The Motorsport UK British Rally Championship heads onto the gravel for the first time this season as the Nicky Grist Stages host round two of the series on 10 July.
The world-famous Mid Wales forests have seen World Rally Championship battles played out on its daunting stages and will offer BRC contenders a compact but action-packed day of rallying, centring around a Builth Wells base as the event makes a welcome return to the BRC calendar for the first time since 2017.
And there will be plenty of focus on the British Rally Championship line-up for the weekend ahead as an impressive list of new names throw their hat into the ring to join the title protagonists, shaking-up the already unpredictable top-tier of Britain’s premier rallying series.
Buoyed by a bumper number of registrations for the 2021 season, the British Rally Championship saw its opener played out across the picturesque Oulton Park race circuit at the Neil Howard Stages. The battle for the lead was intense, with Irishmen Sam Moffett and Keith Moriarty taking their maiden BRC victory to kick start the seven-round season.
However, the results from the opening round have the potential to be turned on their head in the Welsh forests as a host of names from the past join the fray to shake-up proceedings and offer a new dynamic to the already impressive BRC leader board.
Leading the 170 crews away will be two-time BRC champion Matt Edwards and co-driver Darren Garrod who make their gravel debut in their Pirelli-shod Volkswagen Polo GTi. An encouraging run at Oulton was blighted by a penalty and a potential podium spot had to give way to fourth place. Edwards’ pace on gravel is unquestioned, but he will need to work hard to keep the chasing pack at bay as he gets used to the new machinery.
“I really like the Nicky Grist – I like the stages, and I know them pretty well,” he says.
“Tyre choice is always crucial in the forests, as is road position, especially if it’s dry and dusty. The biggest challenge for me this year will be getting to the limit of the Volkswagen quickly on what will be my first gravel rally in the car. The event has a high-quality entry, and it’s not a long rally either, so you’re going to be found out if you’re not on the pace right from the word go.”
Missing out on round one victory by just one second, Rhys Yates and James Morgan took their Michelin-backed M-Sport Ford Fiesta Rally2 to second place and are arguably favourites to go one better on the `Grist`.
Osian Pryce and Noel O’Sullivan will aim to capitalise on their round one podium and will also need to get acclimatised to their Polo on the gravel. Pryce and Edwards also lead the British Rally Championship for Teams under the Melvyn Evans Motorsport banner, but only by one point from the M-Sport team of Yates and Seb Perez.
Another name to make a dramatic return to the BRC is four-time champion, Keith Cronin. As one of the most successful pilots in the series, Cronin is keen to play down his return, having not contested a rally since 2018. He will use a Ford Fiesta Rally2 for his gravel-led campaign.
“I haven’t competed in a rally since 2018, so my expectations must stay realistic,” says Cronin.
“The main priority of the programme is to develop a new generation of Hankook’s gravel tyres. That said, I’m really looking forward to getting back out and I’m very grateful to Hankook and our other supporters for this opportunity.”
Cronin will be co-driven by Mike Galvin for the season who guided him to his latest BRC title in 2017.
Another welcome addition to the BRC tour in 2021 is M-Sport Chief Test Driver, Director and former World Rally Championship ace Matthew Wilson. As one of the most experienced drivers in the country, Wilson will make his first appearance in the BRC since a one-off outing in 2016 and will bolster the M-Sport squad in a Ford Fiesta Rally2.
Co-driven by Stuart Loudon, Wilson’s experience and seat time is unrivalled and could well provide a shake-up to the leader board by the time crews head back to Builth Wells on Saturday evening.
Ollie Mellors and Max Freeman bring an international feel to the series with their potent Proton Iriz and will be aiming to improve on their eighth place on the Neil Howard Stages as they head onto the gravel.
Taking a nail-biting win on the opening round, Sam Moffett is equally proficient on a gravel surface and will be aiming to ensure he remains at the head of the points standings. Expect him to be towards the front during the day, as well as making sure he stays ahead of the brotherly rivalry with Josh in a Hyundai i20.
MOTORSPORT UK NATIONAL RALLY TITLE
Making his first foray in the British Rally Championship since 2017, Scotsman Garry Pearson makes his first appearance of the season in Wales and will vie for the Motorsport UK National Rally Title. Driving a Mitsubishi Evo IX, he will be up against WRC machinery but is likely to be challenging towards the front of the leader board during the day. Niall Burns occupies the co-driver’s seat.
Thomas Preston and Carl Williamson took the opening round glory in their flame-spitting Fiesta WRC but swap to a Ford Fiesta R5 in Wales and could take some time to get used to the new steed. Stephen Petch and Michael Wilkinson will be in hot pursuit in their WRC Fiesta, fresh from fifth overall at the non-championship M-Sport Stages in Greystoke last weekend.
Charles Payne and Aled Edwards race against time to ready their Fiesta after a Greystoke roll and Alan Carmichael and Claire Williams bring their right-hand-drive Hyundai i20 to Builth Wells, another crew aiming to capitalise on a strong start at Oulton.
Other newcomers include Jason Black and Karl Egan in their rapid rear-wheel-drive Toyota Starlet whilst Elliot Payne and Cameron Fair could well be towards the front of the National charge after a confidence-boosting result for Payne at the M-Sport Stages.
JUNIOR BRITISH RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
With an impressive World Rally Championship prize drive opportunity up for grabs in 2021, explosive action is guaranteed in the Junior British Rally Championship. Junior WRC regulars William Creighton and Liam Regan lead the charge and were a dominant force at round one, using the ‘Grist’ as a warm-up to their Estonia JWRC counter in their Ford Fiesta Rally4.
Arguably the Neil Howard Stages drive of the day came from Kyle White and Sean Topping, who wrung the neck of their normally aspirated Peugeot 208 to take second. Gravel could prove a bigger challenge for the pairing as a gaggle of Rally4 machinery lines up behind them.
Eamonn Kelly and Conor Mohan made their gravel debut in Greystoke last weekend so may take a few stages to get up to speed in their Fiesta Rally4 after third place at the opening round, whilst Finlay Retson and Rhys Stoneman have the experience of the Welsh stages to make them a top-line contender in their similar machine.
Brian Brady/Eamonn Creedon, Eddie Lewis/Dom Adams and David Kelly/Dean O’Sullivan all head to the forests in Fiesta’s whilst Jason Dickson and Martin Brady will have to live with the more powerful modern examples in their normally aspirated older generation example.
Johnnie Mulholland and Calum Maguire took the top spot in the Academy Trophy at the season opener and will aim to keep Fraser Anderson and Jack Bowen at bay in second place.
Aoife Raftery makes the trip over from Co. Galway and enters the Academy and Ladies Trophy on her rallying debut with Dylan Doonan, as does Charlie Todd with co-driver Glyn Thomas, both piloting Ford Fiesta’s.
Eight stages and over 44 stage miles lie ahead for the BRC crews. Sadly due to planned Military exercises, spectators are not permitted to attend the event. However, live coverage online and extensive social media updates will bring all the news and gossip from the rally and will be broadcast across the BRC social channels.