TOPS NATIONAL FIELD
After the drama of last year when leaders Jock Armstrong, and national rally’s most famous driver, Jimmy Mcrae, both went out on the final stage, this year’s Wales Rally GB National didn’t have the same sting in the tail. In fact, it was a straightforward affair. It actually turned out to be one of rallying’s oldest battles. Scotland versus Wales. Bruce Mccombie against Luke Francis.
The Scot, with Michael Coutts on the notes, was the victor, overcoming fellow Mitsubishi Lancer E9 driver Luke Francis despite suffering turbo issues throughout the event. He held on to take victory, four years since his last attempt at the event.
Francis put on an admirable display, driving a Mcwhirter-prepared car for the first time as his own Lancer E9 wasn’t ready for the event.
The first day was punctuated by retirements. The first to go were last year’s winners Mike Faulkner and Peter Foy. The Mitsubishi Lancer E9 duo rolled on the Myherin opener after a missed pacenote. Not only did they roll but they also blocked the road for Francis, who lost a chunk of time trying to navigate the stricken duo after checking they were OK. But that wasn’t the BTRDA Gold Star runner up’s only issue.
“It was dramatic this morning, we lost the brakes on the first stage,” he explained. “The brake bias was pushed all the way to the front and it boiled the brakes. The fog was horrendous and Faulkner crashed in front of us. He was in the middle of the road and we had to go in a ditch to go around him and that took a while. We took it steady and made sure we got back to Deeside. We should get the time back [off the organisers for slowing during Faulkner’s crash], I’m hoping too.”
Unfortunately, that time return didn’t come, and he was left trailing by the end of the first day by almost half a minute.
Also troubled on the first stage was Mark Worley. He brought a Melvyn Evans-prepared Subaru Impreza S12B WRC to the event but made the decision to pull out after the tricky fog-laden opener, not willing to risk himself in the conditions.
So what of the leader? Fastest on the first stage was Tom Preston, one of a host of British championship drivers appearing in Wales for the event. In his Skoda Fabia R5, he followed that up with another quickest time on Sweet Lamb but on Hafren he was out. A slow roll left the car on its roof and the crew heading back to the Deeside service park.
That left Bruce Mccombie to take the lead. After a trying morning, he set out to prove the pace of the Scottish championship – which he regularly competes in – against BTRDA frontrunner Francis.
Despite a few issues, the Scot certainly impressed. But his Friday was punctuated by problems, too.
“It’s just overheating with the [turbo] lag,” he said. “In shorter stages it was fine, we turned it off for those. I had it on for the long ones but we turned it off halfway through or whenever it started to overheat.”
Mccombie was clearly enjoying the quicker sections, where the roads reminded him of rallying back home. Like Scotland, many of the stages in Wales are fast and flowing.
Despite conceding to Preston early, Mccombie was on it and, despite the issues, went fastest through Hafren and Dyfnant. That was no mean feat, having not done the event since an outing in a Group B Motorsportprepared Subaru Impreza four years ago.
As Mccombie and his fellow drivers put the tarpaulin over their cars for the night on Friday, there were lights on in one camp. The chipper Preston and Carl Williamson were back at service, and had their team CA1 Sport working on the car.
Team boss Martin Wilkinson, who’s dealt with a few rolls after looking after Colin Mcrae’s M-sport Ford Focus in period, finished the car with his mechanics at 0230hrs on Saturday morning. At just after 1100hrs, the hard work was rewarded with Preston setting the quickest time on the first stage of the day, which for the nationals was the Cholmondeley Castle Stage, the rally’s welcome return to England.
In contrast to Preston’s ideal start to the morning, Francis’s was tougher. He found out he wouldn’t be getting back any time for the Faulkner incident on Friday. That meant he started the day 28s in arrears.
And so the fightback began. Or it should have. Francis had fluffed the tyre choice. He admitted himself it was a gamble. “It’s been OK but we took the wrong tyres,” Francis confirmed at the end of Saturday’s action. “We went on the world rally car tyres to try and avoid a puncture as they’re stronger. But we could have done with going on the [Pirelli] Y tyres, with the wider pattern, bigger block. But we didn’t get any punctures so that’s good. We’re still second so can’t really complain.”
One man who certainly couldn’t complain was Mccombie. After a dynamite time in Aberhirnant to end the day, any of Francis’s efforts to erase the gap were redeemed. The gap was back out to 32s with only 16.18 miles of stages to go on Sunday.
So, what were the drivers’ approaches to the final instalment?
Francis: “I’ve got this far, there’s two minutes to Roger [Duckworth, third place]. I might just go for a steady one. I’ll decide on the startline! I don’t want to miss Llandudno after three days.”
Mccombie countered: “We have to drive like we have been. The gap isn’t big enough. A spin, a puncture and we’ll lose the lead. It’s difficult to manage and as soon as you try to, you make mistakes. We’ll see what happens today.”
Did anyone remember last year? This equivalent report was penned when long-time leader – also a Scot, Jock Armstrong – broke a wheel bearing on the last stage and gifted Faulkner the win. Would there be drama like it this year?
Mccombie drew first blood and a couple of seconds out of Francis on Clocaenog, but could only manage fourth through Alwen and that meant a gap of 28.7s into the final stage, Brenig. A healthy margin, so long as a wheel bearing doesn’t break…
It didn’t, Mccombie held on. Stylishly in fact, as he headed Francis by 8.9s, the biggest margin between the two all weekend, to take the victory. More trips to England and Wales could well be on the cards for the Scot ( see rally news).
The event proved to be a fight between two of the best from Scotland and Wales, but a familiar
Mccombie held his nerve over the last stages