02 Nov Preview: Round 1 – Neil Howard Stages in a/w Graham Coffey & Co. Solicitors
Season four of the Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship in association with MSVR, feat. The Michelin Cup and the Protyre Challenge, kicks off this weekend at Oulton Park, with the regular season curtain raiser: The Neil Howard Stages in association with Graham Coffey & Co. Solicitors.
A healthy entry list of over 100 starters will greet fans at the Cheshire circuit and if the first three seasons are anything to go by, will see the commencement of another thrilling title battle.
Last season’s star performers Chris West and Keith Hounslow finally added silverware to their talent as they sealed the Championship which had eluded them previously in their rapid Peugeot 306 MAXI. They finished third here last year, blowing away more experienced and powerful competitors, something which they continued throughout the championship. They duly return to defend their crown and start as Championship favourites, albeit with a capable chasing pack chasing them down.
Ford will lead the charge, with MNCRC competitor and loyal frontrunner John Stone will once again take up the chase of West in a Legend Fires car equipped with a raft of upgrades.
The rapid Renault Clio of Steve Quigley, who was almost season two’s champion in 2016-17 also returns. He adds variety to Class C as he looks to right the wrongs of two years ago. Incidents at Snetterton and Anglesey cost him on that occasion, so consistency will be key, starting here at Oulton.
Watch out for the Darrian T90 which has previously tasted success. Joshua and Tamsyn Davey won at Oulton in Class C last season and will be looking to break their overall duck after reliability cruelly denied them on numerous occasions.
Despite the absence of previous champion Ian Woodhouse, runner-up Mark Kelly does return. He will be hoping to go one better than last year and the venerable Ford Escort MK2 once again remains well represented this season. Proven front-runner Martin Hodgson is back, while Mike English brings his distinctive ‘Turquoise Terror’ out again with Cetus Solutions backing.
Tale of Classes
With five different classes providing the backbone to the Championship, each will seek to write their own storyline. David McMullan narrowly missed out on the Class A title last season and will want to start strongly in his Vauxhall Nova this weekend, as will the Toyota Yaris pairing of Craig Aston and Nick Baker.
Class B sees the resumption of a tasty scrap. Champion Paul Sheard has the popular Paul O’Neill for support in a second Mazda MX5, with Motorsport News’ Jack Benyon co-driving. They’ve tasted success at Oulton in the past, as they take on a title hunting Ashleigh Morris who returns in her Fiesta R200.
They say variety is the spice of life, and seeing the Porsche Cayman of Ciro Carannante return to chase more silverware proves just that. Watch out also for two familiar faces in equally familiar machinery. A Talbot Sunbeam Lotus brace from the lotus bits.com outfit will tug on the nostalgia strings with Mike Taylor and Cathy Sewart given the driving duties once again after some strong top-10 performances last season.
Away from the Championship competitors, Prodrive boss and MSA Chairman David Richards is a welcome addition to the entry list. He competes alongside event sponsor Graham Coffey in his Ford Fiesta WRC. MSABRC competitor Rhys Yates will swap his driving seat for co-driving, as he sits alongside brother James Yates in a Skoda Fabia R5, while BRDC and MSA Board Director Nick Whale offers a BTCC super touring era flashback with his BMW M3.
Two previous winners return, with last year’s champion Kevin Proctor leading the charge, while Steve Simpson will be hot on his tale.
While picking a winner from that bunch will be hard, what can be certain of is a hotly contested Oulton Park opener, in what is sure to be the start of yet another intense championship fight.
Words: Dan Mason