The Best in the South West!….Somerset Stages Preview

Having already visited North Wales and the Lake District, the RAVENOL BTRDA Rally Series® now takes contenders on their annual trip to south-west England for the Somerset Stages Rally (16th April). The event once again takes Minehead as its base, with the meat of the rally in the Exmoor National Park plus the benefit of two runs up Porlock Toll Road.

Current RAVENOL BTRDA Gold Star® Championship leaders Charlie Payne/Carl Williamson were lying in 2nd place after the first four stages of last year’s rally before their Fiesta was sidelined. So, putting that behind them and looking to continue their recent run of good form (2nd on the Cambrian Rally and victory on the Malcolm Wilson), they have a golden opportunity to capitalise on their advantage. Cambrian winners Luke Francis/John Roberts retired from the Malcolm Wilson Rally when their Mitsubishi Lancer EVO9 developed engine trouble. The unit has since undergone a rebuild and a win on the recent Rally North Wales would indicate that both car and crew are back on the case! After two rounds, Peter Stephenson (Ford Focus WRC) is occupying 3rd place in the Gold Star table, marginally ahead of Steve Simpson (Fiesta S2000) with Karl Simmons (Impreza) also in the Top Six and handily placed to improve on that.
Those in the same boat as Francis/Roberts, i.e. having only finished one event so far, include Stephen Petch/Michael Wilkinson (Fiesta R5+), while Paul Benn/Richard Cooke (Focus WRC) hope to continue where they left off in Cumbria when they were 4th overall. Setting out on their BTRDA Series campaign in the south-west are Tom Preston/Jack Morton (Skoda Fabia R5), while veteran former Gold Star Champion Brian Bell and co-driver Jamie Edwards (Focus WRC) will also be looking to open their account. Martyn & Dawn England from Taunton have recently replaced their Lancer EVO with a Fiesta R5+ and the husband-and-wife will be making their Rally Series debut in it on their ‘home’ event.

The BTRDA Production Cup is open to all Group N cars and for the first time this year that includes contenders for the Fiesta ST Trophy. Indeed, it is from this group that Sam Bilham/Richard Crozier head down the M5 as category leaders at the one-quarter distance. Their consistency is something that has deserted their colleagues in the more powerful NR4 cars who, with all due respect to the Fiesta crew, might be expected to hold the upper hand. The Lancer EVOs of Russ Thompson/ Andy Murphy, Aaron McClure/Alex Kihurani and Roland Llewellin, plus the Impreza of Andy Davies/Max Freeman have, for one reason or another, only one score on the board so far. Although still in its infancy, the Fiesta Trophy is proving very popular – seven of the 2-litre cars will take the start in Minehead including Cameron Davies/Lee Taylor who came up trumps in Cumbria.

The current top seven drivers in the RAVENOL BTRDA Silver Star® Championship all have a 100% finishing record to date. Gavin Edwards/Caron Tomlinson & Phill Burton/Mal Capstick lead the charge in their Escorts, while defending champions Boyd Kershaw/Bryan Hull were forced to delay opening the defence of their title until the second round. Notwithstanding, a narrow victory set them on their way with a maximum and they are now in prime position to pounce – provided that a suitable result is forthcoming in Somerset.
Still on the subject of Escorts, Paul Street’s desire to take back-to-back BTRDA Historic Cup wins in his has not begun in the manner befitting a champion! Retirement from the Cambrian was followed by ‘one of those days’ on the Malcolm Wilson and so the Somerset Stages Rally affords him another chance to really set the ball rolling…..

In the Thomas Panels 1400 Championship Dave Brick’s Nova led the category after a ‘win’ on the Cambrian but a broken gearbox in Cumbria denied the Ludlow farmer the opportunity to double his points tally. However, restored to full health once more, he will be on Exmoor in an attempt to make up the lost ground, as will Chris Powell/Jim Lewis (Sunbeam Talbot) who have not had the best start to the season. It’s a long way from Castle Douglas to Minehead but nevertheless, having missed the opening round of the season, Keith & Mairi Riddick will be taking their MG ZR on what will be the best part of a 1000-mile round trip in the hope of emulating the form they showed on the Malcolm Wilson.
Dominic Hodge/Stefan Arndt are the class of the Vital Equipment BTRDA Rally First Championship field in their Nissan Micra and Round 3 could present an opportunity to press home their advantage still further. However, as is the case in all the foregoing points battles, the ‘six out of eight’ scoring system still allows everyone who has had ‘issues’ plenty of time to put things right before Judgement Day which, in this instance, isn’t until the 1st October!

Having broken cover on the Malcolm Wilson Rally, competition within the MAXXIS MSA English Rally Championship also resumes on the Somerset Stages as the joint leaders – one from each class after the first round – seek to establish supremacy on their own! The MAXXIS MSA English Rally Championship caters for two-wheel drive cars with engines up to 2 litres and, being class-based, the eventual winner can come from any one of them. So, prior to the start of the Somerset Stages, in no particular order, those sharing top billing are Boyd Kershaw (Ford Escort MkII), Cameron Davies (Ford Fiesta ST), James Hutchings (Vauxhall Nova) and Jordan Hone (Nissan Micra) whilst the next four drivers are only two points adrift, and so on. You can see, therefore, that there is plenty of scope for change – not to mention tears before bedtime! – as the season unfolds….

In 2015 the BTRDA took the bold step of introducing its inaugural ‘mixed surface’ Rally Challenge featuring a calendar of events taken from the two Championships for which it holds the MSA permits, i.e. the BTRDA Rally Series and the MSA Asphalt Rally Championship. Its aim was to find the driver most at home on both surfaces and such was the interest shown in the concept that the decision has been taken to repeat the exercise this year. Once again, in advance of a trip to the Manx National Rally in May for some experience of the closed public roads on the island, the Somerset Stages Rally opens the proceedings. Interest in the Challenge is spread throughout the entry, with any number of crews adding this extra ‘dimension’ into their season.
The first car leaves the start of the Somerset Stages Rally in Minehead at 8.00am on Saturday 16th April and, having returned twice to the official service area in the town, arrives back there for the finish at approximately 3.30pm that afternoon. AH

Russ Thompson and Andy Murphy in action on the Malcolm Wilson Rally (Image courtesy: ralliphotoswales)