FRANCIS TOPPLES PAYNE IN SOMERSET
Epic BTRDA title battle continues between Francis and Payne in Somerset.
As the cars reached the ceremonial finish on the Minehead Promenade, it was once again a straight fight for a BTRDA Rally Series win between Luke Francis and Charlie Payne. But it was Rhuddlan’s own Francis who triumphed in another epic battle.
At the finish there was a sense of deja vu. In the opening round of the year, the Cambrian, Payne arrived at a similar coastline in Llandudno as the winner, only for Francis’ co-driver John H Roberts to query a time that gave them a single second. But that was all that was needed to divide them.
In Somerset last weekend it was tight again, and, for a moment, the timing screens couldn’t split them. When Francis arrived at the finish though, the result was updated and decided in his favour, and it was Payne’s co-driver Carl Williamson who was querying a time – although without the same success of Roberts at the Cambrian.
Sandwiched between was the Malcolm Wilson Rally the second round of the series, An equally close battle was unfolding on the Malcolm Wilson Rally in March too before a rod came out of the side of Francis’ car and ended his rally as Payne won.
It was Francis who was up in the opening Timberscombe test, and again in the first run through Croydon as the Exmoor forests proved mighty for the Mitsubishi Lancer E9 crew. The gap was eight seconds and with a host of shorter stages to come through the day, it was a fantastic start. Payne, however, suffered a puncture. Only an absolutely rapid run through SS5 Knowle saved his morning, with Francis only fifth fastest through. That left the gap at just three seconds.
The parallels with the Cambrian continued with an asphalt stage for the competitors to sink their teeth into: the infamous Porlock, run twice.
Unsurprisingly and in the same vein as the season so far, they evened out. Francis took three on the first stage, and Payne retook that back on the next. Francis admitted to “scaring himself” on the first run, with he and multiple crews reporting how slippery the loose-covered asphalt was. Francis added that large parts of the surface are sheltered from the sun and don’t dry out as quickly. That may have explained his loss to Payne in the second run despite dropping only a single second on his own time through the first run.
Despite a typically dramatic opening leg, there was also drama in service. The Ford Fiesta of Payne and Williamson had broke an alternator bracket, and the crew didn’t have a spare. Payne described the problem in his typical laid-back fashion, but credited the crew for their hard work later on as a compromise involving drilling and metal washers was forged, and the rally could go on for the second placed crew. Francis still led by 3s.
Incredibly, the leaders continued to trade handfuls of seconds, as Francis stole 1s through the quick SS8 Kennisham test. Then there was two runs of the Chargot test to run through.
There was trouble for Payne on the first. He spun and stalled at a tricky sweeping hairpin, which is also one of the most scenic spectator areas in a forest anywhere in the country. He must have pushed hard through the rest as the damage was only four seconds but, in his battle with Francis, it was an eternity. He lost another two on the next run of Chargot and the lead was almost instantly up to 10s, with Francis well and truly in the prime seat with three stages to run, totalling just 10.59 miles.
The pairing tied on SS11 Croydon, but Payne clawed back two seconds in Timberscombe. With only the short Knowle test to go, could the Fiesta driver really take 8s out of Francis on the decider?
No. Another tie – four minutes to complete the stage – meant Francis took an important win after retiring on the Malcolm Wilson. Payne holds a strong lead with two seconds and a first feather in his cap.
“The spin really cost us,” explained Payne. “But it’s all what ifs. We’ve scored good points towards the championship today.”
Francis – coming off the back of winning Rally North Wales two weekends before – sits fifth, but that’s including his poor score from the Malcolm Wilson, which he can
drop at a later date. The battle for this year’s BTRDA Rally Series championship is well and truly on, and a lot closer than last year’s series to boot.
The battle for third became a lot more interesting with two stages to go as a puncture for eventual podium finisher Karl Simmons stoked the fire. The man challenging him was Martyn England, in his recently acquired Ford Fiesta R5 two-litre, debuting the car in the BTRDA, and on gravel for the first time.
The car had suffered overheating brakes on its first outing under England’s watch on the Tour of Caerwent, and predictably the crew eased into the running. A second fastest stage time on SS4 was a sign of things to come, and when the rally hit the tar he was fastest for the first run through Porlock. Simmons had built up a decent lead through the morning, but after the asphalt runs it was down to 10s and England had despatched Russell Thompson for fourth overall.
On the second of the two runs through Chargot, Simmons asserted his authority in the Subaru Impreza, extending the gap to 12s, but in stage 12 he hit a rock. Although it didn’t cost him time in that test, he began SS13 not knowing he’d picked up a puncture. The gap was nine seconds at the beginning of the stage, but it was 2s by the end after just 3.70 miles. Simmons was lucky to hold on, but both crews were happy with their pace, particularly England in the R5 on gravel for the first time.
Thompson continued his rapid but consistent pace with co-driver Andrew Murphy alongside. The duo once again took NR4 honours and set top five times throughout the day, although they fell down the order in the afternoon as more powerful cars came to the fore. Peter Stephenson brought his Ford Focus WRC home in fifth after another consistent run, which also leaves him second in the overall points. Paul Benn was going strongly in the morning and felt fine in the Porlock asphalt test, but the times didn’t reflect that and he hemorrhaged time on those two stages. He took sixth.
Thompson was seventh until the final stage when another new car in the series usurped him. Tom Preston and Jack Morton were debuting the Skoda Fabia R5 – never seen in the series before – as they prepare for the difficult challenge of the British championship in Carlisle later this month.
Preston – previously seen in a Ford Focus WRC02 car – bedded in nicely, with only a couple of stalls in the morning halting his progress, mainly down to the switch of car. The Focus would have powered through hairpins in second gear but the Fabia needed first, a lesson learned on the stages. A strong afternoon overseen by a man who used to watch over Colin Mcrae’s cars at M-sport – Martin Wilkinson – yielded the seventh place finish overall and a very happy crew with added seat time in the car. The CA1 Sport-run duo only had a short test in the machine the day before at Higgins Rally School.
Sacha Kakad took ninth in his Lancer E10, with Andy Davies continuing his strong start to the season to round out the top 10 spots.
Just outside, an admirable 11th from septuagenarian Brian Bell in his Focus WRC07 car – reigned in by co-driver Jamie Edwards, while Gavin Edwards/caron Tomlinson headed home Boyd Kershaw/bryan Hull for the first two spots in the Silver Star championship in 12th and 13th overall.
Francis held on after MW retirement
Preston built up speed on Fabia R5’s first BTRDA appearance
Puncture and a spin cost Payne/williamson chance at second
England narrowly missed podium on R5 2.0 debut in the series