given to the top ten finishers and again, seven of the eight rounds make up the overall tally at the end of the season. Approaching Brands for round four, championship leaders were Chris West and Keith Hounslow in the Ultimate Speed Racing Peugeot 306 Maxi. Chris has been a regular in the Motorsport News MSN Circuit Rally Championship in recent seasons and challenged at the front on more than one occasion. Holding a lead of nineteen points over closest rival John Stone, it would be a battle at Brands between the Ford Fiesta driver and the Peugeot, however John would have to careful of Ian Woodhouse, lying third and only four points adrift. Ian is a quick driver in the Ford MkII Escort and ended the 2016/2017 series as champion. The top five in the championship were extremely close at what could be called the half way stage and in fourth on 137 points was Mark Kelly in another Ford MkII Escort. Only five points separated fourth and fifth and holding that position was John Marshall, taking the fight to the older rallying machines in his Group A Subaru Impreza. As expected the championship is mostly contested between the faster and more powerful Class D cars, but you can see a few from class C, such as Dane Walker, outside the top five, competing behind the wheel of a 1976 Ford Escort.

Escort on top in Battle of Brands

The conditions certainly didn’t disappoint in January for the opening event of the season at Brands Hatch, as the MGJ Engineering sponsored MSN Rally began in what can only be described as horrendous pouring rain and cold temperatures. The opening stage started at 9am, with two stages being run the same before running in reverse for stages three and four. Heavy rain throughout the night and early morning had certainly made the Indy circuit slippery whilst the purpose Rally stage was a mud bath. First to tackle conditions was championship leader Chris West and Keith Hounslow, as the field ran mostly in championship order. West would complete the opening stage with a time of 5:59, finding it challenging as first car on circuit. The second car was John Stone and Jack Morton and they found things tough also, breaking the timing beam with a time of 6:09, which would end up eighth overall. James Slaughter and Jack Hanley would end sixth as third car on track, but it was the No.4 Escort of Mark Kelly and Andy Baker who set the benchmark to beat, as fourth car on circuit, they came home with a time of 5:37, twenty-two seconds quicker than West’s leading time. Two more Escort’s would go quicker than West by the end of the stage, as reigning champion Ian Woodhouse timed at 5:41 to go second, ahead of Stephen Beck and Paul Brown, five seconds slower in third.

Conditions weren’t improving once stage two got going as Chris West entered the stage, pushing hard to fightback against his rivals. The Peugeot driver would set the benchmark, crossing the line with a time of 5:46 but only moments later Mark Kelly matched the time and remained on top. Ian Woodhouse missed out by only two seconds and held second place overall heading into the first run of reversed stages. A potential surprise in this stage was the pace of Lee Jones and Thomas Grogan in the Ferrari, as they went fourth fastest, a time of 5:57 to be the last remaining driver under the six-minute mark.

The first reverse run of the day would see stage three end at the purpose-built rally layout and being first out, Chris West would again set the benchmark, but yet again fell short to the pace of the Escorts, as his time of 5:05 was one second slower than Kelly and then Woodhouse. This kept West behind the two in the overall standings, still in third position. The stage had seen another fightback in the form of John Stone in the Fiesta NRC, as the championship contender went fourth fastest, nine seconds back from Kelly’s time. Stone’s time was matched by James Slaughter’s Fiesta R5, whilst Jones and Grogan remained high up the order, sixth fastest, with an impressive time of 5:15 behind the wheel of the Ferrari.

Stage Four would finally see a dramatic change in the overall standings as Chris West fired back at his rivals, setting a blistering time of 4:58, the only driver to go below five minutes, whilst rival Mark Kelly could only end up fourth fastest with a time of 5:10 and reigning champion Ian Woodhouse suffered a moment. Heading around Graham Hill bend and towards Druids, Woodhouse lost the rear of his Escort and slipped into the barrier backwards. A slow recovery from the grass meant he ended the stage eighth, with a time of 5:21. John Stone would end the stage second, fifty-two seconds slower than West, whilst only one second quicker than Lee Jones in the Ferrari 308 Michelotto.

Stage five would kick start the afternoon session after the lunch break and unfortunately for the crews, the weather never improved, becoming more persistent as Chris West took to the track. Starting over at Surtees on the GP loop, the crews would end the stage at the rally stage, which was now becoming full of puddles and the trickiest it had been all day. West would set the bar again in the stage with a time of 5:37s but to his amazement, rally leader Mark Kelly would set exactly the same time, quickly followed by Ian Woodhouse to put the three crews on a time of 5:37. The crew of Tom Blackwood and Gordon Winning put in their best effort of the rally, finishing the stage fourth with a time of 5:46, nine seconds slower than the leading three crews.

