BRC 2017 Review: Fight to the bitter end – Cronin clinches fourth title in last-gasp thriller

After a successful first year back on the stages, the second season of the new-look Prestone MSA British Rally Championship BRC was to be a fiery affair. Britain’s premier rally series produced its most challenging, most unpredictable and most action-packed season to date, with the title fight going right down to the very last stage.

Round 1: Brick and Steel Border Counties Rally

A new season dawned with a new set of drivers and co-drivers, all eager to make an impression. Under the shadow of the impressive Jedburgh Abbey, the 2017 competitors were waved off into two fever-pitch nighttime tests. Last seasons runners-up Tom Cave and James Morgan, in a Ford Fiesta R5, led after the two dramatic moonlight stages ahead of homegrown heroes David Bogie/Kevin Rae (Skoda Fabia R5) and Fredrik Ahlin/Torstein Eriksen (Fabia R5).

Waking up in inspired form for the six remaining stages was Ahlin who wrestled the lead from Cave and never looked back on the damp Scottish stages. He powered his way to a 38.6 second victory in his DMACK-shod Skoda. Struggling with running first on the road, Cave couldn’t hold onto the top spot and had to settle for second.

Bogie sadly retired from a strong podium position on stage six when the CA1 Sport driver hit a rock and slid off the road. Rounding out the podium were series returnees Osian Pryce and Dale Furniss (Fiesta R5) who were dovetailing their BRC exploits with rounds in the WRC. Keith Cronin and Mikie Galvin suffered a puncture late into the event but still managed fourth, while young-gun Rhys Yates made it four Fiesta’s in the top five.

Round 2: Pirelli International Rally

From Scotland, the championship went south of the border to tackle the famous Kielder forest. Tom Cave gave the Hyundai i20 R5 its BRC bow and lit-up the stages – taking the lead early on. Unfortunately, the Korean machine couldn’t stand the punishment as Cave had to retire on stage three with a broken rear suspension arm. Stepping into the breach was 2016 winner Fredrik Ahlin, who showed a more measured and mature approach to his driving in 2017 and the Swedish star produced another faultless drive to take back-to-back wins. Chasing him all the way was Osian Pryce, who reduced the lead down to just 4.6 seconds going into the penultimate stage.

A faulty handbrake slowed his progress but a fine second place helped his title assault. Rounding out the rostrum was Marty McCormack and David Moynihan in their Kumho-backed Fabia R5 – the Irish pair gaining confidence with every mile in the new car.

David Bogie had a difficult start on the opening day as he languished at the bottom of the top 10, but a monumental fight back with four from eight fastest times on the event saw him slingshot his way to fourth as Matt Edwards and Darren Garrod (Fiesta R5) claimed their first top five on gravel. Thomas Preston tackled his first event of the year in his striking Skoda Fabia R5, scoring a fine eighth – his best result of the season.

WRC star Eyvind Brynildsen came, he saw, but couldn’t conquer as differential and brake woes left him on the sidelines for most of the event. Another Pirelli-shod wildcard, Garry Pearson, impressed in his Fiesta R5 as he challenged for a podium spot before a visit to a ditch put paid to his event.

Round 3: RSAC Scottish Rally

On the classic Scottish Rally it was once again Tom Cave who led in until another suspension failure parked a disappointed Hyundai driver on the roadside. CA1 Sport stablemates David Bogie and Fredrik Ahlin entered a ding-dong battle, with Ahlin edging Bogie by one tenth of a second – setting up a win or bust showdown on the final stage. In the second half of the stage, a rock made its way into Ahlin’s Skoda – bursting the radiator and forcing the Scandinavian into retirement. Bogie swept his way past the stricken Swede to claim an emotional home victory.

Behind the drama was Mr Consistent, Osian Pryce, who scooped yet another podium on the gravel ahead of Marty McCormack who replicated his fine Pirelli rostrum. Keith Cronin struggled on the gravel on the opening two events but was on course for his first podium of the year until punctures destroyed any chance for the Irishman – but a solid fourth banked him good points. Rounding out the top five was Desi Henry and Liam Moynihan (Fabia R5). Euan Thorburn and Paul Beaton (Fiesta R5) recorded a fine sixth despite not undertaking a recce.

Round 4: Ypres Rally

For the first time in the BRC’s 59-year history, the championship held its first overseas round, with the Ypres Rally in Belgium hosting the crews.

With the gravel rounds a distant memory, M-Sport’s Keith Cronin mixed it with the Europeans and was untouchable all weekend as he delivered a ditch-hooking master class to claim the BRC win.

