BRC TITLE CONTENDER IN CIRCUIT STRUGGLE
Ahlin heads to first ever asphalt event in four-wheel drive
British Rally Championship title contender Fredrik Ahlin has confirmed that he and co-driver Morten Abrahamsen may be adrift of the Circuit of Ireland pace this weekend on Ahlin’s first asphalt rally in four years.
The Swede equalled Elfyn Evans’ number of stage wins in the BRC opener on the Mid Wales Stages and took the lead of the event on Sunday morning, only to be usurped by the Welshman a stage later in a thrilling battle between the two Ford Fiesta R5s.
However – despite showing he has the pace to challenge Evans on gravel this year – the Swede has no problem with bringing up the pace slowly in Ireland.
“Like I always say, we are always there to perform well and fight at the top,” explained the 24-year-old Swede. “But for sure, considering our limited experience on Tarmac, there will not be any sad faces in the beginning of the rally if the pace is not there yet.
“The Circuit of Ireland will be my first Tarmac event in almost four years and my first in a four-wheel-drive car. Considering this we are up for the big challenge, the learning curve will be steep and we have to be patient. Both Morten and I are looking at this event as an opportunity to get our pace up to a top level on Tarmac, so we will be able to fight for a podium on the three remaining Tarmac events this year.”
Ahlin is run by CA1 Sport, which takes three drivers who have never competed on the event before to the Emerald Isle. Joining Ahlin is 2011 British champion David Bogie, who gave the Skoda Fabia R5 its first win in Ireland two weeks ago on the Midland Stages.
“It was very nice to give the Fabia R5 another first win – this time in Ireland,” said the Scot. “We started the event with the Skoda Motorsport settings for bumpy Tarmac, and we fine-tuned them as the event went on to suit the characteristics of Irish Tarmac. Everything just got better and better.”
He and co-driver David Rae took 21s out of Subaru Impreza WRC driver Paddy Mcveigh on the last stage to win.
Asphalt specialist Alex Laffey makes up the final CA1 entry. “I am really excited to get back in my comfort zone on Tarmac again, and what an event to kick off the Tarmac rounds,” said Laffey. “The Circuit of Ireland is a dream event for me, as I have always wanted to do this rally.”
This weekend the Irish Tarmac, European and British Rally Championships combine. I bet you’ve read those words a few times this week.
What you haven’t read this week (yet) is the story of the last time the three combined on the Circuit of Ireland. It was 25 years ago. On a triumphant BRC opener in York, a young Scot with a family history as rich as any had blown away all comers in a new Prodrive Subaru Legacy. Have you worked it out yet? Colin Mcrae.
Mcrae was 11 years old when his father Jimmy scored the first of his seven Circuit wins, and in 1991 he rocked up in Belfast on a high after the opening round devastation.
The event was a disappointing one by all accounts. It had been on the decline since FISA rulings forced the event to be shortened in 1987, taking away many of the challenges the rally faced (in fairness, it was still just over 200 miles). It would be the last time the BRC came to the event – until now – and there was a lack of ERC runners in the field. A higher than usual entry fee scared many away and only Subaru and Peugeot brought works entries.
The Mcrae/legacy combo did nothing to promote the event either in terms of a battle. The Scot should have had ample competiton in Irish Tarmac legends (I don’t use that word often) in Bertie Fisher (Ford Sierra Cosworth) and Austin Machale’s BMW M3. But such was Mcrae’s concentration and the technology of the Subaru, it was like Prodrive had brought an F1 car to an F3 race.
Fisher was the closest challenger and he delivered an incredible first stage win, the quickest the Nutts Corner stage had ever been completed in that format, but he was overturned to the tune of 15s on the next stage. The gearlever came off in Fisher’s hand and the writing was on the wall. Mcrae and co-driver Derek Ringer’s pre-event confidence was well and truly followed up.
Mcrae went on to win by over four minutes. Fisher’s Sierra was ill-handling for much of the rest of the event and Machale went off and blocked the road in his M3.
This year the circumstances surrounding the event couldn’t be more opposite. Around 38 relatively equal cars will fight for the win, with seven to 10 of those all capable of standing on the top step. While none of them are likely to be as exciting or enigmatic as the great Mcrae (sorry boys), the achievement will be 10 times as sweet as Mcrae’s.
