Season Review: Battle of Britain – the BRC is back

After a year’s sabbatical, the MSA British Rally Championship provided high-octane action across the seven-round series.

There was an electric atmosphere before the curtain-raiser, the Mid Wales Stages. Over 40 crews in pristine new overalls converged for a ‘Class of 2016’ photoshoot. Scanning the four rows, it was evident that Britain’s premier rallying series was back, healthier and stronger than ever with a quality array of drivers and co-drivers all eager to get stuck into the new championship formula – and to start, the opening stages of the new season would be held in fever-pitch darkness.

Leading the crews away were WRC stars Elfyn Evans/Craig Parry, driving a Ford Fiesta R5 for the DMACK BRC Team. Behind the Welsh duo were another 22 R5/S2000-specification machines all jostling for supremacy on the snow-lined gravel stages.

On home soil, Evans and Parry showed their class on the first stage, immediately pulling out a lead of 18.2 seconds. Many expected Elfyn to pull away and romp home by a comfortable margin. They were wrong. Up stepped Swedish star Fredrik Ahlin in a Pirelli-shod CA1 Sport Fiesta R5. The Swede went into the second day sure that he could win the opening round with Morton Erik Abrahamsen calling the notes. A pumped-up Ahlin showed the homegrown hero the way to go on the opening two stages of the second day and by stage four had grasped the lead. Evans retaliated, demonstrated his world-class pedigree to overhaul his adversary and win the opening round of the series by just 17.1 seconds.

Tom Cave in his Spencer Sport Michelin Fiesta R5 made it three different tyre manufacturers side the top three. With the experienced James Morgan alongside, the young Welshman gained in confidence with every stage to put himself in a comfortable third. Rounding out the top five were 2011 BRC Champion David Bogie/Kevin Rae in their newly-acquired Skoda Fabia R5 and fellow Scottish stars Euan Thorburn/Paul Beaton, who showed the promise of the Peugeot 208 T16 R5.

Heading across the Irish Sea, the BRC crews next faced the iconic Circuit of Ireland. The first Tarmac event of the year would see Evans fly out-of-the-blocks, leading the event outright after the opening two stages. Disaster struck the championship leader on stage three, however, when the auxiliary belt cried enough. Desi Henry/Liam Moynihan looked set to inherit the BRC lead on the Belfast-based event but they too had to retire on the same stage.

Stepping into the breach were Marty McCormack/David Moynihan in their Skoda Fabia S2000 and Ahlin in his Fiesta, who entered a ding-dong battle throughout the first day. Ahlin was primed to lead the event going into the overnight halt, but a slippery hairpin on the Newtownards street stage caught the Swede out as he clouted the left-rear of the Fiesta into a curb, limping the car to the finish. Fredrik made roadside repairs to get the car back to service, only losing 23 seconds in the process. A subsequent pacenote error saw Ahlin crash out of the event and the lead of the rally.

Leading the field away on the second day, McCormack knew his S2000-spec Skoda would be challenged by the newer R5 cars, especially in the drying conditions with Josh Moffett/John Rowan pressing on in their Ford Fiesta R5.

Moffett gained time on the opening two stages before leader McCormack came to a grinding halt with a faulty fuel pump.

As the final loop began, Moffett established a comfortable gap ahead of Jonathan Greer/Kirsty Riddick, who had enjoyed an uneventful rally, steering clear of trouble to take their first podium of the season, while Bogie was rewarded with third after an incident-filled weekend.

Tom Cave had a troubled run on the Irish Tarmac but made the best of the bad situation to just miss a podium in fourth, while on their first Tarmac rally, Jamie Anderson/Ross Whittock (Ford Fiesta R5) took an incredible fifth in front of young chargers Rhys Yates/Tom Woodburn in a similar Fiesta R5.

Kielder Forest provided the backdrop for round three, the Pirelli Carlisle Rally. Returning to take on the BRC regulars was former BRC round winner Matthew Wilson in an M-Sport Fiesta.

Evans was once again the man to beat, but a puncture on stage three shuffled the Welshman down the order. Ahlin had shown his gravel prowess in mid Wales and seized the opportunity to take his first BRC win on the Pirelli, making him the third different driver in as many events to claim the top spot and the first Swedish driver since 1995 to win a round.

In his one off appearance, Wilson took a fine second as Evans climbed up the results sheet to round out the podium. Crucially, Ahlin left Cumbria with the championship lead heading to Scotland.

Cave notched up another fourth place, while McCormack took his first finish of the year, hustling his Kumho-supported S2000 Skoda into fifth.

Fired-up after missing the Pirelli Carlisle win, Evans showed why he is worthy of a WRC factory seat by leading from start-to-finish on the Scottish Rally. It was to be a drama-fuelled affair behind the DMACK ace, with four drivers vying for the remaining rostrum positions. Ahlin was amongst them until a driveshaft let go on stage three, sidelining the Swedish sensation.

Cave had been chalking up several solid results and – now feeling comfortable in his Fiesta – started to show he was the best-of-the-rest behind the on-form Evans. The Spencer Sport star ended the one-day fast-and-furious sprint in a comfortable second. Bogie had held the spot and was due to take his best finish of the season until he stopped on the road section heading to the finish with a damaged radiator. With Scottish hopes extinguished, Desi Henry took his first podium of the year.

The Nicky Grist Stages provided an exciting challenge for teams, with the first day on gravel and the second on the famous Tarmac Epynt roads. Cave led the early charge, capturing the first stage win ahead of Bogie and Ahlin. A spin on the opening test for Evans saw him languish in fourth momentarily, before a fightback on the second and a stunning time on the third elevated him into the rally lead, with Cave hanging onto his coat tails throughout the event. Making an early charge was Jamie Anderson, who ran as high as third on the opening day in his Fiesta R5 – enjoying a scrap with Henry and Greer along the way.

