PAYNE SCORES BIG IN BTRDA
We had a fight. That’s all any of the followers of the BTRDA wanted this season. The previous year, Dave Weston Jr had walked away with the Gold Star title, and, to be honest, was at a higher level than the competition. He wrapped the series up three rounds early.
This year was the opposite. Hard charger Luke Francis took on seasoned campaigner Charlie Payne. It was Rhuddlan v Yorkshire. England v Wales.
As to be expected between two feisty competitors, there was a bit of two and fro through the year, with both crews discontented at stage times being queried on certain rounds. But it was an amicable fight, and one that showed both drivers step up in pace.
Francis threatened what he’d have to offer at the end of 2015 when he debuted his new Mitsubishi Lancer E9 on the Woodpecker. Two podiums followed, and before you know it, he was winning the Cambrian to open this season. It was won by a second when a time was corrected; the duo had finished the 40-plus mile rally in exactly the same time.
However, Francis would lose ground on the next rally, which would leave him playing catch up for the rest of the year. A rod went through the side of the engine on the Malcolm Wilson Rally, putting him out. Payne took victory on a wet and tricky event that caught many out.
Francis reacted well. After a push to get an engine sorted for the next event, he arrived in Minehead to win the Somerset Stages, ahead of his Harrogate rival. Pairing that with a podium on the Plains, his season appeared to be back on track while Payne’s was stuttering. Fifth on the Plains and fourth in Carlisle, was his season ready to come unstuck?
Carlisle proved the turning point. Francis dropped a propshaft and his event was over. With only two dropped scores to take, the Welshman would need to win the next two events to have any chance of overturning the bulletproof Fiesta of Payne, who hadn’t finished outside the top five at that point.
Payne duly delivered in the shocking conditions of the Nicky Grist; the Lancer suited to the fast and flowing stages. There was hope yet for the Welshman, as Payne ground to a halt not far into the rally with a mysterious engine issue.
It didn’t affect the championship. Francis still had to win.
Two stages into the Woodpecker, Francis had rolled on a tight left hairpin. Payne brought the Fiesta home in third, securing the Gold Star crown. One event later, he won the Trackrod – his home event – in style, gifting his co-driver Carl Williamson the Gold Star co-drivers’ crown.
In the end, Francis fell to sixth with his three non-scores. Stephen Petch won the Woodpecker, proving his pace to take second in the championship, despite a Fiesta that had been misfiring and suffered engine woe on most rounds of the series this year.
Also in the top five were Production Cup champion Russ Thompson, Ford Focus WRC driver Paul Benn and gravel rally debutant and Silver Star champion Gavin Edwards.
It was drama down to the penultimate round in the drivers’ title battle. Whether Payne returns next year or not is up in the air as he ponders retirement or a switch in championships, but the Yorkshireman deserves his title through speed, consistency and reliability. There’s no doubt that Francis was the fastest man in the championship this year with three wins under his belt, but combining that with consistency and reliability is the next step. Watch out in 2017, Francis will want revenge. ■