The 15th March 2020 was the date for the conclusion of the MSN/Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship season 2019-2020, but it was also the starting date for the Donington Park season calendar. Whilst Coronavirus/COVID-19 has caused turmoil across the globe, the LDV Donington Stage Rally luckily was on, with an attractive line-up in each of the categories. Donington Park was converted into seven special stages to conclude the season, created using the circuit in both ways, the pit lane as start and finish lines, infield access roads consisting of tarmac and gravel and lastly the outer paddock areas around Redgate corner, each section testing the crew’s abilities.
The season finale of the MSN/Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship was crucial in that all category titles were still up for grabs, but more importantly the overall title. Heading into the final round, the Darrian T90 GTR in the hands of Barry Morris had the target on its back as series leader, but the points advantage was only ten points. Chasing down Morris was Paul Murro, in his Ford Escort MkII, who had been matching Morris for pace and consistency over the previous events. With drop scores to be considered, this opened the door to Richard Wells, who was debuting a Ford Fiesta R5 at Donington after campaigning majority of the season in a Mitsubishi Evo. The gap between Wells and Morris was twenty-four points, but over seven stages, anything could and likely would happen. Unfortunately for one crew, their title challenge was over prior to the meeting. After dominating most of the year with five overall victories, including Brands Hatch and Snetterton, a retirement at the previous round of Anglesey put the title out of contention for Frank Bird and Jack Morton. With round two of the calendar missing from their scores, it would mean they would unfortunately cap off an incredible season without the title. This left Mike Taylor (Lotus Sunbeam) and Stephen Tilburn (Ford Escort RS2500) as outsiders for the overall crown from Classes D1 and D2 but unfortunately some inconsistency did mean the crews had a mountain to climb to overhaul Barry Morris.
Bird Shines Again but Morris Does Enough
When the crews woke Sunday morning to start the season finale, they were faced by wet and windy conditions. The opening stage would begin at 9:15 with Frank Bird and Jack Morton the first car to get underway, whilst title chaser Barry Morris would run as the third car, behind Ian Woodhouse. The stage was extremely slippery due to the conditions, but Frank Bird looked unfazed, setting the fastest time as rivals behind struggled. The gap between the top two was 18 seconds heading into a revised layout, but Bird’s challenger for the rally win was John Griffiths, in a Subaru Impreza. As Ian Woodhouse slotted into third, title contenders were finding things hard, especially Barry Morris who was outside the top ten. Things were slightly better for Paul Murro in the Escort and Richard Wells in his Fiesta, but they needed to really win the event to overhaul Morris.
Stage two continued to be successful for Frank Bird, going even quicker than the rest of the field and pulling clear of Griffiths by forty-two seconds, which increased further after stage three. With Richard Wells lying in fourth, Morris was fighting back and an impressive time of stage three, the second run of a new layout, he climbed up from thirteenth to eighth. The top four continued to remain the same with each driver looking comfortable, fifth was being held by Martin Hodgson in the Escort MkII and he was closing in on Wells.
Into the second half of the rally, Bird was breaking clear from the field, now 1:46 seconds ahead of Griffiths, but Woodhouse was the driver to watch, a former MSN Rally Champion. The gap was now only three seconds between second and third with two stages to go.
Into stage six, Barry Morris was now up to seventh, but it was getting interesting for the podium places. After looking likely to concede second, Griffiths fought back to beat Woodhouse, whilst Hodgson was now on the coattails of Wells. This made the final stage extremely tense and with conditions improving, drama struck in determining the podium places. Looking comfortable now in second, John Griffiths misread the stage layout, forcing another run of the course. This cost him and co-driver a lot of time and he slipped to tenth overall. This gifted Woodhouse second on the podium, behind Frank Bird, who recorded win number six of the season. Due to Griffiths losing so many places, Richard Wells inherited third, but a grassy moment at the Melbourne loop ended all hopes of a podium. Martin Hodgson unfortunately lost time also on the final stage and as a surprise to most, Barry Morris grabbed the final podium spot and with that, the Championship for 2019-2020, ahead of Peter Smith’s Fiesta R5 who ended fourth. Martin Hodgson fell back to fifth with Richard Wells ending an unfortunate sixth. Class C competitor Josh Davey came home seventh overall, ahead of Stephen Tilburn in the Escort RS2500 eighth and Steve Finch’s Fiesta ninth. Completing the top ten was Ben Dimmack in a Mitsubishi Evo, but as the season concluded it was party time for Barry Morris and Co-Driver Tom Hutchings.
MSN Rally Championship Overall Top Five:
- Barry Morris – Darrian T90 GTR = 401 Pts.
- Richard Wells – Ford Fiesta R5 = 370 Pts.
- Mike Taylor – Talbot Sunbeam Lotus = 354 Pts.
