2020 MRF Tyres BTRDA Rally Series Preview:   As the BTRDA Rally Series enters its 67th year of ‘Serious Fun’, MRF Tyres join the party as they begin a three-year term as headline sponsors of the UK’s most popular Rally Championship. Current BTRDA Gold Star® Rally Champions, Scotsmen Euan Thorburn / Paul Beaton, have elected not to defend their title and hence we look to the opening round of the 2020 MRF Tyres BTRDA Rally Series, the Visit Conwy Cambrian Rally, for some clues as to who might possibly succeed them….
In the Blue (Oval!) corner there are Fiestas for 2016 Gold Star Champion Charlie Payne, who has reigning British Rally Champion Co-driver Patrick Walsh for company this year, 2017 Gold Star Champions Stephen Petch / Michael Wilkinson, plus more recent converts Sacha Kakad / James Aldridge, Irishmen Niall Henry / Damien Duffin and Taunton husband-and-wife Martyn & Dawn England. Meanwhile, choosing Skoda Fabia R5s for their tilt at the coveted crown are Ian Bainbridge / Dale Bowen, Dylan Davies / Llion Williams and Karl Simmons / Mark Glennerster and it won’t be until after Signing-On & Championship registration in Llandudno closes that we’ll know if anyone else has put their head above the parapet by joining them!  New for 2020 is the BTRDA R5 Cup and, hence, those with compliant cars can add it to their quest for overall and Class B14 honours!

<  Ian Bainbridge’s Skoda Fabia R5 on the Trackrod Forest Stages  (photo © Kevin Money)

Although not coming under the designation of ‘World Rally Cars’, there are a number of well driven – not to mention extremely quick! – four-wheel drive turbo-charged cars in Class B13 that can reasonably be expected to be there, or thereabouts. George Lepley and Tom Woodburn, [2019 Silver Star Champions] who appeared in a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X towards the end of last season and managed to show all the WRC cars a clean pair of heels on the Woodpecker Stages, are returning for a crack at the Gold Star, as are the 2018 Motorsport UK English Rally Champions, Ian Joel / Graeme Wood, in their MRF Tyres supported Escort Cosworth. However, they must be prepared for a barrage of Mitsubishi Lancer EVOs, not least of which will be that of former BTRDA Production Cup winners Russ Thompson / Andy Murphy and current Welsh Stage Rally Champions Matthew Hirst / Declan Dear who took a couple of BTRDA class wins last season in their EVO9 but a string of retirements saw to it that their efforts would go unrewarded at the end of the season.

The Cambrian Rally also plays host to the inaugural MRF Mixed Surface Challenge – an eight round series featuring four on gravel and four on asphalt. Two of the above-mentioned Lancer EVOs, driven by Manxmen Stephen Ormond-Smith and Maxx Bradshaw, set out on the road which will take them, eventually, to their ‘home’ event, the Pokerstars Rally, in November. Pat Naylor / Ian Lawrence remain loyal to their FIA-homologated Group N Lancer, which has undergone a complete rebuild over the winter, as they eye up another Production Cup title. However, what could prove to be a rather large fly in their ointment is that the current holder, Scott Faulkner, has also indicated his intention to take another pop at top spot!   Fiesta ST Trophy cars also qualify for the Production Cup and on occasions, while only benefitting from two driven wheels, consistency over the course of a Championship has seen contenders taking podium finishes on events. Returnee Bobby Mitchell will be joined by some new faces, including those of Alex Hawkins, Callum Hughes and Jonny Sproat.

As far as the two-wheel drive MRF Tyres BTRDA Silver Star® Championship is concerned, with the winner in 2018 & 2019, George Lepley, transferring his allegiance to four-wheel drive (see above), there’s also going to be a different name on the trophy this time. Last year’s runner-up, Andy Davison (Talbot Sunbeam VXR), would dearly love it to be his, but there’ll be plenty of others with similar ambitions. In addition to the higher-powered cars, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the top 1400s were making regular appearances on the Silver Star podium during last season!  Now entering its third year, the BTRDA Rallye R2 Cup has struck a chord with competitors. Perry Gardener returns to defend his title but, with competitor numbers in double figures, he’ll no doubt have his work cut out to keep the marauding pack at bay! Having missed last season, teenager Ewan Tindall, who made quite an impression on his debut in 2018, rejoins in North Wales and will be looking to continue where he left off! Once again, whoever leads the R2 Cup after the Woodpecker Stages in September will have earned themselves a free entry on Wales Rally GB National Rally through its ‘Road to Wales’ scheme….  The winner of the Install Automation Ltd ‘Looking to the Future’ prize, Zak Hughes, is also at the wheel of a Fiesta R2. Having won the MRF Fiesta ST Trophy last year, the Welshpool driver will be using the £2500 to fund BTRDA Rally Series event entry fees for the current season.

Having relinquished the mantle of overall Rally Series title sponsor for 2020, Baz Jordan is maintaining his links with the BTRDA by putting up on-event prize money for successful JORDAN Road Surfacing BTRDA Historic Cup competitors. Indeed, Baz himself will be behind the wheel of his recently-completed Subaru Legacy which will be competing for honours in Class H4 where he’ll find Tom Coughtrie’s Mitsubishi Galant VR4 keeping him company.

Last year’s BTRDA Historic Cup runner-up, David Gathercole, pictured on the 2019 Trackrod Forest Stages, returns in his Escort Mk I while Ben Friend / Cliff Simmons’ Mk2 version scored a couple of excellent finishes in 2019 but, unfortunately, they were interspersed with a number of retirements which adversely affected their end-of-season position. Nevertheless, 5th overall and a class win on last November’s Wyedean Stages Rally should give them renewed confidence for the campaign ahead.

Having regained their rightful place running at the front of the field, the Fuchs Lubricants BTRDA 1400 Championship contenders can always be relied upon to produce fireworks! 2019.  Motorsport UK English Rally Champion Steve Black and Paul Morris, who missed out on the Co-drivers’ title on a tie-break, return with their Suzuki Swift which finished all seven rounds of the 2019 Championship, in an attempt to add the 1400s to their respective CVs.  Chris Powell / Jim Lewis (Talbot Sunbeam), who were just ahead of Black & Morris last year, are also back for more, as are the Brick family – Dave and son Freddie will be out in a Vauxhall Nova and Corsa respectively. Dave’s 2019 season was curtailed early on but not before he’d taken runner-up spot, behind Powell, on the Cambrian Rally.

MRF Tyres have also put their name to the BTRDA Rally First® Championship for the new season – always targeted as an excellent way to enter (or even re-enter!) the sport, suitable vehicles require only minimal modifications to comply with the regulations. For example, Simon Double’s 2.0 litre MG ZR ticks all the boxes, as does the Ford Puma of the FIA’s WRC Category Manager – and former M-Sport Business Development Manager – Andrew Wheatley.

So, the MRF Tyres BTRDA Rally Series once again makes a beeline for Llandudno, and the Cambrian Rally, to set the wheels in motion – literally!  As ever, each competitor’s five best scores, from the seven rounds, will count towards their final total and, in this way, holidays, work or non-availability on any given day need not detract from the completion of the requisite number of events. We know it starts here, but no-one yet knows how it’ll finish!…