By Ben Buesnel
The Prestone MSA British Rally Championship celebrated its Diamond Jubilee in 2018 and despite a challenging season with two rounds being cancelled, Britain’s premier rallying series still managed to produce exciting edge-of-the-seat action once again in its 60th anniversary season.
Edwards takes emotional breakthrough championship
With the Border Counties Rally called off due to the extreme weather provided by the ‘Beast from the East’, the championship curtain raiser was be held on the fast and furious stages of the Kielder Forest complex for the Pirelli International Rally.
Defending champion’s Keith Cronin and Mikie Galvin harnessed the latest Hyundai i20 R5 and picked up where they left off from 2017 by punching in the fastest time on the event – getting up to speed in the Michelin-supported machine straight away. Young-gun Rhys Yates and Elliott Edmondson also had a brand new weapon at their disposal with a Skoda Fabia R5 their championship mount for the new season as they slipped in just behind Cronin with fellow Fabia crew Marty McCormack and David Moynihan also showing early promising.
Tipped for success was David Bogie and John Rowan in their Skoda Fabia R5, but a uncharacteristic roll from the Scottish driver left him on the side lines very early on.
Matt Edwards and Darren Garrod came close to their first win on the 2017 championship finale and were eager to break their victory duck on the Cumbrian gravel. Leading the M-Sport line-up for 2018, the Pirelli-backed pair stepped-up to the plate and on stage three pushed their way to the front of the order and didn’t look back. Edwards kept pulling away, and after the one-day opening round shoot-out, the Swift-supported driver took his first International rally win by 20.5 seconds.
Cronin was set to take a strong second place before heading to a triple header of Tarmac rounds but the Irish driver was piped to the post on the final stage by an on form Rhys Yates who sealed his best ever BRC result with second.
Marty McCormack was in the podium hunt until gearbox gremlins prevented further progress but a solid fourth in the Kumho Skoda got his challenge underway, while Jonathan Greer and Kirsty Riddick were trying out a Ford Fiesta R5 and were pleased with fifth as he gained important mileage under the belt.
Edwards’ teammates Alex Laffey and Patrick Walsh were sixth ahead of BRC debutant Lawrence Whyte and co-driver Stuart Loudon, BRC wildcard Thomas Preston and Max Freeman. Sacha Kakad and James Aldridge also made their BRC bow and picked up their first points in their maiden R5 drive together.
With the dust settling from the Pirelli – the BRC went into Europe for the legendary Ypres Rally. Mixing it with some of the best drivers in the world including Thierry Neuville, the plucky BRC crews entered the Flanders region in the search of vital championship points on the first tarmac event of the year.
As predicted by many, last year’s BRC Ypres winner Keith Cronin dominated the early proceedings. Leading going into the second day, the Irishman just had to tick off the stages, but a lapse in concentration on stage 10 dropped Cronin into the clutches of his rivals and an off into a field made the Hyundai driver’s heart beat that little bit faster.
Championship leader Edwards was having a nightmare in Ypres. Gremlins had worked their way into the Fiesta R5’s electronics, thus not allowing Edwards to extract the maximum from the M-Sport machine. Along with power-steering failure, the Welsh driver had it all to do on the final day. With his never-say-die approach, Edwards kept fighting and clawed his way up to second, just behind Cronin with a handful of stages left.
Ypres crowd favourite Marty McCormack was having his strongest showing of the year in second but a puncture followed by an off put paid to his weekend on the second day, denying the likeable Northern Irishman what would have been his best BRC result.
With the rally entering its final stages, disaster struck for Cronin as a last stage puncture dropped the leader down to third allowing Edwards to pounce and seal his first win on Tarmac. David Bogie was out to finish after his opening round disappointment and was pleased to pick up a strong second to get his championship tilt underway.
Rhys Yates was the man everybody was watching in Belgium with locals tipping the Englishman for greatness in the ditch-cutting lanes. After winning Rally van Wervik – a useful Ypres warm-up event, Yates put himself into the BRC mix. Trying too hard on the opening day saw the Skoda driver visit a field before retiring early on the second day with co-driver Elliott Edmondson not well enough to continue.
Alex Laffey recorded his best ever BRC finish in fourth while James Williams rounded out the top five and with it the Junior BRC win and first front-wheel-drive car home on the event.