- Stephen Tilburn – Ford Escort RS2500 = 348 Pts.
- Paul Murro – Ford Escort MkII = 337 Pts.
Category Titles decided at Season Finale
Whilst there was a lot of focus on the overall crown and how Class D would play out, there was still a lot to play for in Classes C, B and lastly A. Here is a summary of how each class ended up:
Class C coming into the season finale was being led by the other Talbot Sunbeam Lotus in the field of Cathy Sewart, who was in control after victory at the previous round on the Welsh coastal circuit of Anglesey. Her closest challenger for the crown was the Escort in the hands of Mike English, but drama at the previous round had prevented a class win which could have moved him closer to the crown. In a class which unfortunately had crews dip in and out of rounds throughout the season, a strong field entered for the season finale and after stage one, it was the Darrian T90 of Josh Davey who stood out as contender for the class win, posting the fastest times ahead of championship contenders Cathy Sewart and Mike English. Misfortune looked to have struck Josh after the end of stage two, with the Darrian misfiring, but spare parts from Barry Morris’s crew got Josh back up and running. The assistance from Morris helped Davey secure victory, whilst the championship contenders fought over the podium places. Mike English did enough to finish ahead of Sewart by coming home second, but a third-place finish handed Cathy the Class C Title for the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus squad.
MSN Rally Championship Class C Top Three:
- Cathy Sewart – Talbot Sunbeam Lotus = 182 Pts.
- Mike English – Ford Escort MkII RS = 150 Pts.
- Blair Thomson – Renault Clio 197 = 120 Pts.
Class B is a tightly fought class for the title with eighteen points separating four drivers. Mark Peterson came into the finale as the Class leader driving the Citroen C2, but his closest rival was Paul Gorge, in the Paul Sheard prepared Mazda MX5, but they were having to keep an eye on the driver with the most class victories, Chris Ruck, in the Opel Corsa. More recently though Ashley Morris had tightened the gap with victory at Anglesey in the Fiesta R2, which had brought her in contention to upset the boys.
Knowing that the title was always going to the wire with four crews separated by such a small margin, it was more so who would get out of the gate the quickest. Stepping forward to make his mark was Chris Ruck, who fired the Opel Corsa to the top of the class times, leaving his rivals to chase him down if they wanted the title. Mark Peterson in the Citroen C2 was the class leader coming into the rally but was struggling to match Ruck’s pace and losing grip on the title. Mark ran second for much of the rally but ended up losing the place to Ashleigh Morris, who was making the most of the conditions in her Fiesta R2. With Ruck continuing to pull clear out-front, he capped off a successful season by taking the title, but rather than ahead of Peterson, a third-place finish behind Morris allowed Ashleigh to claim second overall.
MSN Rally Championship Class B Top Three:
- Chris Ruck – Opel Corsa = 202 Pts.
- Ashleigh Morris – Ford Fiesta R2 = 186 Pts.
- Mark Peterson – Citroen C2 = 182 Pts.
In the final category, class A, it was a fight to the chequered flag between the Ford Puma of Ron Walker and Adam Ripper’s Nissan Micra, with the gap being twenty points. The two have been the most consistent in the category with Walker’s win at Anglesey taking his total to four, whilst Ripper held three, which were on the bounce from round four to round six.
With some additional runners signed up for the finale it could have made the mathematics interesting, which was the case when Matt Wood in a Vauxhall Corsa stood out as the front runner after opening stage. On stage three however, drama for Wood handed the lead to Jonathan Hudson, who jumped ahead in his Suzuki Swift when Wood’s Vauxhall suffered engine damage. For the championship contenders, Walker’s pace was quicker than Ripper over the first half of the event and this was swinging the title in favour of the Puma crew. Towards the final stages, Walker was up to second and with Ripper only fourth, he just had to bring the car home to take the title. Jonathan Hudson would end up as Class winner holding on from stage three, to finish eight seconds ahead of Ron Walker, but he was celebrating as Class Champion. Third in Class on the final podium step was James Hardy, who would end the season third overall, but with Adam Ripper ending in fourth and therefore losing out on the title by just four points.
MSN Rally Championship Class A Top Three:
- Ron Walker – Ford Puma = 202 Pts.
- Adam Ripper – Nissan Micra = 198 Pts.
- James Hardy – Nissan Micra = 182 Pts.
Unfortunately, at present Motorsport is now heavily affected by the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak as all events have been cancelled by Motorsport UK until 1st May 2020. Hopefully everything will sort itself by then, but in the meantime, stay safe.
In terms of the MSN/Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship, the 2020-2021 season is due to start at Oulton Park in early November, but please visit www.msnrallychamp.co.uk for all the latest news.
For full photo album from the event, please click here.
Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs.