With cham­pion Char­lie Payne likely to be out of the sea­son-long pic­ture, who can stop Luke Francis tak­ing the Gold Star ti­tle?

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - By Jack Benyon Pho­tos: Writ­tle Pho­to­graphic, Chi­cane Me­dia

An­other year, an­other BTRDA Rally Se­ries. An­other sea­son where it’s too dif­fi­cult to choose those most likely to fight for this year’s cham­pi­onship.

There’s al­ways an early sea­son favourite, and that man­tle is taken up this year by Luke Francis. The Rhondda driver came close last year, but a hand­ful of me­chan­i­cal mis­giv­ings and a cou­ple of scenic ex­cur­sions ruled him out. If he hadn’t come up against one of the most con­sis­tently re­li­able and rapid com­bi­na­tions in the BTRDA’S re­cent his­tory in Char­lie Payne and his Ford Fi­esta hy­brid, Francis would have al­most cer­tainly won.

Francis is typ­i­cally mod­est about his chances for the year.

“I don’t know who’s go­ing to do the cham­pi­onship. It’s the same as ev­ery year, we’ll go and see what the first round brings,” he says. “Cham­pi­onships are the hard­est things in the world to win and you need a lot of luck.

“We just aim to get bet­ter and learn more ev­ery­where. We know the car, the events, the main thing is work. If you have a busy week in work you don’t re­ally want to go ral­ly­ing af­ter.”

Payne’s S2000 car with a two-litre WRC en­gine has al­ready left the coun­try and is on the way to Amer­ica. The Harrogate man won’t be com­pet­ing for the start of the year, mean­ing he’ll likely for­feit his ti­tle de­fence.

With Payne out of the way, Francis has to be the favourite. But then there’s an­other Fi­esta driver on the up. Stephen Petch has ditched (not lit­er­ally) his R5+ and is keep­ing the ma­chin­ery he’ll use on the Cam­brian and in the BTRDA this year a se­cret, although it will be a Fi­esta of some form. Last year’s model mis­fired Petch into a num­ber of me­chan­i­cal strug­gles. His re­sults were im­pres­sive though, and he’ll be one of a num­ber of Fi­esta driv­ers look­ing to de­throne Francis.

Other rapid Fi­es­tas are in the hands of Connor Mccloskey and Cal­lum Black. Mccloskey has a Wrc-spec Fi­esta, a 2014 model, ready for his first proper as­sault on the cham­pi­onship since 2013 when he was run­ner-up. Black will com­pete in his R5+ for the first time for a full sea­son, hav­ing made a cou­ple of im­pres­sive per­for­mances in Wales late last year.

Those will be the main con­tenders for the cham­pi­onship, but there are plenty of oth­ers on the en­try list who can be a force.

With the con­tenders out­lined, what of the cham­pi­onship? It’s the same cal­en­dar as 2017, with lit­tle sign of change in the BTRDA Rally Se­ries. Or lit­tle sign of change in terms of the things the cham­pi­onship can con­trol.

We know about the re­cur­ring demons such as the di­min­ish­ing num­ber of 1400 class cars due to the run­ning or­der, which makes them run last in rougher con­di­tions. But the main item caus­ing a stir is the events in Wales and the Ral­ly4wales saga, which rolls on.

R4W is now tasked with road re­pair­ing af­ter events run on Nat­u­ral Re­source Wales’ land, and the Cam­brian has given us an insight into how that could play out.

The Cam­brian lost most of Clo­caenog East with the or­gan­is­ers, R4W and NRW all fail­ing to come to a con­clu­sion.

But, be­fore you read too much into the Cam­brian’s is­sues, don’t for­get the R4W deal was only signed the other side of Christ­mas. The first event was al­ways go­ing to be a lit­mus test. A meet­ing two weeks ago in New­town brought to­gether R4W, NRW and the Mo­tor Sports As­so­ci­a­tion for state of play talks. That was mas­sively im­por­tant be­cause four of the BTRDA’S planned eight rounds are on Nrw-based land this year. A strong work­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween NRW, R4W and events is vi­tal this year. Ral­ly­ing is a guest on NRW land, and as long as it isn’t pay­ing for that priv­i­lege, it shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds.

And don’t for­get, with­out R4W, all events would have been fac­ing a 100 per cent fee rise, rather than the 20 per cent some will have. Bravo R4W.

But herein lies the is­sue with the BTRDA mov­ing for­wards. The se­ries is sup­posed to be for the club­man. Can the ‘club­man’ driv­ing a shed-built Vaux­hall Nova af­ford to spend £4800 on en­tries alone? Sounds a lot when it’s writ­ten like that doesn’t it?

As for­est costs con­tinue to rise, it’s al­most a fore­gone con­clu­sion that en­tries will drop in ev­ery gravel-based cham­pi­onship, not just the BTRDA. Can it adapt its pre­vi­ously proven for­mula to do any­thing to halt the haem­or­rhag­ing en­tries? It ap­pears the costs are lit­tle to do with the BTRDA, and a lot to do with the land­scape of ral­ly­ing.

This year looks like it could be the most ex­cit­ing yet, but how to bring costs down, or at least keep them at an ac­cept­able level, is go­ing to af­fect the long-term fu­ture of the cham­pi­onship. It must be dis­cussed and made a pri­or­ity this year be­fore there isn’t a BTRDA or any other gravel cham­pi­onships to save.

What the BTRDA has done is open up the for­mu­lae to al­low any class to score points to­wards the BTRDA Gold Star, giv­ing driv­ers more in­clu­sion in the over­all cham­pi­onship.

That’s a good move as we’ll have sur­prise driv­ers way fur­ther up the or­der than some might ex­pect.

To end on a hap­pier note, we’re on for a smash­ing bat­tle up top, and the Ral­ly­first cat­e­gory al­ways man­ages to pro­vide ex­cite­ment. MN has also picked out a cou­ple of the best cat­e­gories to watch this year (see right).

Enough talk, let’s just get an­other sea­son of epic side­ways rally ac­tion un­der­way. ■

Luke Francis is the pre-sea­son favourite No de­fence: Payne Black: the out­sider Petch: the chal­lenger

Quick Black will be in his first full year of four-wheel-drive, but will be

Chal­lenger Francis: the favourite Petch could run Francis close in ’17

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