Matt Edwards had shown some giant-killing exploits in BRC2 on the opening four rounds, and on the Nicky Grist Stages, all the Mitsubishi Evo 9 driver had to do was finish to be crowned champion – a feat he achieved alongside navigator Will Rogers.

At the front of the field on the second day, Evans and Cave were comfortable out front with Henry in third as the trio replicated the Scottish Rally podium at the finish in Builth Wells. Drama was to unfold behind, however, as Anderson dropped from a fine fourth to an eventual eighth, allowing Bogie, Moffett, Greer and Yates to move ahead of him on the timesheets.

The penultimate round was to see a champions’ drive from Evans and Parry on the lanes around Derry/Londonderry. To claim the title on the Ulster Rally, the Welsh pair had to win the event, an achievement they completed in fine style as they led from start-to-finish, but it wasn’t to be plain sailing for the WRC2 crew as they were pushed hard by triple BRC Champion Keith Cronin and co-driver Mikie Galvin in their Citroen DS3 R5.

The Irish pair had not been seen in the BRC since their early exit on the Circuit of Ireland and they were out to make amends. Nestling into third was Cronin’s DGM stablemate Greer, who used his Irish Tarmac knowledge to build a cushion ahead of Bogie.

Eventual BRC Champion Evans and eventual Irish Champion Cronin were separated by a mere 4.5 seconds at the end of the first day, but problems struck the latter at the lunchtime service on day two. Gearbox and differential gremlins had worked their way into the DS3 R5, meaning Cronin had to leave service late with a stack of penalties. Fighting his way back, the Irishman recovered to fourth on his return to the series while Greer and Bogie rounded out the rostrum – both claiming their second podium of the campaign.

The first season of the new-look BRC had its curtain call on the picturesque Isle of Man, with three days of titanic Tarmac action that captivated the island. Along with the regular BRC crews, the season finale saw two top-notch interlopers –Citroen WRC star Craig Breen and triple BRC Champion Mark Higgins. Breen unfortunately retired early on, but Higgins took the fight to Evans on the asphalt event. Elfyn set the initial pace, but driveshaft woes on the second night set up a tantalising showdown to the final day of the season with Higgins holding the upper hand. Evans had to work hard for his fifth win of the year, edging Manxman Higgins by just 5.9 seconds at the finish outside the famous TT Grandstand.

With the title already decided, there was a five-way fight for the runner-up spot in the championship. Cave was the class of the group as he traded times with the top two throughout to put himself second on the BRC rostrum and second in the 2016 series. Enjoying a scrap with Cave throughout, Henry took his third podium of the season and his first on Tarmac.

After sealing the BRC2 title, Matt Edwards graduated to an R5 Fiesta for the final two events. Following a solid run on the Ulster, Edwards looked at home in his new machine on the Manx lanes, climbing the order throughout the long event to take fourth in the BRC section ahead of Greer, Bogie and Alex Laffey and Andrew Roughead, who took their best finish of the season in eighth in their Fiesta R5.

The fast-paced DMACK Junior BRC provided the perfect platform for drivers aged 26 and under to strut their stuff and show their speed on Britain’s best stages.

Top of the class were Robert Duggan and co-driver Gerard Conway in their Vauxhall ADAM R2. After a slow start on the Mid Wales Stages, the Irish pair got into their stride on the Circuit of Ireland, winning the class on home turf ahead of team-mates Mattias Adielson/Andreas Johansson. A further four wins in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man sealed the 2016 championship.

Sindre Furuseth impressed many with his natural talent behind the wheel of a Renault Twingo R2. The Norwegian won in Scotland and coupled with four further podiums, that netted him the runner-up spot in the Junior standings. Gus Greensmith was the final event victor, taking the opening round in Mid Wales as he dovetailed a partial BRC campaign with his exploits in the WRC.

Adielsson was the nearly man in the series. On several occasions the likeable Swede looked close to victory, and four podiums helped him take third in the standings in front of Northern Irishman Adam Bustard, who rounded out the top four in the championship with a quartet of third places.

In the National Rally Cup, Osian Pryce in a one-off outing stole a march on the Mid Wales Stages in the Spencer Sport Mitsubishi Mirage. Donnie Macdonald then took up the mantle as the man to beat after back-to-back wins on the Circuit of Ireland and Pirelli Carlisle in his Mitsubishi Evo 9. Swedish driver Robert Blomberg got accustomed to his new Mirage on the opening handful of rounds before taking a hat-trick of wins mid-season to set up a head-to-head with the Evo 9 driver in the Isle of Man finale. Macdonald did all he could, trail-blazing from the start on the island event but Blomberg importantly finished second in class, just enough to lift the title with Lars Andersson alongside.

BBC Top Gear presenter Chris Harris claimed the BRC3 class on the Mid Wales Stages in the sideways Toyota GT86 CS-R3 before Chris Wheeler and Yan Griffiths won the Pirelli and Scottish to clinch the class crown in his Citroen DS3 R3T.

The BRC4 category saw four different winners over the course of the season. The class act was Tony Simpson, who used his experience to prevail on three events and lift the championship laurels with navigator Ian Bevan while Marty Gallagher took the fight to Simpson with two successes to his name. Callum Devine and Roger Platt took a victory apiece to round out the top four.

Richard Burns’ godson Tom Williams and Emma Morrison won the BRC5 category in their Ford Fiesta R1.

With the dust only just settling, plans are already in action to make the 2017 season bigger and better and for the first time, Britain’s premier rallying series will include an overseas round in Belgium as the best of British go against the best in Europe once again.

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