‘Neil Howard kicks off cir­cuit rally se­ries’

MN’S Cir­cuit Rally se­ries re­turns with a bang. By­jack Benyon

Motor Sport News - - Rally News -

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

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