Chances of Circuit WRC round improving
The Circuit of Ireland’s World Rally Championship aspirations were further boosted last week by strong messages of support from government ministers.
Both Northern Irish first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Martin Mcguinness spoke of their pride in the event and the potential for it to step up from the European to world level.
The Circuit remains contracted to the ERC for this season, but event director Bobby Willis spoke at length last season with the WRC promoter on the potential for the Belfastbased event to make its debut at rallying’s highest level.
Foster said: “The ambition for the Circuit of Ireland is to become a world rally event and that’s very much still alive.”
Mcguinness echoed those sentiments, saying: “The Circuit of Ireland is hugely important to the island of Ireland. I have been a fan of rallying for many years. I had the opportunity of being driven around a track in Dubai a few years ago – which was a highly enjoyable experience.”
Fredrik Ahlin believes that the pace he showed to challenge DMACK driver Elfyn Evans for victory on the Mid Wales Stages will make him a strong candidate for the British Rally Championship in 2016.
The 24-year-old, driving for Martin Wilkinson’s CA1 Sport outfit, finished 17.2s down on Evans on the Welshman’s home stages. He briefly took the lead before service when Evans was struggling to sweep the road on the tricky morning stages, which had been hit by snow and slush on top of the wet gravel thanks to a heavy downfall on Thursday night/friday morning.
The Swede was the only driver close to challenging Evans, as a mixture of crews further back were suffering from issues. Punctures and small mistakes played a part in the separation, but the final man on the podium – Tom Cave – was over a minute and a half behind the sparring pair.
It is not the first time that the pair have duelled, they are very familiar with each other after another intriguing battle earlier in the year, albeit at world championship level in Sweden.
But Ahlin believes that the fact he was on the pace on roads he is less familiar with bodes well for some of the later rallies in the year in the BRC.
“It’s good for me to show my pace. We were quick in Sweden but if I can go very well here with very little experience [of the stages] and still be who he [Elfyn] is looking behind at, that is good,” he said. “I was the only one being close to Elfyn so it looks good [for the championship].”
The rally was won on stage five, the penultimate test through Hafren/sweet Lamb. Evans admitted to pushing very hard through the stage in order to retake the lead, having been just over three seconds down at the service halt.
“I pushed very hard in Hafren and we had a few moments in there,” said Evans, who had chosen to use his double points Joker on the event. Each driver can nominate a round of the championship to score double points on, meaning a maximum of 50 points is on offer if a driver playing his joker can win. “Obviously with it being my joker round I didn’t want Fredrik winning,” he added. “We put on a bit of a push there so we had a good gap and it was just a case of being clean for the last one.”
The Welshman believes that sweeping the road was also a major issue in contributing to Ahlin’s advantage on Sunday morning.
“I think the road position was a big disadvantage this morning [for us] so I think once the road was the same for everybody, I was confident we had control [of the rally] then,” added Evans.
“He definitely had me worried around lunchtime, obviously taking 8s a stage is a lot, but I thought I’d driven well in the first two stages. It’s impossible to know how much conditions will improve [as more cars pass the stage] but it all came good at the weekend.”
The first event of the new BRC era drew high levels of praise from the large majority of attendees, with only small amendments suggested as the way forward. Fourth placed finisher and 2011 BRC champion David Bogie praised the quality of the stages.
“They’re obviously great stages and it was a nice compact format and it worked really well,” he said. “The only thing I can think of is I would have liked it to be longer, but I’m sure the organisers will be looking at that for next year. There’s no way they could have anticipated the number of entries this year and factored in the cost of making it longer. Obviously it’s the first year of the new BRC and it was nice for it to come back with so much of a buzz.
“I think the organisers responded really well [to the weather on the event]. It wasn’t nice for the marshals but they all seemed to have smiles on their faces.”
Elfyn Evans has just driven one of the best rallies of his life in my mind. That may sound silly after discussing how close Fredrik Ahlin was to the Welshman in Newtown, but when you delve a little deeper, there’s far more that made Evans’ performance great. And great is a word I don’t like to band around a lot.
First off, let’s look at the circumstances that brought Evans to the BRC. M-sport went a different direction and have two different drivers. That’s well covered territory. Did that dent his confidence? I don’t think so. Speaking to Elfyn multiple times before the season started and during Newtown, the fire is burning at a higher temperature than ever. There’s a certain swagger to the Dolgellau man’s demeanour that screams champion. Someone on top of their game. That could well be because he is.
Two wins at world level, and the attitude by most was that Evans couldn’t win in Mid Wales. If he did, it wouldn’t be enough or it was too easy as he had been in a World Rally Car for two years. If he didn’t win, somehow he would be inferior. I disagree vehemently, but that was the attitude held by some. He was certainly the pre-event favourite and anyone who said otherwise was lying or not ‘in the know’.
And then Ahlin came along. The Swede is clearly a bit special. His pace has never been in doubt and in Mid Wales he did something he’s struggled to do in the past, put a whole rally together. Overall it wasn’t enough, but if he continues in that vein he’ll only improve.
Back to Elfyn and my justification. He was sweeping the road and fighting a competitor who had better tyres. Facing the crushing strain of expectation from onlookers who – as I pointed to before – had decided that he should win with ease.
That’s the kind of pressure that only the true greats perform under. Sebastien Ogier, for example. He’s swept the road for years, but he’s so good he often transcends things that usually define how quick a driver will be.
Despite all the pressure, Elfyn was nothing but smiley and approachable for the whole weekend. He was confident he had pace in reserve and as soon as the conditions improved, he pushed like hell and backed up his words.
If that’s not a sign of a great performance then I don’t know what is. In my eyes, Evans has only further proved that he deserves to be headed back to the World Championship in a World Car, but hopefully not in Germany. That would clash with the BRC...