Ah­lin heads to first ever as­phalt event in four-wheel drive

Motor Sport News - - Rally News - By Jack Benyon Photos: Roy Demp­ster, Jakob Ebrey, FIA ERC

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? ■

Ah­lin is ready to learn on Tar­mac David Bo­gie won Mid­land Stages Ah­lin tested with CA1 on Sun­day

Mcrae and Ringer were un­stop­pable in ’91

Breen and Ka­je­tanow­icz ERC BRC ITRC Cronin is on form in Ire­land Evans leads the BRC in Fi­esta R5

Lukyanuk: two in a row on as­phalt

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