Luke Francis & John H Roberts claimed a sensational Cambrian Rally victory, defying the odds to convert a 10 second deficit into a 1 second winning margin with a phenomenal run over the Great Orme finale.
With the Wyedean Rally no longer part of the BTRDA rally series, the Cambrian Rally, based in Llandudno, would take it’s place as the opening round of the season, just 4 months after concluding the 2015 championship.
An intriguing 127 car entry list had been compiled by North Wales Car Club which included the stage rally debuts of Euan Thorburn’s 208 R5 and Connor McCloskey’s WRC Mini. The moderately sized field set to face 7 stages within the Snowdonia forests, rounded off by a quick blast over the infamous Great Orme toll road.
Amongst the leading crews were ex Gold Star champs Steve Perez, Hugh Hunter and Shaun Gardener but the main story of the 2016 Cambrian rally featured the contrasting fortunes of 3 crews in particular; 2015 King of Yorkshire, Charlie Payne in the Focus WRC engined Fiesta, local crew Luke Francis and John H Roberts in their familiar B13 Evo and 2013 Gold Star champ, Euan Thorburn, in his glorious new Peugeot 208 R5.
Few crews would have passed through Gwydyr before the event and with this in mind Charlie Payne’s 5m23s benchmark was mighty impressive. Only Euan Thorburn, with Paul Beaton on the notes, was able to get within 10 seconds of the Ford man, the Peugeot possibly suffering a horsepower disadvantage on the steep climbs.
Payne, co driven by Carl Williamson, would continue his strong start with top 3 times on both the following Elsi and Penmachno tests. In fact the Yorkshire-man was never outside the top 5 all day and it was this consistency which left the Fiesta crew heading into the Great Orme finale with what appeared to be a comfortable 10 second rally lead.
Thorburn meanwhile also went well in stages 2 and 3; the Scotsman setting second fastest time in Elsi before topping the time sheets in Penmachno to sit just 3 seconds behind Payne. It would all go horribly wrong in Clocaenog East however as a trip into a ditch would cost the Peugeot man over 40 seconds and with it any chance of a debut victory. The 2014 Scottish Rally Champions most definitely seemed at home in their new ride though and would be back in the podium positions before the day was out.
On paper Francis was up against it, his older Mitsubishi no match for many of the newer B14 machinery. However, the local man’s secret weapon is his knowledge of the stages and whilst he and John H Roberts had not topped the time sheets on any of the forest stages, consistent top 7 times had left them sitting 10 seconds behind Payne in second with just 2.95 miles of tarmac remaining.
A ten second gap over such a short stage may have seemed unbridgeable, but Francis has form on the Great Orme. Just 4 months ago, the Rhuddlan man set fastest time by 8 seconds with a 2m38s stage time to claim an incredible second place overall. Could he go one better in 2016? With Payne registering a 2m51s stage time, the win was definitely on the cards. And whilst Francis was not able to match his 2015 time, 2m40s was enough to claim the rally victory by a solitary second. With that opposition a B13 car should not be taking BTRDA rally victories. A simply stunning drive!
B14 top spot is unlikely to have been much consolation for Payne and Williamson in the circumstances, however they have got to be happy with their pace over the event. After all, finishing ahead of Thorburn is no mean feat!
Elsewhere, fourth position overall represented a strong debut for Connor McCloskey and Damien Duffin in the WRC Mini; ending the day just 32 seconds down and setting a fastest time along the way. BTRDA Rally wins may well be on the cards in 2016 for the Northern Irishman. Meanwhile 5th and 6th, on equal times and just 38 seconds down were the Fiesta R5’s of Hugh Hunter and Rhys Yates; both showing promising pace ahead of expected full season campaigns in the rejuvenated British Rally Championship.
Perhaps lacking the strength in depth of 2015, the production cup battle quickly turned into a rally of attrition. In fact, by the end of stage 3, we were down to just 4 remaining NR4 competitors with Aaron McClure rolling in Penmachno and Andy Davies retiring with gearbox problems. Whilst Davies had been quickest in stage 1, it was 2015 front runners, Russ Thompson and Andy Murphy who lead for most of the day; building a 54 second lead over the Subaru of Paul Davy and Roger Allan by the end of stage 6.
Clitheroe man, Thompson, would however be cruelly robbed of a victorious start to 2016 following a mechanical failure on the stage 7 start line leaving Davy and Allan in pole position to take the Production Cup honours. And that they did, building a 54 second winning margin over the Mitsubishi Evo 10 of Roland Llewellin and Ian Lawrence by the end of the day to claim an impressive 13th position overall. With Davy not BTRDA registered however it was Llewellin and Lawrence who picked up maximum championship points.
Elsewhere, Owain Rowlands, with Tom Jordan this time alongside, repeated his 2015 success to claim class N3 victory with a strong 34th position overall.
