04 Nov Procter takes top honours in Neil Howard Stages as fourth season gets underway
It was a case of deja vu in the opening round of the fourth season of the Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship in association with MSVR as Kevin Procter and Derek Fawcett made it three triumphs in succession in the Neil Howard Stages at Oulton Park.
The pair were enticed into an early battle with the similar Ford Fiesta of Steve Simpson, leading the event to immediately look like a repeat of the previous season. After an even affair in the opening two stages of the nine contested, Procter grabbed the crucial initiative on stage three.
A mistake from Simpson left him in as spin, losing his front bumper as well as the lead in one fell swoop.
Procter took over the advantage and would extend it to as much as 17 seconds, but the Ford man would still have to fend off the charging Skoda Fabia R5 pairing of James and Rhys Yates, who trimmed the cushion steadily as night descended.
It came down to nine seconds with one stage remaining; Procter holding on to confirm a third successive win and becoming the first driver to seal a Neil Howard Stages hat-trick since Rob Berry did no back in 2000.
The winning cushion was just six seconds in the end, a stall earlier in the day costing James Yates who added: “It’s been a great day for us. Unfortunately we made a few mistakes in the first few stages which cost us, but it’s been great and we’re considering more rounds now. We don’t mind getting beat by someone like Kevin; he’s a nice guy and a great driver, so there’s no shame in that.”
Third place went to the fighting Alex Laffey and Michael Gibley, who finished a further 20 seconds adrift to beat fellow Fiesta drivers Simpson and John Stone. Laffey said: “It’s been a good day, and very tricky out there for all of us at times. Some parts have caught us out when we didn’t expect it, and that’s part of the game. We picked up a bit of damage hitting one of the water barrels, but overall we’ve enjoyed ourselves, been quick and avoided too much damage. The series has a brilliant setup, and it’s always good seeing everybody again and enjoying it together.”
The remaining classes were also hotly contested, reliability a key factor in many as the afternoon drew on.
Overall winners Procter and Fawcett also clinched class D2, while D1 honours went the way of reigning overall champion Chris West, who almost didn’t make the visit to Oulton Park.
West was paired with Robbie Hannah who flew in as a late replacement mid-week, both finishing sixth overall after a testing weekend with a brand new engine in the popular Peugeot 306 Maxi kit car.
Gethin Sharp and Kate Bann sealed a fine debut win in class A as disaster struck twice for his rivals. Firstly, runaway leader Joe Cunningham lost a likely win in the Vauxhall Corsa he shared with Marc Fowler due to battery failure on stage seven, only for David McMullan to also lose a lead which he inherited on the very same stage – driveshaft woes his undoing.
Class B went the way of Ryan Burns and Steve Hallmark in their Vauxhall Corsa, despite surviving contact with an Escort Mk2 early in the afternoon. Chris Woodhouse and Alan Gilbert gave chase but finished a mere 13 seconds adrift, while a battery problem ruined veteran racer Paul O’Neill and Motorsport News’ Jack Benyon’s charge late on.
The Ford Fiesta of Mark Roberts and Stephen Landen was victorious in Class C meanwhile. The car, brought into the championship from South Africa, got the better of Stephen Beck and Gary Whittington’s Ford Escort Mk2, while Mike English lost time on stage seven after a spin and fell out of the three-way battle.
The next round of the season is in two weeks’ time at Cadwell Park on 18 November.