Conditions worsened even more for stage six and after seeing a number of casualties end the event due to various issues, the rally suffered a worrying moment during the earlier runs. Tim Self, driving the No.9 Subaru Impreza unfortunately collided with the end of the pit wall, crumpling the front drivers end into the Armco barrier. The running of the stage was quickly halted as medical crews attended the scene. Thankfully Tim and co-driver Colin Mitchel climbed clear of the wreckage with no serious injuries reported and took a trip to the medical centre. The stewards made the decision to cancel the stage and allow time for the Armco to be fixed and the stricken Subaru to be collected, resulting in the rally being contested over seven stages in total.

With Mark Kelly holding onto the rally lead and helped by the cancelling of stage six, the next two stages would see a fightback from Chris West and Keith Hounslow, as the Peugeot driver would set the fastest times in both remaining stages, going two and three seconds quicker than the Escort pairing, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to secure overall honours. At the end of the rally, the two were separated by only six seconds at the timing beam.

MGJ Engineering Brands Hatch MSN Winter Stages top ten:

  1. Mark Kelly & Andy Baker (Ford MkII Escort – D) = 1:39.43s
  2. Chris West & Keith Hounslow (Peugeot 306 Maxi – D) = +0:6s
  3. Ian Woodhouse & Jason Leaf (Ford MkII Escort – D) = +0:23s
  4. John Stone & Jack Morton (Ford Fiesta NRC – E) = +1:49s
  5. John Marshall & Scott Crawford (Subaru Impreza – E) = +1:56s
  6. Lee Jones & Thomas Grogan (Ferrari 308 Michelotto – D) = +2:03s
  7. Roger Cox & Sam Cox (Ford Escort – C) = +2:23s
  8. Stephen Beck & Paul Brown (Ford MkII Escort – C) = +2:25s
  9. Tim Mewett & Liz Jordan (Ford MkII Escort – C) = +2.26s
  10. James Slaughter & Jack Hanley (Ford Fiesta R5 – E) = +2:48s

Looking back at the event the championship leaders, West and Hounslow, certainly looked as favourites to record the win, but conditions had a bearing on the result and for the championship, it was fantastic to see an old MkII Escort outdo the more modern machinery. The win for Kelly and Baker brought them in contention for the overall title, but West and Hounslow continue to lead the way into the second half of the season. With the wait to the next round only four weeks, the crews will pack up and head North to Norfolk and the venue of Snetterton on the 18 February 2018. Snetterton was previously won by the Peugeot pairing in 2017 so it will be interesting on how the teams tackle another rally of tricky stages, mostly on tarmac and the odd gravel pathway. Completing the podium at Brands was the reigning champion Ian Woodhouse, partnered by Jason Leaf in the Ford MkII Escort. Separated by less than thirty seconds showed the competitiveness of the field in the MSN Rally and for Woodhouse, the champion is now in contention to defend his 2017 title, lying fourth in the overall standards. Topping Class E with an overall finish of fourth was John Stone and Jack Morton in their Ford Fiesta NRC, as John continued to battle Chris West in the championship. Stone came into Brands second in the overall driver standings and remained there heading for Snetterton, but now eighteen points down on the Peugeot driver and had the Brands Hatch winner three points behind in third. Taking fifth overall was John Marshall and Scott Crawford in their Subaru Impreza and finishing second to Stone in class E. The result of the day which may have surprised a few was the Ferrari 308 Michelotto making it within the top ten, as Lee Jones and Thomas Grogan secured sixth, ahead of Class C winner Roger and Sam Cox in a Ford Escort. The next two positions were made up of Class C Escorts, as Beck and Brown secured eighth, slightly ahead of Mewett and Jordan. Completing the top ten was Wales Rally GB competitor James Slaughter in a Fiesta R5, complying to WRC2 regulations. Slaughter ended the event 2:48s down on the overall winner’s time. While attention is usually on the overall classification throughout the rally, we have to mention the class winners who ended up outside the overall top ten. Class B honours went to Paul Sheard and Steve Dolman in the Mazda MX-5, finishing seventeenth overall, whilst Class A went to David McMullan and James Elston, who finished up in twenty-fourth in their Vauxhall Nova.

To keep up to date with the Motorsport News MSN Rally Championship up to the month of April, please visit www.msnrallychamp.co.uk, as the rest of the calendar will see the teams tackle Donington Park (4th March), Anglesey (18 March) on the Welsh coastline and then back at Cadwell Park (8th April) for the conclusion of another season. The 2018/2019 season will then begin in the winter months of this year.

For more pictures from the event, please visit our Flickr album here.

Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs

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