ELFYN BEATS THE BEST ON THE ISLE OF MAN
BRITISH CHAMPION SHOWS HIS CLASS – AGAIN
It was fitting that the DMACK British Rally Team dedicated Elfyn Evans and Craig Parry’s victory on Rally Isle of Man to Mark Lovell. DMACK managing director Dick Cormack had worked on the car of the 1986 BRC champion, who famously never won the Manx, conceding certain wins on two occasions to team orders.
But with an all star line-up of Evans – newly crowned BRC champion – and five-time Manx international winner and treble BRC champion Mark Higgins, there was no sign of any team orders. The pair were there to race.
And race they did. The event began with the fantastic Super Special promenade stage, and fastest was Finland WRC podium finisher Craig Breen, in a one-off outing, mainly thanks to Team Ireland philanthropist John Campion.
It was a good start for Breen, but he struggled for rhythm on the second test of the day and gifted 2.6s to Evans. On SS3 though, the Dgm-prepared Citroen of Breen was out with a terminal engine failure. He and Scott Martin got a good cup of tea thanks to a kind marshal, but he would have preferred to join his hero Frank Meagher on the winners’ list. Just like the Circuit of Ireland earlier this year – where Evans also went out on the third stage – fans were robbed of a battle between two of the finest young drivers in the world.
That left the other one-off frontrunner, Higgins, revelling in his home island after his run to a record time on the TT course in a specially modified Prodrive Subaru earlier this year. Thanks to rally competitor Dave Holland and his company Palletforce, Higgins joined Evans in the DMACK outfit with another Ford Fiesta R5.
But already there was trouble. There wasn’t a set of long ratios for Higgins’ gearbox, which meant he was losing time sat on the limiter in the five-speed Fiesta ’box. Evans was keen to point out that he was losing out to Higgins in the slower sections, though. The games had begun.
After a day of bedding in, Higgins lay third and 22.5s down on Evans, with Tom Cave splitting the duo. Cave’s asphalt pace has been sporadic in recent rounds but the Welshman, aside from what he deemed an incorrect tyre choice, was on form. It was just as well, he was fighting for second overall in the BRC championship with Jonny Greer and Fredrik Ahlin.
After topping the first two stages of Friday, Evans’ lead was just under 29s at service and the Welshman was proving why he’s one of the hottest properties in world rallying right now. In perfect sync with Parry, the times were rapid and the Welshman looked unstoppable. With Breen gone and Higgins fighting the ’box and a lack of knowledge of the Fiesta on asphalt, it looked all over.
However, there was a glimmer of hope. The next three stages went away from Evans with Higgins taking two of them. Up over the infamous Druidale and past the Brandywell Cottage, the Manxman was pushing hard, cocking the rear wheel up through a right-left section leaving no time on the table.
There was more good news for Higgins. After Evans rebounded and went on a phenomenal run to eke his lead out to 38s over Higgins, there was drama. The Welshman broke a driveshaft and the left-front wheel was the non-benefactor. His time was 10th quickest and enough to hand his team-mate a 17.5s gap. Would he push in the morning to take the win? A playful smile was the only hint of an answer.
Not to worry. It was answered with a shock and awe display on Saturday morning. He had just six stages to reel in Higgins. It started undrammatically reducing it to 16s on Tons Bridge, but the next time was breathtaking. Higgins could only manage fourth quickest and Evans completed the test in 9m17.6 over 11.49 miles. Astounding. What made it even more special was the fact that the cars were going into the stage with cold tyres after a delay. Evans was forced to take it easy in the early section and could have gone even quicker.
After the Snuff the Wind stage, Evans was within 0.1s and looking bullish. But there was even more drama ahead as the Manx delivered the kind of nail-biting conclusion it’s famous for.
In the brilliantly named .179+ (dot 179 plus) after a plot on a road rally, Higgins caught a course car. Whatever the error was, the Escort Cosworth held up Higgins and he followed it out of the stage. He was given a notional time exactly the same as team-mate Evans.