Behind was a scrabble for supremacy as second place was held by several drivers over the weekend.

First up, Desi Henry, who was enjoying his best run of the season before a roll into a field on the second day ended his event. Fellow Skoda drivers and championship challenges Marty McCormack and David Bogie were also caught out by the unforgiving Belgian roads. Tom Cave was due to give the Hyundai marque its first BRC podium in over 10 years before another disappointing mechanical failure for the Welshman.

Building his confidence over the two-day event was Matt Edwards who turned in a stellar performance to give him second – his first podium, while Osian Pryce, despite struggling with set-up all weekend netted his fourth podium in a row to head to his home event with the championship lead. Jamie Anderson/Ross Whittock enjoy the long Tarmac events as they brought their Fiesta R5 into fourth, finishing just ahead of young-charger Rhys Yates. James Slaughter is gaining speed with every mile in his Fiesta R5 and was rewarded with his first outright BRC point in Belgium. 

Round 5: Nicky Grist Stages

The two-day, two-surface event would provide the make or break point for the 2017 season and the classic Welsh stages would provide the sting in the tail for several of the top-flight crews.

Running first on the road and dodging the dust was championship leader Osian Pryce. On home soil the Welshman didn’t miss a beat, stretching out a 19.3 second lead over series rival Fredrik Ahlin.

On the second day over the fast and flowing Epynt Tarmac, Pryce’s Fiesta limped through Stage 12 with the high-pressure fuel pump failing on the young Welsh star. Ahlin and Edwards passed by, but the same corner, that curtailed Pryce’s weekend also claimed Keith Cronin, who carried too much speed into the bend – crashing out of the event.

Ahlin claimed his third victory of the season and with it snatched back the series lead. Edwards was once again on fine form, notching-up his second podium on the bounce.

Weaving their way through the drama were Rhys Yates and Marty McCormack. McCormack had hired a Fiesta R5 to keep his championship aspirations on track after his sizebale Ypres off. A steady first day on the gravel was backed up by a charge on the ranges to put him fourth. Yates was having the best weekend of his life. The Michelin-supported driver wrung the neck of his machine all weekend and sprayed the champagne for the first time in third.

Round 6: John Mulholland Motors Ulster Rally

Needing a victory to stay in the title fight, Keith Cronin showed the thousands of spectators why he is a Tarmac Titan. The M-Sport star threaded the Fiesta R5 through the narrow lanes around Derry/Londonderry in supreme style to claim victory by almost a minute from championship rival Fredrik Ahlin in second.

Jonny Greer was the next BRC runner on the leaderboard in his Citroen DS3 R5 but the Ulsterman elected to run under Irish Tarmac Championship regulations to fight for the Irish win. With the Pirelli-supported driver not legible to score points, up stepped Marty McCormack who claimed his third podium of the season in his Fabia R5 and his first on asphalt.

Osian Pryce was a man on a mission, after a disappointing home round retirement the Welshman was fighting Cronin in his own backyard, pushing the deficit down to under a second after the first day. Unfortunately for Osian, the Nicky Grist fuel-pump nightmare returned and his charge for his first four-wheel-drive BRC win and championship hopes were cut cruelly short.

Desi Henry recorded a fine fourth on home soil to round out his year as Alex Laffey and Patrick Walsh banked good points for M-Sport in the teams standings as they took their best result of the year – fifth place in their Ford Fiesta R5.

Round 7/8: 138.com Rally Isle of Man

The ‘Rumble On The Rock’ was poised nicely with three crews in contention for the BRC title. Fredrik Ahlin needed a second and a third to claim the title, while Keith Cronin had to win both legs. Matt Edwards had an outside mathematical chance of glory but he would play an important role for the other two drivers.

The first round took in classic Manx stages in glorious sunshine and tricky night conditions, as well as a slippery street stage in the heart of Douglas. Cronin was the man to beat on the sealed-surface in 2017 and dominated the first leg, while an on-form Edwards took his best result on Tarmac to finish second while Ahlin was forced down to third. The outcome made for an exciting two horse race for the title going into the final round: Ahlin v Cronin.

Edwards had already claimed three podiums in 2017, but the Welshman wanted more, and straight out of the box on the Castletown spectator stage drew blood, marching on to a 9.4 second lead heading into the final stage. Ahlin suffered a spin which dropped him into third, while Cronin needed the win but came into the final stage languishing in second. If positions stayed the way they were, Ahlin would be champion, but the story doesn’t end there.

