PROCTER NETSMN VICTORY
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.