Evans was still quietly confident and not outwardly upset that Higgins had got the same time as him for that stage, on a test Higgins was expected to lose time on due to his short ratio ’box. Onlookers commented that the course car incident was better for Higgins because he got his team-mate’s time, but Higgins reckoned that was rubbish thanks to a modification of the second running of the stage which removed parts unsuitable to Higgins’ gearing.
Evans hadn’t let it get to him; the ice cool driver from Dolgellau did what he has done in all cases of adversity in the British Rally Championship this year, indeed how he has reacted from losing his M-sport World Rally Championship seat for this year. He put his head down and drove quickly.
The result was devastating. Higgins was demoted from a 0.1s lead to a 8.4s deficit. But Evans wasn’t the only cool customer in the rally and Higgins struck back to trail by 5.9s going into the deciding stage, Classic, which hadn’t been run before during the weekend.
Higgins went quickest and at the stopline of the stage located outside the TT circuit grandstand and startline: bated breath. Had he done enough?
It wasn’t enough. Evans got
redemption for his driveshaft breakage. Without that, the battle wouldn’t have been close. One myth was put to bed; at the start of the year there were plenty of questions about DMACK’S asphalt tyre. With a 1-2, those questions were returned over the net for an ace.
On another day, the battle for third overall would have been the most interesting element of the rally. With Evans and Higgins’ battle the focus was taken away, but Cave was in a dogfight with fellow-michelin driver Desi Henry.
The Irishman’s Skoda was on song and a couple of fastest times over the weekend proved how far the builder from Portglenone has come with his relative lack of experience.
One name missing from the fight was Fredrik Ahlin. The Swede has been Evans’ closest title rival for a lot of the year after winning for CA1 Sport on its home round in Carlisle. On this event, his second all-asphalt four-wheel-drive car, he was matching Higgins on stages, also suffering from the short-ratio ’box.
However, a box from behind the pedals which houses vital wiring came loose, and in a panic induced by the resultant lack of power in the Fiesta, he banged down the gearbox
and the engine expired. The rest of the Swede’s season is now in doubt ( see news, page 19).
Cave entered the event second in the championship, and his other main rival other than Ahlin, was Jonny Greer, Breen’s team-mate in a Citroen DS 3 R5. He was steady in the car, taking sixth overall, but it wasn’t enough to trouble the points standings.
Instead, Cave admitted that co-driver James Morgan had to rein him in as finishing ahead of Greer would give him the runners up spot, but the Welshman was enjoying the battle with Henry. The Skoda driver closed but Cave crucially had more in the tank and eked out a gap in the last handful of stages. A hug from his supportive mother was an emotional sight at stage end, Cave taking the runner up championship honours in his first year in an R5 car and in the team running him, Spencer Sport, first year of existence.
Henry settled for fourth but fifth was a surprise. In his second event in an R5 car, Matt Edwards had an impressive run. Still new to asphalt rallies despite all his experience, the Welshman who was crowned BRC 2 champion on the Nicky Grist, delivered a solid result for new team Swift.
The impressive Rhys Yates had been on for a career-best fifth ahead of Edwards, but on Saturday morning he tried to carry too much speed out of a tight right-hander and he hit a bank. Still, a second quickest overall stage time was something for the Chesterfield driver to take home and build on for 2017.
Greer took sixth with no major issues to report, in complete contrast to the man behind him, David Bogie. His first outing in a new Skoda Fabia R5 didn’t work. The Scot struggled to get heat in the tyres and couldn’t put his finger on an understeer issue. It came as a shock because of a good result on the Ulster Rally previously and the car had the same set-up.
Way out of the top 10, two BRC champions were confirmed on the event. In 26th, Robert Blomberg and Lars Andersson sealed the National Rally Cup in their Mitsubishi Mirage. Tony Simpson and Ian Bevan crossed the line in 52nd and sealed BRC 3 in their Ford Fiesta.
They joined Evans, who has left the competition trailing in his wake in 2016. Beating Higgins in his own back yard was the icing on the cake. With Evans almost certain not to be returning full-time to the BRC in 2017, there’s some enormous shoes to fill.
Parry (l) and Evans (r) finished BRC season on a high
Evans and Parry were on another level
Higgins rapid on BRC comeback