After six action-packed rounds of the 2021 Motorsport UK British Rally Championship, the thrilling fight for the coveted title all comes down to the final encounter of the season, the Modern Tyres Ulster Rally next weekend [20 November].
The stages around the Newry rally base will see the British Rally champion crowned on Saturday night, but standing in the way is over 93 competitive miles of merciless closed-road special tests with every passing corner ready to usurp any one of the title protagonists. Add into the mix the prospect of the latter stages taking place under the cover of darkness and it’s all set to be a gripping final blast of 2021.
And then there were two. Aiming for a record-breaking third BRC title in a row is Conwy driver Matt Edwards who heads to Northern Ireland with the number one on the door. But fellow Welshman Osian Pryce will be doing all he can to take his maiden British Rally Championship title and starts the event in the box seat thanks to an eight-point lead in the standings, on paper at least.
Taking dropped scores into account, in simplistic terms Edwards and co-driver Darren Garrod need to take their Pirelli-shod Volkswagen Polo GTi to maximum BRC points if Edwards is to clinch a place in the history books. Standing firmly in his way though, Melvyn Evans Motorsport teammate Pryce and co-driver Noel O` Sullivan will be threading their Michelin rubbered Polo through the stages with precision and undoubtedly with more than one eye on the times.
If Edwards doesn’t take the top score, Pryce can afford to cruise home thanks to his impressive points tally accumulated over a season that has seen the Machynlleth driver finish on the podium on every round so far.
With two wins apiece to each of the protagonists, it’s a winner takes all scenario but one thing is for sure, the Volkswagen marque will secure their first-ever British Rally Championship title in the process.
“It’s the most straightforward final round of the British Rally Championship that I’ve ever had, as I’ve got to go and win it,” says Edwards.
“There are no variables, no ifs and buts – it’s a case of maximum points or nothing. And I feel good about it too because I go to the final round with a lot of confidence in the Polo. We proved in Mull that we have the speed and we know that we have the pace on asphalt to get the job done.“
“I’ve also gone well in recent years in Ulster. There is nothing going against me at the moment. Everything feels aligned and I see no reason why we won’t be able to score maximum BRC points in Ulster and come home with the title.”
Pryce is equally buoyant.
“The event seems right up my street,” he says.
“I feel I’ve come this far before in the championship and it has fallen from our reach in the final moments so I will do everything I can possibly do to make sure we take it this year. If it doesn’t happen it won’t be for the lack of trying. “
Pryce has twice been a BRC runner-up, and the plan is not to let that become a hattrick.
“Getting the first title would mean everything right now just because we have come so close in the past and never won it, and we all as a team have worked so hard for it this year.”
“Based on our performance on the Cambrian, I rate our chances quite high, but this event is a completely different challenge Should we find ourselves in the same rhythm, that will be a good place to start. The plan of attack has been the same all year and it doesn’t change now, we have had a good approach to every event this year and this is the one where we have to be on the ball from the very beginning.”
A stellar entry will line up to tackle the Ulster lanes and any one of the impressive field could hamper the title chase for Pryce or Edwards. Both Sam and Josh Moffett return to the BRC fold after a mid-season break although it’s unclear if they will be registering for points at this stage.
If anyone knows how to win titles, its four-time BRC champion Keith Cronin who makes his 2021 debut on asphalt in his Hankook backed Ford Fiesta Rally2. Continuing to develop the tyres throughout the season, Cronin and co-driver Mickie Galvin could well throw up some surprises during the day.
Cathan McCourt and Liam Moynihan impressed on the gravel of the Grampian Rally in August despite making their debut in a brand new Fiesta Rally2 and are well in line for a podium spot. Seb Perez bagged his first BRC podium at the Cambrian and will be looking to round out his season in style. His and co-driver Gary McElhinney’s recent WRC Spain experience will put them in good stead on the Northern Ireland asphalt and are M-Sport’s sole entry at the weekend.
Having made a stellar return to the stages at the Cambrian Rally, former Junior BRC front-runner James Williams will tackle the event in a Fiesta Rally2 to gain valuable experience in four-wheel-drive machinery for the future, ably co-driven by Dai Roberts.