From the sun-kissed Belgian roads to the bumpy, demanding, wet Ulster lanes. The trip across the Irish Sea is always a favourite amongst the competitors with its unique roads and weather conditions proving an important leg in the championship race.
With 2017 winner Keith Cronin absent from the billing this year, a new name would take to the top step in Northern Ireland. Rhys Yates drew first blood as he hoped to make up for a disappointing weekend in Ypres. Following him on the timesheets was local star Jonny Greer who put his Fiesta into second. Unfortunately for Greer, a rare off put him out of the event, denying the fans a home winner. Another local star Marty McCormack also knocked on the door of a podium but McCormack called time on the final morning after several excursions in his Skoda Fabia R5.
With the local challenge halted, this left a three way fight for supremacy with Matt Edwards and David Bogie eyeing the top spot, held by Rhys Yates.
Yates was a man on a mission – chasing his first BRC win. A late wrong tyre choice, puncture and a few hairy moments saw him haemorrhage time but still manage to cling onto the final rostrum position.
David Bogie had been waiting and watching as he honed the set-up on his Skoda Fabia R5. Growing in confidence with every stage mile, the Scot punched in some fastest stage times to take back-to-back second places to move into second in the series.
The man of the moment shone again. Matt Edwards wrestled the lead off Rhys Yates on stage seven and didn’t look back as he completed a clean sweep of BRC victories – giving him a strong grip on the championship heading to his home event.
With Rally Isle of Man deciding to cancel the event at the last minute, the focus quickly switched to Wales Rally GB for two tough and demanding rounds, with the BRC sharing the iconic forestry stages with the globetrotting FIA World Rally Championship.
The opening round of the weekend was the opening special stage at Tir Prince on the Thursday evening before a flat-out day in the forests on Friday.
Yates was king of the ring on the opening night before the Flying Scotsman, David Bogie lit up the forests with his pace – putting many in WRC2 behind him. No other BRC driver had an answer for Bogie as he dominated the opposition in his DMACK-supported Fabia on his way to his first BRC win of the season.
Yates, try as he may, couldn’t live with Bogie on the opening leg and settled for second. Despite Bogie winning the battle, it was to be Edwards’ war as the Welshman took it cautiously through the opening round in the Pirelli-backed Fiesta and finished third to secure his first BRC title in front of his family and home fans.
Alex Laffey had another quiet affair as he built his speed. Another fourth place was a strong result and with consistency, this kept him in with mathematical chance of a top three in the series standings.
Onto the final round of the series and the gloves were off. With the title decided it was going to be a three-way fight. Edwards wanted a win to round out the year, Bogie wanted the Wales double and Yates was searching for his first win.
Yates was the first to fall foul of the demanding Welsh stages as the English driver retired early on, leaving the door opening to a two-horse race. Bogie and Edwards, meanwhile, went hammer and tongs across the mid Wales stages on Saturday with Champion elect Edwards trailing by 34 seconds.
On the final day, Bogie tried that little but too hard as the Dumfries driver searched for an overall top 12 result on the WRC event as well as the BRC win. Bogie went off on stage 20, thus handing the lead and win to Edwards. The Welsh driver as sealed his championship in style by powering his Fiesta through the Llandudno street stage and Gwydir forest in fine fashion.
Alex Laffey took his first gravel stage win on Wales Rally GB and his best ever result as he notched up second on the rally to Matt Edwards and second in the standings – making it a dream season for M-Sport. Norwegian Steve Rokland rounded out the main BRC podium with a fine drive in his Peugeot 208 R2 on his way to the Junior BRC title.
Super Steve Rokland clinches Junior title
The Prestone Motorsport News Junior BRC provided a tantalisingly close title-fight once again with over 20 drivers in 2018 chasing two lucrative prizes with Hyundai Motorsport in their latest i20 R5 model up for grabs.
The front-wheel-drive R2 pocket-rockets always provide a thrilling spectacle on the stages, especially when driven hard by the rallying stars of the future.
The opening round on the Pirelli Rally saw the return for Norwegian Steve Rokland in his Peugeot 208 R2 with Tom Woodburn sat alongside. Arguably one of the most promising R2 drivers in the world right now, Rokland returned to Britain’s premier rallying series after a five-year absence as he set about claiming the title.
The Peugeot driver set about his mission on the right foot as he clinched the opening round of the series in fine fashion and by playing his Joker enjoyed a healthy lead at the top of the standings.