The final stage ‘Showdown’: Cronin needed the win for the championship and Edwards wanted his first ever BRC win. Cronin set off first, driving the wheels of the Fiesta and left nothing on the table. Coming into the stop line, tensions grew – just a minute later, Edwards came into sight. The times came through. Edwards wrestled his way through the final test but was dogged by throttle problems in his Fiesta. At the stop line it was announced Cronin had won the final round by just one tenth of a second as he claimed his fourth title. A dejected Edwards was left wondering what might have been – that first win won’t be too far away while Ahlin who showed the way early in the season and a new found maturity, agonisingly lost the title by one championship point. Nail-biting action from three world-class drivers provided drama-a-plenty for fans stage side and followers around the world.

Elsewhere, Rhys Yates punched in respectable times against the hard-charging front-runners as he bagged fourth on both rounds to bring him up to fourth in the championship standings. Alex Laffey took his first fastest stage time on the opening day of the event on the way to a well-deserved fifth. A mechanical failure and visit to one of the famous Manx banks forced the Scot into retirement on the second round. Such was the pace in the Junior BRC, Irishman Marty Gallagher in his Peugeot 208 R2 rounded out the top five.

 

Simply Devine as Callum nets Junior title 

The Prestone Motorsport News Junior BRC provided a tantalisingly close season with some the brightest prospects in European rallying doing battle in front-wheel-drive R2 cars. As well as the championship spoils, the winner of the Junior category would walk away with £30,000 – one of the biggest prizes in British motorsport.

Top of the class was Callum Devine and co-driver Keith Moriarty. The Irish pairing signed for MH Motorsport in the closed-season to drive one of the latest Ford Fiesta R2Ts. With limited running on the gravel, Devine set about learning his trade on the loose, picking up several solid results including a fine second on the Pirelli International Rally, missing out on the win by just four tenths of a second. With a mid-season swap to his familiar Opel ADAM R2 – Devine took to the second half like a duck to water, clinching a breakthrough victory in Ypres, which was then backed up on the Nicky Grist Stages. Callum’s title charge was briefly halted with a mechanical failure on his home event – the Ulster Rally, but a champion drive on the Isle of Man saw Devine clinch the title with a win on the first leg before a safe and cautious second on the final round of the season.

Pushing Devine all the way was friend and rival William Creighton with navigator Liam Regan sat alongside in the Peugeot 208 R2. Creighton showed his class with two wins on the Pirelli and Ulster and a haul of podiums to put him in the box seat for the title on the Manx. A disappointing fourth by his high standards on the first round meant William had to beat Devine in a straight fight on the final leg. A cruel puncture on the penultimate day of the event denied the fans the fight we all wanted to see. William and Liam had to settle for second in the series, a remarkable achievement in their first full year in the BRC.

Rounding out the top three in the Junior BRC was the flamboyant Oscar Solberg. His never say die approach endeared the Norwegian to British rally fans in 2017. A win on the opening round was sadly followed by driver mistakes and mechanical failures forcing him down the order, but a spirited drive to the podium on the Ulster and leg one of the Manx showed the Fiesta R2T drivers Tarmac progress throughout the year.

Cameron Davies took a win on the Scottish Rally in his 208 R2, while Marty Gallagher flew his 208 around the lanes of the Isle of Man to take the final round of the series. Meirion Evans, James Williams and Dean Raftery all claimed podium positions – showing the depth of talent in the junior series. Josh McErlean showed great promise in his older specification Citroen C2 and showed podium pace on his one off outing with MH Motorsport in the Fiesta R2T.

Class acts in the BRC

The newly formed Cadet Cup provided the perfect platform for the BRC stars of tomorrow. Josh Cornwell and Richard Bliss dominated the series by claiming five wins in the category in their Fiesta R2, earning Cornwell free entries into every round in 2018 as the reward.

He was chased hard all season by young-gun Tom Williams who claimed a well deserved win on the Isle of Man while Alex Waterman/Harry Thomas drove a calculated event on the Nicky Grist Stages to chalk their first win. The Harper Adams University paring of James McDiarmid and Max Haines Messenger climbed the top step of the podium on the final round of the season while Nabila Tejpar sealed the Ladies Trophy in her Fiesta R2 after a solid year in the Cadet Cup. Fergus Barlow undertook a part campaign in his Fiesta R2 and narrowly missed out on the win on three occasions.

The Father and Son duo of David and Matthew White fended off Downhill Mountain Bike World Champion Gee Atherton for BRC4 honors. In the National Rally Cup John Morrison and Peter Carstairs were the class of the field ahead of Donnie Macdonald, Max Utting and William Hill while Spencer Wilkinson and Glyn Thomas enjoyed their BRC adventure on the way to the Production Cup.

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