Traditionally, Ffestiniog brothers, Ieuan and John Rowlands have featured at the sharp end of this event. But whilst John was able to follow up his 2015 class B11 and Silver Star success with an impressive 15th position overall, early category leader, Ieuan, in the 2.8 litre Volvo engined MK2 was forced to retire with gearbox problems after just the third test of the day.
John Rowlands, with Glenn Latham on the notes, was not as dominant as you may have imagined however. In fact, number 53 seeds, Gavin Edwards and Caron Tomlinson kept the Welsh crew on their toes throughout the day. And by the Llandudno finish were just 35 seconds in arrears in 16th position overall.
Meanwhile, 2015 RAC Championship winners, Phil Burton and Mal Capstick, had turned their attentions to the BTRDA series for 2016 and, whilst not able to match the pace of the aforementioned B11 Fords, were able to capitalise on the unfortunate retirement of Ieuan Rowlands; The Morecombe man going on to claim top spot in class B12 and 3rd place in the Silver star category with 18th position overall.
Elsewhere, BRC hopefuls, Josh Cornwell and Dai Roberts claimed class B10 honours with 30th position overall in their Fiesta R2, whilst the top scoring BTRDA registered crew were Bob Vardy and Sarah Ceen in 42nd position. The latter pairing getting the better of Vauxhall Nova crew, James Hutchings and James Hood by a mere 8 seconds!
THOMAS PANELS BTRDA 1400
Whilst the entry list may have lacked 2015 champion David Bennett and fellow front runner Ash Slights, the expected FWD/RWD battle between Dave Brick and Josh Powell was tough to call; the latter having claimed a brilliant second in class back in October. Disappointingly however the battle was over before it had really begun; the Sunbeam of Powell and Jim Lewis ending the day on it’s roof less than 1 mile into stage 1.
Despite his main opposition out, Brick, with 2015 BHRC champion Phil Clarke alongside, was never going take it easy; the Ludlow man going on to set fastest time on every stage bar the last to claim a commanding 1400 class victory with 22nd position overall. A final position which may have been stronger were it not for a slow time over the Great Orme finale.
Behind, Jordan Hone finished second in class with 27th position overall; a strong result for the Proton Satria convert, whilst Matt Jackson and Claire Williams rounded out the podium positions in their Nissan Micra. Rory Jones and Tom Hughes would claim 1400C top spot with 51st position overall in their MG ZR.
BTRDA HISTORIC CUP
Whilst Matthew Robinson and Sam Collis made all the headlines pre event by swapping their formidable MK2 Escort for an RSD prepared Fiat 131, it was Jerry Bailey and Graham Lacey who emerged from the Gwydyr opening stage with the category lead. A lead which the Ford Escort pairing were able to build to as much 15 seconds by the end of stage 3.
From then on in though it was all about Theo Bengry and Les Forsbrook. The vastly experienced Leominster man leaping into the class lead on the super-fast Alwen test before going on to record a 37 second Historic and class H3 victory.
In class H2, it was David Dobson and Steve Pugh who were leading the way before taking a wheel off in Clocaenog East. This left Dave Forrest and Steve Ward to battle it out for class honours over the remainder of the event. Ward held the advantage over the morning stages but the tables turned on stage 6; a slow time allowing Forrest, with Charlie Carter on the notes, to slip into the class lead. And from then on in the Yorkshire based crew never looked back; claiming 4th in the historic category with 40th position overall.
Like Ward, H1 Winners, Robin Shuttleworth and Ronnie Roughead had been in front of Forrest for much of day but a slow time on the second running of Gwydyr allowed the Eaton Yale Escort to close in and ultimately take the position on the final stage. Still, 5th in category, and 1st in class H1 was a great result for the MK1 Escort crew.
VITAL EQUIPMENT RALLY FIRST
And finally, the MSA running order regulations have not been kind to the rally first crews; a noticeable drop in entry numbers as a result. However, Dominic Hodge and Stefan Arndt put in a great performance to claim category and RF1.4 victory in their Nissan Micra with a fantastic 44th position overall, beating several 1400C class cars in the process. Meanwhile, Roger Lovatt and Osian Owen claimed RF1.0 honours and Des Fletcher and Bridge Carey were the first RF1.6 crew home.
From our point of view the Cambrian Rally proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable start to the 2016 season and I personally prefer it’s new position in the calendar. Photography was tough as always on this event but thankfully the weather remained dry, and despite cold temperatures, viewing on the Orme turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant.
If we learned anything from last weekend it is that Luke Francis and John H Roberts may well be the fastest Mitsubishi Evo 9 crew on the British Isles and if the pace of Rhys Yates, Hugh Hunter and Euan Thorburn is anything to go by, this year’s BRC will be an absolute belter!
Next up is the Red Kite Stages, see you in Mid Wales …
All images © Paul Commons (Paul Commons Motorsport Photography)