His closest challenger on the event and for the rest of the season was James Williams. Williams had made a closed season switch from a Fiesta R2T to a Vauxhall ADAM R2 and started the year off in fine fashion with a BRC best in second heading home 2017 JBRC runners up William Creighton and Liam Regan (Peugeot 208 R2).
With action switching to Tarmac, a pumped-up Williams made the biggest impact as he dominated the front-wheel-drive proceedings on the Ypres Rally. Playing his Joker he would leap to the top of the standings and with it the first prize drive of the season – his reward for his series lead.
Creighton was back on his preferred surface and was the only man able to get close enough to Williams. The Ulsterman was due to score a second place before a rare visit to the ditch ended his weekend abruptly. With William disappearing off the leaderboard, two other Irish hopefuls picked-up the baton as Josh McErlean and Aaron Johnston swept their way to a career best in second in their Ford Fiesta R2T while series newcomers James Wilson and Gavin Doherty made it three different marques on the podium as they steered their Peugeot 208 R2 into third.
Rokland had a disappointing event by his high standards as a visit to a ditch and puncture dropped him out of rostrum honours. An inspired fight-back brought him into fourth and with it a good haul of points.
The Ulster Rally was to be a feisty affair with many local drivers eager to taste champagne on home soil. But it was to be Rokalnd to the fore as it was to be he and new co-driver Dai Roberts that stole the show as they led from start to finish. The man that nearly became a hero was Josh McErlean. Despite a steady start, the Irishman picked his way through the field and stage after stage, started to reel Rokalnd in – with the lead cut to 0.4 seconds with just two stages remaining. Unfortunately a mechanical failure on the last stage prevented a last stage showdown as McErlean retired from his home event.
Inheriting second was a consistently strong William Creighton who notched up another podium to keep him in the title hunt while Kevin Horgan and Liam Fouhy chalked up their first ever podium in their Skoda Fabia R2.
Ypres winner Williams retired with radiator woes while Marty Gallagher’s season went from bad to worse as his season ended on stage four on his home rally.
As in the main championship, four drivers came to Wales with a mathematical chance of lifting the title and that final prize drive.
James Williams had to get two wins if he were to become Junior Champion. He got off to a flying start with Tom Woodburn joining him in the ADAM as they punched in some rapid stage times to take the first round of the weekend from Rokland and Cadet Cup star Finlay Retson pushing his way to third in the Junior series in his older Ford Fiesta R2.
William Creighton also had to win both rounds but he sadly had an early bath with mechanical problems on the opening round while the final title chaser Horgan had to also retire but unlike Creighton the Cork man was able to take to the final round of the season.
With the final round remaining, it was to be a straight fight between Rokland and Williams for the title. Rokland in his Michelin-shod Peugeot 208 R2 battled his way through the elements and rounded out his season in style by taking the final Junior win of the campaign as well as a fine third overall after the war of attrition in front of him.
Williams took the title fight down to the last day of the rally, but try as he may, he had no answer for the flying Norwegian. The Vauxhall ADAM R2 driver finished second on the final round to cement the same position in the series. Woodburn in the co-drivers seat had accumulated enough points with both Rokland and Williams to take the co-drivers championship.
Despite retiring on the penultimate round Horgan and his team got the Kumho-backed Fabia back out for the gruelling last two days of a WRC event. A fine drive by the Irishman saw him take third on the event and third in the standings. Alex Waterman pushed him all the way – just missing out on a podium in his new EDSL Sport Fiesta R2T.
Nabila Tejpar undertook a part-campaign in 2018 along with her Iberica Cup commitments. As well as showing another step forward in pace and performance, Nabila also claimed the Ladies Trophy for a second year.
Class acts in the BRC
After a successful inaugural season the Cadet Cup returned with a new class of recruits taking to the challenging BRC stages. In the ultra competitive series all the title protagonists took a win in 2018 with eventual champions Jordan Reynolds and Peredur Davies claiming the opening win and were consistent all year to secure the title in their Ford Fiesta R2 and with it free entries into every round of the 2019 season.
They were chased hard all season by Ypres winner Bart Lang, Ulster and Rally GB 1 winner Finlay Retson and Johnnie Mulholland who won the final round of the series.
In the National Rally Cup John Morrison and Peter Carstairs took their second National Rally Cup win while Spencer Wilkinson and Glyn Thomas enjoyed their BRC adventure on the way to the Production Cup.