KELLY RETURNS TO REPEAT BIRR STAGES VICTORY
Organiser: Birr and District Motor Club When: February 21 Where: Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, Ireland Championship: Top Part West Coast Rally Championship and Loughran Signs Midlands East Rally Championship Starters: 89 Stages: 6
Donegal man Donagh Kelly gave a clear indication as to why he is the reigning Irish National and Tarmac rally champion with his all-conquering display on the difficult Birr Stages Rally.
Kelly – co-driven by Conor Foley – kept his Ford Focus WRC on course over the sodden and mud strewn roads to take a dominant win. Niall Maguire/ Enda Sherry and Paddy Mcveigh/ Gary Mcelhinney, in their respective Subarus, finished second and third, but never challenged the Ford Focus WRC in front.
Wet conditions caused a headache for the drivers as they headed out of Abbeyleix for the opening loop of two stages close to Borris-in-ossory. Last year’s winner Kelly was impressive from the word go, opening up a 7.4s gap to Steve Wood in his Subaru over the nine-mile Oldtown stage.
On stage two, Harristown, Kelly was fastest again but this time it was Mcveigh in his Subaru who was credited with second overall and there was no sign of Wood at the finish. On a narrow muddy section he had got stuck in a ditch, also holding up at least half a dozen other cars.
On the middle loop of stages, conditions were still very wet. That led to lots of mud on the stages. Kelly, running heavily cut tyres, was fastest through stages three and four. Kelly held a 51.4s lead over Maguire at second service, with fellow Subaru Impreza driver Mcveigh a close third, only 3.7s back. Clonakilty man Kevin Kelleher was fourth in his Subaru, and then it was Enda O’brien and Barry Ryan, both in Ford Escorts, driving like heroes in fifth and sixth.
Kelly was fastest again through stages five and six to make it a clean sweep of stage victories, while Maguire and Mcveigh had a great battle, with Maguire taking second by just under eight seconds.
Kelleher was fourth in his Impreza WRC but a fair way adrift (two minutes) from the podium. O’brien was fifth and top two-wheel-drive exponent with his Escort.
George Condell had been fastest two-wheel-drive car initially with his Toyota Starlet, but had lost quite a few seconds in stage three with a spin and had dropped from fourth to eighth place. Such was the pace of the cars in the class that it was almost impossible to regain lost time and he took seventh.
Trevor Mulligan, another Ford Escort Mk2 exponent, had been outside the top 10 in the first loop. His cause was not helped by a small excursion but he set a cracker of a time in stage three to nudge onto the leaderboard and improved through the day despite experimenting with different tyres.
Behind him, David Condell (Escort) and Kevin Barrett’s Impreza completed the top 10.
Shane Maguire in his Lancer led Group N at second service, his expected main opposition Paul Barrett sidelined with a mechanical problem on his Subaru Impreza. Daniel Cronin put his Lancer off the road, leaving Maguire to take the class win.
With 28s in hand, Pritchard was able to measure his pace in the final stage in Caio and arrived at the finish 13s to the good. Elliott was frustrated to lose the time he did, but happy to have scored his best Red Kite result for three years. The final stage charge put Elliott back ahead of Joe Price and Chris Brooks, who had briefly grabbed second.
“We weren’t going to beat Nick in there,” said Price who nevertheless turned in a cracking performance to show this he is now one of the BHRC pacesetters.
Just as impressive was Irish ace Paul Barrett with Welsh co-driver Dai Roberts who pedalled their Pinto-powered Escort with typical commitment to bag fourth, well in touch with the top three.
Another historic convert fast rising towards the head of the field is Steve Bennett and, with M-sport’s Ian Tullie on the notes, he grabbed fifth on the final stage when a steering drama slowed the Fiat 131 of Matthew Robinson and Sam Collis. Nevertheless, the pace of the Fiat on its first full rally was cause for much optimism in the Robinson camp. “That’s a good start,” said Robinson after a strong run.
