‘Neil Howard kicks off circuit rally series’
MN’S Circuit Rally series returns with a bang. Byjack Benyon
MN Circuit Rally preview,
The Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship is back, and this year we know exactly what to expect. Thrills, spills and some flat-out rallying.
This time last year, the series was about to get underway for the first time ahead of its debut season.
While the first event, the Neil Howard Stages, has always been well backed as a standalone event, no one knew how many entries the events later in the year would receive and if the championship would be a success.
In 2016, that was well and truly answered when Anglesey in March doubled its entry from the previous year. That proved that the championship wasn’t a bunch of local ringers entering for the craic. Last year, proper championship battles emerged, and the classes produced thrilling action.
So, where to go from here? The championship was so successful last year that it’s difficult to identify a specific area to improve. One slight grumble may be the lack of top-end machinery up front on every round.
Certain rounds drew WRC cars, but some lacked marquee cars at the front. Looking at this year’s championship entrants, that problem seems to have been answered. Take a look at the strength of the entries for the first three rounds and that’s plain to see.
One thing that has changed from last year is the calendar. Donington Park (March 5) replaces last season’s January Croft round. Donington held its first rally for almost two decades in 2015, and the two it has held since then have been very popular.
Championship co-ordinator Darren Spann has first-hand experience of the magic Donington has witnessed in the past.
“I’m delighted we have been able to add Donington Park to the championship,” says Spann. “As a child I spent consecutive years stood in the vast crowd at the RAC Rally, watching my rally hero Richard Burns flying through the stages.
“Richard was so precise and so committed and visibly the fastest through the tight technical section of stage, I’m really looking forward to watching our championship competitors tackling this iconic venue in March.
“Maybe, just maybe, the next Richard Burns will start their career in this championship.”
Wholesale calendar changes weren’t necessary. The first three rallies on the calendar, at Oulton Park, Cadwell Park and Rockingham, sold out in under 45 minutes.
If that doesn’t show that the championship is filling a niche, then nothing will.
One element that did need to be replicated was the prize structure offered last year. The winner of the championship, James Sharrock, got a free entry to the Neil Howard Stages, plus 12 asphalt tyres after he won the Michelin Cup for the registered crew that had amassed the most points on Michelin tyres.
That represents almost a full season of tyres in the bag and worth well over £2000. Not only are there tyres on offer for the winner at the end of the year, there’s also a set raffled off to a randomly chosen class winner.
Speaking of Sharrock, he’s confirmed he won’t be back to defend his title on every round.
The Ford Escort Mk2 driver is contemplating trips to Ireland and into the forests in a new car. For the Neil Howard Stages, he is down to drive a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer, but there might just be a change and a surprise from the Sharrock camp on Saturday.
That means it is likely there will be a new champion, along with a new round. But the fundamentals remain the same. Circuit rallying got a much needed boost with the backing of competitors last season. The added crews and incremental improvements by the organisers means the series is set to surpass its success of 2015-2016. ■
David Tinn won most events last season
Sharrock (centre) won’t defend title