A new Motorsport season was underway on the 19 January and as usual, we began trackside at Brands Hatch for their traditional winter rally. Sponsored by MGJ Engineering and round four of the Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship, the event always attracts a good crowd and a produces a strong line up, creating epic action around eight stages. With the 2018-2019 calendar starting back in November and visiting Oulton, Cadwell and Knockhill, it was defending champion Chris West who led the standings, with co-driver Keith Hounslow in their Peugeot 306 Maxi Kit Car. Victory up in Scotland at the previous round left the champ at the top of the standings, but his rivals were hot on his tail. His closest challenger coming to Brands was Mike Taylor in the Talbot Lotus-Sunbeam, with only twenty-six points separating the two, but the entry list at Brands would see a strong contingent in D1 and D2 classes, with John Stone (Fiesta WRC) and Mark Kelly (Escort MkII) expected to be the favourites to challenge. Another Escort in the hands of Stephen Tilburn had been one to watch so far in 2018-2019 season and prior to the Christmas break, was a title challenger. An absence at Knockhill though did see the team playing catch up. One car that was worth a look at Brands for being something a little unusual in the world of rallying was the Darrian T90 GT R5 in the hands of Mark Straker. A popular vehicle over the water in Ireland, this rally special carries a Ford Ecoboost engine and was expected to be high up the order.
In a championship which carries multiple classes, the next quickest was Class C which was mostly made up of MkI and MkII Escorts, whilst a few other models from Ford made up a competitive class. The ones to watch were Ryan Connolly, the class leader in a Ford Puma, chased hard by Rob Cox and Mike English. Strong results can make Class C contenders fight for overall championship, but it would be interesting to see which ones could break the Class D stranglehold on the top ten. Class B sits nicely under C and shows determination of the drivers in the championship, as Ashleigh Morris returned after what did look like a season ending accident. Up at Knockhill during round three, Ashleigh suffered a severe off, nearly writing off her Ford Fiesta R2. Work over the Xmas period saw the Fiesta completely stripped and rebuilt, enabling her and co-driver Jamie Mactavish to continue their title challenge against the Mazda MX5 of Paul Sheard. Sheard led the championship class coming into Brands, but newcomers in Fords, Citroen and Peugeot were ready to challenge for honours. The impressive livery of Abi Mahmood and Samantha Bartlett caught the attention of most, as the duo brought a former JWRC Suzuki Swift to Brands, a car that competed on the world stage over a decade ago. The final category was Class A for smaller engine vehicles and contained a strong line up of thirteen, led by Craig Aston, as he tried to keep Ron Walker’s Ford KA at bay, along with Dale Lawson in a MG ZR, expected to be another front runner.
Close at the top after the Morning Stages
The rally got underway at 9am under cold icy conditions, but thankfully it was dry, with no rain or snow expected to full. The first four stages would be similar in length, run the same direction twice, before being reversed to complete the morning stages. First out of the traps was the 2018 Brands winner Mark Kelly alongside co-driver Neil Colman. Conditions weren’t going to be easy for most after starting on the purpose-built rally stage and it was evident when the circuit came into play, with a few wayward spins effecting the times. The first driver to suffer this was competitor six, Nigel Mummery, in an ex WRC prepared Ford Focus. Out on the rally stage at the start, Mummery lost the rear coming down the hill, spinning over the tyre kerbs and stopping in a puddle. The recovery time would leave him well down the order, whilst John Stone, Chris West and Mark Kelly completed the first run as the top three. Stage two would see the layout exactly the same and the top three finished up in the same order, as John Stone pulled out a small margin, whilst West and Kelly were split by one second. Stone looked comfortable in the ex Mikko Hirvonen Fiesta WRC with co-driver Jack Morton, whilst his rivals were swapping tyres to correct grip levels. It was Escort versus Fiesta in the positions behind as Stephen Tilburn was pushing hard in the Escort RS2000 but was regularly dicing for times with James and Tim Self in their Fiesta R5. The Darrian lied in sixth place early on in the hands of Mark Straker, but pace was down due to lack of heat getting into the tyres.
The next run of stages to complete the morning saw a reverse run of 1 and 2 with Chris West producing a fight back to close the gap on Stone, whilst Kelly upped the pace, nearly matching West on each stage. The lunchtime interval would see Stone holding a slender lead of three seconds over West, with Kelly in third only another second adrift. With the afternoon stages being slightly longer, it was looking like a three-horse race to the finish for the overall win as expected, but there was plenty of variety within the top ten, including his championship rival Mike Taylor. The other classes were pretty close to by the halfway stage, as Roland and Stuart Brown led Class C, Sheard and Lindsay led B in the Mazda and finally Christopher and Anthony Newton were on top in Class A.
Changes aplenty during Afternoon Stages
Stage 5 would see the first of the longer layouts ran at Brands Hatch and with such a long field of drivers running at thirty second intervals, there was a risk of traffic for most competitors. It was very likely that the earlier runners would avoid this however drama struck for rally leader John Stone, as the Fiesta WRC was trapped at each slow section by the Proton of Antony Robinson and Mark Witherspoon. It surely wasn’t intentional for anyone to be held up and unfortunately it was John Stone who suffered the most, losing time against his rivals and losing the rally lead. The gap was twenty seconds at the conclusion of stage 5, handing Chris West and Keith Hounslow control of the rally, as Mark Kelly and Neil Colman slotted into second. John Stone learnt his lesson on stage 6 by hammering lap one to avoid a repeat at the hairpin and was ahead of the Proton, setting a much more quicker time and would take honours on this stage. The gap decreased between himself and West with Kelly in-between, but the Peugeot driver looked comfortable out front. As dusk approached and light faded, stages 7 and 8 would be the longest of the event, introducing clearways corner of the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. As the stages got underway, Chris West held an advantage of ten seconds and rather than settle for the win, he went for it. The Peugeot was impressive all day and he showed how confident he was with the Kit Car, taking the win in stages 7 and 8 and with it, his second win of the season. The overall winning margin come the conclusion of stage 8 was eighteen seconds, over John Stone, as the Fiesta man jumped the Escort of Kelly in stage seven. Stage eight saw identical times from the two, leaving positions as they were. Stephen Tilburn secured fourth overall come the conclusion, whilst fifth would go to James and Tim Self in the Fiesta R5. Just outside the top five was the Darrian T90 of Mark Straker and Simon May, who improved his times throughout the days, as the longer stages benefitted the pace that the Darrian had to offer.
With another victory bagged in the 2018-2019 season, Chris West and Keith Hounslow extended their points lead at the top of the standings in the Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship, with Snetterton, the fifth round, less than a month away. Another strong line up was expected in Norfolk and the action can be followed at http://msnrallychamp.co.uk. In the other classes out on circuit away from the overall result, Class C went to James Slaughter and Sarah Flynn, in the Roger Albert Clark backed Ford Escort. Victory on the final stage secured the victory after a tense battle with Roland and Stuart Brown. The victory was sweet for Slaughter and Flynn, as this was Sarah’s first rally, after taking up the challenge to raise money for Heart of Kent Hospice. In Class B, Paul Sheard continued his dominance in 2018-2019 with yet another victory in the Mazda MX5, alongside co-driver Bruce Lindsay. Final class honours went to Christopher and Anthony Newton in their brightly coloured Vauxhall Nova. Victory was on knife edge in the early part of the rally when the team nearly rolled the Nova at a hairpin bend, putting the Nova on two wheels but landing safely to continue.
For full photo album of the MGJ Engineering Brands Hatch winter rally, please click here.
Written by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs.