After a fantastic three day battle, Matthew Robinson and Sam Collis claimed the season ending RAC rally victory following the exclusion of Matt Edwards and Paul Morris.
With great anticipation we made the long trip up to the northeast of England for the 11th running of the Roger Albert Clark Rally; for me, hands down, the best rally of the year as not only is it performed on maps and is a true test of endurance, but still contains that element of adventure with stages spread across the north of the country.
Sunderland’s Seaburn Centre was the new base for the 2014 rendition of the RAC rally, where 61 crews faced 158 competitive stage miles; predominantly in the Kielder Forest complex, but also including asphalt tests at Herrington Park and Croft as well as 4 additional gravel stages within Hamsterley Forest.
There was no better place to hold the scruitineering for this great event; the fantastic lighting in the Seaburn Centre a near perfect way to show off some of the stunning machinery taking part in the rally.
With signing on and hotel checking in complete it was off to Hamsterley Forest for two stages in the dark which would truly sort the men from the boys; local knowledge, bravery and good lighting being essential for the thick foggy conditions.
Visibility was an issue for us in finding our way to junction 4 let alone the crews who were about to embark on 12 miles of the most testing conditions County Durham could throw at them. Following no real surprises in terms of times from the opening two 0.81 mile Herrington Park stages, it was Welshman Matt Edwards who set a time 42 seconds quicker than anyone else through stage 3; and fastest again by 24 seconds on the second running of the stage to eventually end the day with a 58 second lead over the similar car of Matthew Robinson and Sam Collis.
While some crews struggled, Nick Elliott and Julian Reynolds both losing three minutes in the dismal conditions, others thrived. Notably Guy Woodcock and Graham Dance were third overall in the Pinto powered MK2, while Nigel Barber and Stuart Popplewell appeared visibly quicker than most in their front wheel drive Astra to end the day in an incredible 4th overall.
Photography wise the conditions were an issue, alternating between no flash and ‘off-camera’ flash to combat the fog. Having never previously tried the latter I was relatively pleased with the results …
Several crews didn’t manage to complete both Hamsterley tests; most spectacularly the Escort of David Hemingway and the Audi of Tom Axelsson both leaving the road at the same point. While Hemingway was able to re-join under SuperRally rules on Saturday morning, the event was unfortunately over for the Swedish Audi crew. SS3 also claimed the Saab 96 of Stephen Higgins and Mark Casey with their usually reliable car suffering differential failure.
A monster of a second day lay in store for the crews; with over 80 competitive stage miles ahead of them; starting with tests in Herrington Park and Croft before moving onto Hamsterley and then 8 tough stages in ‘Killer Kielder’.
After deciding to ‘Posh it up’ in a Premier Inn for this event, we headed back to Hamsterley Forest after a good old English breakfast, this time the route taking the crews along largely different tracks to the layout used the previous evening. And it was great to see crowds of people lining the last mile of the stage to take in the action.
By the time the cars arrived we had already lost the struggling Ford Falcon of Per Goransson and Conny Abrahamsson and the immaculate MK2 Escort of Alan Walker and Jez Rogers, both as a result of engine problems. Nigel Barber and Stuart Popplewell on the other hand were proving their Friday night performance was no fluke, setting fastest time on both Croft tests and moving themselves up to third place overall in the process.
While Edwards was fastest through both Hamsterley tests, Robinson was much closer to the pace, losing just 4 seconds in SS11 and 1 second in SS12. Nick Elliott and Dave Price were also going better in daylight; third fastest in both stages was enough to move them up to fifth overall, but still some 3 minutes and 42 seconds adrift of Edwards.
As the cars headed north to Kielder we were down to 54 remaining crews; the German Porsche of Thomas Kleinwachter and Andreas Schwalie retiring due to electrical problems, the Saab 900 of Magic McCrombie and Chris King suffering a blown engine, Gearbox the cause of Darren Moon and Phil Clarke’s retirement and a broken crankshaft ending Robin Shuttleworth and Ronnie Roughead’s event.
The open section in Ash Park was a great spot to take in the action as darkness descended over English Border Country. Standing at Junction 7 allowed us to see the cars wind their way across a good mile of the Kielder landscape. One of the standout moments of the rally for me was the sight and sound of Steve Perez’s Stratos attacking SS16. The roar of the Ferrari Engine, audible for the entire 4.5 mile stage as he and John Millington went on to set 6th fastest time.