Just 20 seconds covered the next four crews on a day when visibility was a big problem for the second run over the high and open Route 60 stage. Simon Webster and Jez Rogers just edged Rudi Lancaster and George Gwynn, while Orr/weaver took Category 2 and ninth overall. “A bit of a steady start but going better in the afternoon,” said Orr. Neil Williams and Peter James wrapped up the top 10 in their Escort Mk2.
The Gibbons father and son pairing had an anxious wait at the finish for the arrival of Bean/smithson. Heading for the second Caio, the gap was just 11s and Gibbons Sr was concerned that he might have eased back too much. However, the Lotus Cortina never made it back after a complete electrical failure stopped the car mid-stage. “I was giving it a good go,” said Bean as he started his 56th season of rallying.
Among the classes, a standout performance came from Adam Milner and Roy Jarvis who put their 1600cc Escort Mk1 into 13th overall on the driver’s first rally in Wales. Incredibly, they only had one stage free of a persistent misfire and duly set a top 10 time over Route 60. Milner finished one place down on Class C5 winners Simon Tysoe/paul Morris, who had a good day in their Escort Mk1.
In Category 3, Chris Skill and Tom Jordan (Ford Escort Mk2) topped the 1600cc division despite collecting a puncture on each visit to Crychan. Class D4 fell to Guy Anderson and new co-driver Steven Davey (Talbot Sunbeam Lotus).
In Category 1, the late retirement of Bob Bean elevated Bill Douglas and Dave Tearl (BMW 1800) into second in the category as well as victory in Class B4, while the new pairing of Phil Harris and Graham Wild (Mini Cooper) added to Harris’ remarkable run of Class B2 wins.
50m15s +7s +30s +37s +42s +1m19s +1m33s +1m38s +2m14s +2m19s snow. Garry Pearson set the fastest time in his Ford Fiesta R5 by eight seconds from Armstrong in the Subaru, with relative newcomer John Wink matching Armstrong’s pace in his E9. The stage was as far as frontrunner Shaun Sinclair managed. The Subaru’s head gasket had gone.
At first service, the talk was all about tyres. Primarily, who had snow tyres, and who didn’t. Mike Faulkner was one of the have-nots: “Nothing we’ve got is working, so we’ve borrowed some tractor tyres from Ivor Clark!”
Strath Rory is the most northerly forest stage in the UK and here Mcculloch set fastest time first time out in his newly acquired Lancer E9. He was a full 15 seconds faster than Macdonald, displacing Mccombie for the rally lead. Dale Robertson was still in the hunt, third quickest ahead of ex-scottish champion Jimmy Christie, while Milne rounded off the top half dozen quickest through that third stage.
Although Mcculloch now had a 42-second lead heading towards the Scotsburn test, the ever-changing conditions were ensuring that rally victory predictions were about as reliable as the weather forecast.
This time it was the number 28 seed, Brian Ross in his Lancer E6, who set the best time from the number 44 seed, Scott Mutch in his Subaru Impreza. Christie was third quickest, while fourth quickest Robertson had pulled back three seconds on Mcculloch as Macdonald lost out by a further eight seconds to the rally leader.
Going into the final 11-mile test at Raven Rock, it was getting dark and the falling snow on the hills was getting thicker. Mcculloch had a 51-second cushion over Macdonald, surely that was enough?
The first five miles of the test were pretty much gravel, but the final six miles on the other side of the hill had snow. No tyre choice could be perfect for this one.
Rallying can be such a cruel sport, and so it proved. “I didn’t hit anything, I just felt it go down,” said Mcculloch when the front near side tyre punctured. Macdonald could only manage third fastest time behind Milne and Robertson, while Mcculloch dropped over a minute and a half to the fastest trio.
With the leaders through the last stage, the organisers were finally forced to cancel it due to the weather. For most of the 20-mile run back to the rally finish, Macdonald and Falconer were unaware of their final rally position. They got the message three miles out so were prepared for the welcome at the finish.
For sure there was disappointment all round, from Mcculloch and Robertson to Milne about what might have been, but no-one begrudged this popular crew their first outright victory. As Macdonald was greeted by his peers and rivals, he laughed: “If I was insufferable before, I’ll be a lot worse now!” ■