WE PREVIEW THE NEW BTRDA RALLY SERIES
With champion Charlie Payne likely to be out of the season-long picture, who can stop Luke Francis taking the Gold Star title?
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. ■