By the second service halt of the day at Longtown, Matt Edwards had steadily built up a lead of 1 minute and 15 seconds only to lose all of this and a little more with a slight off in Kershope 2 which caused a puncture. Edwards really put the hammer down over the final 3 stages of the day however to turn a 16 second deficit into a 44 second lead by the time the cars reached the overnight halt; in part due to Robinson suffering from a host of niggling car issues.
Further back, Elliott had had a much better day which had seen himself and co-driver Dave Price climb from 7th to 3rd by the time the cars arrived back in Sunderland. Belgian legend Gregoire De Mevius was another to jump up the standings, climbing from 23rd to 8th, while the Fiat 131 of Julian Reynolds and Patrick Walsh and the Ford of Paul Griffiths and Iwan Jones had moved up to 6th and 4th respectively; Nigel Barber and Stuart Popplewell splitting the aforementioned crews to lead the Open Rally.
Even further back, Rudi Lancaster with Brynmor Pierce on the maps had found his form. The Woolacombe resident was never outside the top three over the final four stages and ended the day in 25th position after what must be a 20 year sabbatical from the sport.
With such a gruelling day there were bound to be casualties; an off in Kershope ending the event for the front the running Escort of Seamus O’Connell and Andy Richardson, Steve Magson having to retire his MK1 Escort after Ash Park due to co-driver Darren Smith becoming ill, Martin Shaw’s rally ending after becoming stuck in a ditch on the first corner of Kershope 2 and Paul Mankin’s retirement due to breaking both half shafts on his Ford Cortina in the very same stage.
The event still had a significant distance to run on the Sunday with some 60 competitive miles over 7 special stages, and the open hairpin above Junction 4 of the little used Ogre Hill was our location for Stage 22. Before here the crews had visited the 12 miles of Harwood for the longest stage of the day; a stage which would claim the 4th place Escort of Paul Griffiths and Iwan Jones; retiring as a result of engine problems. A similar fate also faced the struggling TR7 of Philip Young and Hans Sylvan.
Matt Edwards started the day as he finished the previous, by setting fastest time in SS21. The Welshman looking just that little bit too quick for Robinson to catch. Even though the first running of Ogre Hill saw Robinson take 10 seconds out of leaders, yet again Edwards bounced back to exactly reverse the deficit on the very next stage, reinstating the gap at 47 seconds with just 3 stages remaining following the cancellation of the Falstone 1.
It seemed the crews were now well into their rhythm as remarkably the same cars appeared in the top five on all three of the morning tests; the trio of Elliott, Lancaster and De Mevius joining the front two.
A good time for Julian Reynolds on the second running of Ogre Hill saw him continue to close the gap on Nigel Barber’s Astra; the two crews split by just 20 seconds with 2 stages to go. And while the RSD prepared Fiat 131 was able to go a full 13 seconds quicker in Redesdale, Reynolds could only match the time of Barber in the Falstone finale, leaving the Lincolnshire man to score a phenomenal result in the un-fancied front wheel drive machine.
Back upfront, Robinson and Collis were quickest on all of the final 3 stages, but it looked like Edwards had done just enough to take victory by 34 seconds …
Soon after crossing the finishing ramp however it emerged that Edwards and Morris had been excluded due to a breach of the supplementary regulations, promoting Elliott to second, Barber to third and Reynolds to fourth, giving RSD a 1,2,3 in the Historic section of the event! As much as no one wants to see the event finish in this manner it cannot be argued that Robinson and Collis were not worthy winners. Had it not been for several issues with the car they may well have won the rally on the road.
Category 1 Results
Following the friday night stages it was Ian Beveridge and Peter Joy in the huge Volvo PV544 who were leading the way, but a stage maximum on the second Croft stage dropped them back to 6th with the evergreen Bob Bean taking up the mantle. Bob Bean, co-driven by Malcolm Smithson, had then started to pull away and was as high as 27th overall before having to cut short the day with a very rough sounding Cortina.
Combined with Paul Mankin’s retirement, this left Beveridge back in the category lead with a near 10 minute margin over the Saab of Jim Valentine and Jonathan Lodge by the time the cars reached the end of leg 2. Beveridge therefore just needed to get through the final day unscathed, and that he duly did, finishing in 27th position to take the class B4 victory.
Valentine continued to plug away in the 2 stroke Saab and managed a very credible 30th overall, taking class B1 victory following the early retirement of the similar machine in the hands of Stephen Higgins.
