Motor Sport News - - Front Page - Pho­tos: SMJ Pho­tog­ra­phy

Kevin Proc­ter has made a habit of win­ning the Neil Howard Stages. Although it might not have come as a sur­prise that he com­pleted a hat-trick of suc­ces­sive Oul­ton Park wins in the Mo­tor­sport News Cir­cuit Rally Cham­pi­onship opener, his third tri­umph was ar­guably one of his tough­est.

The feat matched Rob Barry, who last com­pleted the tre­ble of con­sec­u­tive Neil Howard wins in 2000 when the event was held at Park Hall, but Proc­ter’s lat­est re­quired a de­ter­mined fi­nal-stage push in the dark to fend off a chas­ing James and Rhys Yates by just six sec­onds.

The lat­ter chose to adopt a dif­fer­ent role on this oc­ca­sion. Bri­tish Rally Cham­pi­onship fron­trun­ner Rhys handed driv­ing du­ties of their Skoda Fabia R5 to brother James, who grad­u­ally found con­fi­dence and feel for the car as the af­ter­noon pro­gressed, hav­ing fin­ished sec­ond on the event in 2016 in his last rally out­ing.

A stick­ing point for Yates came on the third stage of the nine, one which played into the hands of the con­sis­tent Proc­ter and co-driver, Derek Fawcett, who sat sec­ond at the time.

While Proc­ter’s Ford Fi­esta – an S2000-spec car with a tur­bocharged two-litre en­gine – nav­i­gated the wa­ter­splash sec­tion with­out dif­fi­culty, an ap­proach “too cau­tious” meant Yates briefly stalled into a tricky square left fol­low­ing the splash. Re­gard­less of the stall, only five sec­onds was lost.

An al­ter­na­tive at­tack­ing ap­proach on the same stage, SS3, proved the un­do­ing of 2015 win­ner, Steve Simp­son. “We’ve blown it” was his re­ac­tion af­ter spin­ning out of the early lead, los­ing 18 sec­onds as well as the CA1 Sport-run Ford Fi­esta’s front bumper in the off af­ter col­lect­ing the bar­ri­ers. “We could have even won that,” he lamented.

His ri­vals fal­ter­ing, Proc­ter’s con­fi­dence was high, and he ex­tended his lead to as high as 17 sec­onds af­ter stage six. As dark­ness loomed the tides soon turned, James Yates’ con­fi­dence grow­ing by the mile.

The bat­tle in­ten­si­fied as seven sec­onds van­ished from that lead with a rare traf­fic-free run through stage seven for Yates. Proc­ter re­sponded on the re-run to en­ter the last stage with nine sec­onds in hand, as light rain threat­ened to throw one fi­nal vari­able into the pic­ture.

De­spite three sec­onds to the good for the Skoda man in the fi­nal stage, it was not enough to over­turn Proc­ter, the lead fall­ing from nine to six sec­onds at the fin­ish.

“A few early mis­takes cost us, but we don’t mind get­ting beat by some­one like Kevin,” said James Yates. “He’s top class and knows this place well. I’ve en­joyed driv­ing to­day. Ev­ery cor­ner you learn some­thing new.”

The Yates broth­ers in­ter­cepted what was oth­er­wise a dom­i­nant dis­play by Ford, Fi­es­tas lock­ing out four of the top five spots. BRC driver Alex Laf­fey was best of the rest in his M-sport-run Fi­esta, sur­viv­ing cos­metic dam­age from strik­ing a mis­placed chi­cane wa­ter bar­rel to come home third with Michael Gil­bey, who rushed off to do the Powys Lanes road rally af­ter­ward.

A re­cov­er­ing Simp­son grabbed fourth at the death from John Stone, the lat­ter bed­ding in a brand new Fi­esta RS WRC at Oul­ton Park. “I felt my hands still shak­ing af­ter the first stage, so it must be quick,” quipped Stone.

One of the ma­jor head­lines prior to the sea­son opener was the po­ten­tial ab­sence of its reign­ing cham­pion.

Bat­tling bud­get and me­chan­i­cal trou­bles, Chris West did ar­rive in Cheshire but with fin­ish­ing the only goal on his mind. Armed with a Peu­geot 306 Maxi that had only done 17-miles on the road with a new en­gine, West still sal­vaged sixth over­all.

Along­side him was a more un­fa­mil­iar name in co-driver Rob­bie Han­nah, who flew in from Jersey to com­pen­sate for the mid-week can­cel­la­tion of West’s reg­u­lar nav­i­ga­tor, Keith Houn­slow.

The pair gelled, but not with Oul­ton Park, West left look­ing to Cad­well Park af­ter a tricky shake­down. “It’s just a test ses­sion,” he ad­mit­ted. “It’s slip­pery out there, but I just want to get through this one then go away and get it back to 110 per cent for the next round at Cad­well. We’ll be back.”

Ford could have had eight Fi­es­tas in­side the top 10 but for the de­par­tures of both Peter Smith in his ex-ott Tanak Fi­esta, and Andy Scott. The lat­ter was forced out of the rally with struc­tural dam­age, caused by an im­pact with the scenery on stage four.

An­other Fi­esta in the top 10 gath­ered plenty of scru­tiny from the avid fans. Gra­ham Cof­fey grabbed sev­enth place af­ter claw­ing back ground from a slug­gish open­ing stage, shar­ing with Pro­drive owner, MSA chair­man David Richards. James Self (Fi­esta R5) kept his nose clean to come home eighth ahead of the Subaru Im­preza of the re­turn­ing John Grif­fiths, while best of the Ford Es­corts was that of Stephen Til­burn and Jack Til­burn as their Mk2 com­pleted the top 10.

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