This year we have a fist fight, with everyone on a level playing field. No F1 cars allowed.
It’s always difficult to look at a series of events within a period and analyse where it will lie in history. This weekend we could be witnessing a historical milestone when 38 R5 or S2000-spec rally cars are expected to descend on the Circuit of Ireland. To gather 38 of any rally class is nigh on unheard of.
As well as the cars, it’s the quality of drivers heading the field that will ignite the flame in competition. Three championships will intertwine on the event – the British, European and Irish Tarmac slates. Plus there’s a World Rally driver in Craig Breen starting at car one as the defending winner. But we’ll come to him later.
The intriguing early favourite has to be Keith Cronin. While also entering the BRC, the West Cork native has scored maximum points from the opening two rounds of the Irish Tarmac Championship in his David Greer Motorsport-prepared Citroen DS 3 R5. He’s attempting a hat-trick in Ireland, but he’s been pushed hard by the Ford Fiesta of Alastair Fisher. Expect Bertie’s nephew to be in the running in the event. Cronin is many people’s early favourite – including Breen – and with the Irish Tarmac Championship now favouring R5 cars at the front of the field he’s had a good run-in with three events in the series completed in a row. He’ll be fighting with a machine that isn’t quite as good as the Fiesta or Skoda Fabia, but the Irishman will almost certainly drive over and above the car’s pace.
From the ERC, Kajetan Kajetanowicz (that’s Ka-eye-tan Ka-eye-tanovich!) challenged last year’s winner Breen all the way to the last stage, and he will be right on the pace as the reigning ERC champion in his M-sport Poland-backed Fiesta. The Pole didn’t win on asphalt last year, but his challenge to Breen on the Circuit proved he has the speed.
Completing the trio of championship challengers is Elfyn Evans, touted as one of the most in-form rally drivers in the world at the moment. Two wins from two in the WRC2 category, along with victory on the opening round of the British championship in Mid-wales in March back-up the favourites tag for pretty much any rally he enters at the moment. Everyone will remember his heroic performance on asphalt in Corsica last year, and a similar performance will be needed if he’s to win.
The Welshman will run DMACK tyres on the event, and the firm’s new compound is believed to be greatly improved on last year’s covers. But Michelin and Pirelli will still likely hold the upper hand, and a titanic effort from Evans will be needed in such a quality field.
With the troublesome triplet out of the way, who else will challenge? Breen may be a good shout. Last year’s winner has moved on to pastures new with PH Sport and the World Rally Championship this year, and the Waterford man has shown his love of rallying by returning. He has little to gain by taking part, but Breen – along with last year’s winning co-driver Scott Martin – is an aficionado of the sport and any excuse to get out in an event is one he’ll snap up.
Winner of the opening round of the ERC season – Alexey Lukyanuk – wasn’t a factor in the lead battle last year but his performances on asphalt have been excellent, winning the last two tar rounds of the championship. That could bring him into the lead fight.
Two drivers doing the BRC and ITRC – Josh and Sam Moffett – will also be in the hunt. Josh scored a podium last year in an Rrc-spec Fiesta. The switch to R5 hasn’t quite yielded the same results against Cronin and Fisher in Ireland, but only a fool would rule either brother out of the battle.
Both the European and British championships bring hefty Junior entries to the Circuit, with ERC likely to head the pack based mainly on the Pirelli control tyre used in the series as opposed to the BRC’S DMACKS.
The lead battle will almost certainly be between Chris Ingram and Marijan Griebel in the works Opel outfit, which brings resources that most of the other teams can’t match. Griebel won this event last year while Ingram was in a Peugeot 208, but now the Brit has joined the team, both will be desperate to win every round, not just this one.
In the BRC Juniors, Rob Duggan knows the event well. The Killarney man heads a trio of Vauxhall Adams, with Mattias Adielsson another challenger. A team-mate to Duggan – he did the recce for the event last year. Vauxhall joined Opel in taking three cars to the Circuit of Kerry last weekend, so should be well prepared.
Meirion Evans could also challenge in his Ford Fiesta R2T, having won his class in the Cork ‘20’ round of the ITRC last year.
But most eyes will be on the front. Will it be Ireland, Britain or Europe that ends up on top? ■