While third in category went to the very powerful Dutch Austin Healey MK1 of Mark Han Schmidt and Midas Nelissen, claiming class B5 in the process with 32nd overall. It is always a pleasure to see these cars being man handled around the stages.
Class B3 victory went the way of Richard Holdsworth and John Stanger-Leathes in their Ford Cortina GT. The pair finishing the rally in 39th place under SuperRally rules following problems on Saturday.
Category 2 Results
The fog of Friday night had really mixed things up, but it was historic stalwarts Jeremy Easson and Mike Reynolds in the C4 Datsun 240Z who were top of the category at the overnight halt, holding onto a solid 8th overall. This was a class expected to be dominated by Porsche, with Belgians De Mevius and Munster up against the very rapid German, Thomas Kleinwachter.
In fact Munster and Kleinwachter were both out of the rally on day 2 leaving De Mevius to take the fight to Easson’s Datsun single handedly. And that he did, clawing back the more than 2 minute overnight deficit and taking the class lead on SS15.
Once passed, the Belgian never looked back, going on to take the category win with 5th place overall. Had it not been for the fog of Friday evening he could have been a genuine podium contender. Easson should not be disappointed however, making a mockery of his seeding by taking 7th overall and second in category.
Further back Chris Browne, with Ali Cornwell-Browne on the maps and the Lancia Fulvia of Steve and Tony Graham only had to finish the event to claim class victory, being the only crews entered in their respective C5 and C1 classes. But finish they did, the Mk1 Escort of Browne coming home in 12th position and the Graham’s taking 35th.
Class C3 turned into a battle of attrition with Phil Jobson and Arwel Jenkins coming out on top in 26th position overall. All other crews in the class either retired or finished the event under SuperRally regulations, however Jobson will be delighted with the result following his accident on last years event.
Category 3 Results
Behind the leading cars, Charlie Taylor and John Richardson would be awarded the Class D5 honours with third in class (first crew outside the podium). 8th overall representing Taylor’s 10th top ten finish in a row on the event.
After a fantastic start to the event Guy Woodcock and Graham Dance gradually slipped back as the quicker machines picked up their pace but still finished the rally in an excellent 6th position overall to claim D3 victory by nearly 5 minutes.
Grahame Standen and Bill Cook came out on top of the 1600 class after a rally long battle with the similar Escorts of Kim Baker and David Goose. Goose had been leading before hitting trouble in Kielder on Saturday afternoon, leaving Baker and Standen to fight it out. The gap between them was just 39 seconds heading into the final day, however the yellow Escort was able to pull away in the daylight Sunday stages to take D2 victory by more than a minute with 20th overall.
European FIA Category Results
Class F2 was lead by Paul Griffiths and Iwan Jones after leg 1, and they were able to build a lead of nearly 1 minute over nearest rivals Julian Reynolds and Patrick Walsh by the end of leg 2. As a result of Griffiths’ retirement on Sunday morning however the path was left clear for Reynolds to take category victory with 4th position overall and third in the historic class.
Perez in the crowd pleasing Stratos had been languishing down in 6th position in class following the fog of Friday night but was able to claw back the 2 and a half minute deficit to Andrew Siddall and Paul Wakely to leave them in 3rd position by the end of Saturday’s stages; Griffiths’ retirement then promoting them to second which is where they remained for the rest of the event.
Barber and Popplewell’s open rally victory was never in doubt, finishing nearly 6 minutes ahead of the Escort of Barry Stevenson-Wheeler and John Pickavance who themselves had had a great couple of days on their way to 9th place overall.
Malcolm Davey and Paul Slingsby ended up as class G3 victors following early problems for the Toyota Corolla of Andy Madge and Mike Smith. The blue MK1 ending the event in 24th position.
The Final Word
Although disappointing to see the winners excluded, it should not detract from what was yet again a top notch event. As mentioned previously, Robinson and Collis are worthy winners and I look forward to seeing them carry the number 1 on next years event. I also hope that Edwards and Morris return too, as a re-match between two of the top Escort crews in the country would be just what the doctor ordered.
From a fans point of the view the route was spot on, and whilst I do like the Yorkshire stages, the trade off for the centralised base at Sunderland’s Seaburn Centre was a good one. There really was no better way to end my season of Motorsport. Roll on 2015 ….
For digital images, professional prints or any other requirements please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All images © Paul Commons (Paul Commons Motorsport Photography)