With the Motorsport UK National Rally Title already sown-up in the hands of Garry Pearson and Niall Burns, it’s Garry Jennings and Rory Kennedy who lead the pack and sit well inside the top ten. The pairing has been a popular return to the BRC this season and a top five finish at the recent non-championship Tour of the Sperrins puts them in good shape for the Ulster.
James Wilson and Arthur Kierans have enjoyed a very busy competitive season and take their Hyundai i20 on asphalt for the first time since round one. Alan Carmichael contests his `home` event in similar machinery and is once again joined by Claire Williams.
Stephen Petch and Michael Wilkinson bring the noise in their Fiesta WRC after narrowly missing out on the National Title, with Jason Black and Karl Egan needing to score well to scoop third in the championship in their Toyota Starlet.
Junior BRC – World Rally Championship awaits the winner
It is arguably the best prize in rallying and it’s certainly worth keeping more than one eye on the Junior BRC battle this Saturday. Like its BRC top-flight cousin, two drivers are going head to head for the chance to scoop the title but the winner will also secure a drive in a Hyundai Motorsport Customer Racing i20 N Rally2 at a round of the 2022 FIA World Rally Championship. Impressive stuff.
Winning four rounds of the series in 2021 would have been enough in lesser years to seal the deal, but not this time around. William Creighton and co-driver Liam Regan scooped wins at the Neil Howard, Mull Rally, Trackrod Rally Yorkshire and the Cambrian, but still are not leading the series.
Such is the impressive consistency of Eamonn Kelly and Conor Mohan, the pairing has scored on all but one round to enter a thrilling battle with Creighton for the title.
However, all Creighton needs to do is finish eighth or higher to take the title that he has twice been the bridesmaid too, and secure that potentially career-changing drive in the process.
“It would be fantastic for me and the entire team who have been behind me over the past few years to finally seal the championship,” says Creighton.
“We are in a good place in the championship but we must get to the finish of this event and pick up some points. The stages will offer plenty of challenges and it’s quite a long event for a one day rally so there is a lot of work still to do so I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”
“My plan will be to stay focused on what I have to do and not what others are doing around me. I am lucky enough to have my family business sponsor an element of the event so I hope it is an enjoyable day for everyone involved and that it’s an exciting BRC showdown.”
Kelly is upbeat about the weekend ahead too.
“ I’m feeling good about the event,” he says.
“We had a run out at the Kerry Winter Stages last weekend to get some miles in and help get our confidence up. Seat time is everything and it’s left us hopefully that bit sharper leading up to Ulster.”
“Of course with drop scores, the odds are against us, we need to win and Will just has to finish as far as I know, but we have to remain positive and understand that it’s not over until it’s over. It’s a big challenge but I can’t wait! We came to this championship for challenges like this so I’m going to relish it. It would mean a lot to win the championship.”
“We came into the year with relatively less experience than some of the top guys, so to be considered a title fighter all the way to the last round is great in itself. When you look at some of the names who have won it in the past, you definitely aspire to be part of that list.”
Kyle White has been a star of the Junior BRC season and despite his debut year, has thrilled the crowds with his raucous Peugeot 208. He and co-driver Sean Topping could pull some surprises on Saturday if they can put the back luck of late firmly behind them.
Jason Dickson has taken to his new Fiesta Rally4 like a duck to water and is another to watch out for in the lanes. He and Martin Brady are increasing their pace event by event and will be relishing the challenge of the Ulster.
Johnnie Mulholland and Calum Maguire are already Academy Trophy champions so will be out for the experience on their home event, whilst Rupert Flynn returns to the BRC after tackling the Mull Rally in his Fiesta Rally4. Joseph Kelly and Shane Byrne claimed their first Junior podium in Wales last month and hope to take that form to the asphalt whilst Casey-Jay Coleman and Grace O’ Brien also tackle the final round of the season.
The Modern Tyres Ulster Rally will bring the curtain down on a superb British Rally Championship season. Nine stages and 93 miles await.