MSN Rally Championship | Simpson takes third Neil Howard win in MNCRC opener
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Simpson takes third Neil Howard win in MNCRC opener

Steve Simpson earned his third Neil Howard Stages victory in a dramatic Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship season opener at Oulton Park, as Ford dominated in Cheshire.

It would end in a Fiesta sweep of the top four spots, but the rally kept onlookers guessing until the final stage as two of Simpson’s big rivals fell by the wayside while in control of the event.

The first of those would be the returning Frank Bird and co-driver Jack Morton. After opening up a 15-second lead with a brace of stage victories initially, the Ford Focus succumbed to mechanical problems on the fifth stage of the rally as nearest rival Matt Edwards began his fightback.

Bird’s Focus left the watersplash down on power, the issues proving terminal as BRC winner Edwards powered by into the rally lead on SS5. The latter’s joy was equally short-lived however. Having survived brake problems and a time penalty early in the day, Edwards Fiesta stopped on the following stage with engine problems, and subsequently retired from a 15s lead.

It gifted a chance to fellow Ford man Simpson and the two-time winner inherited a lead he would ultimately never surrender, leaving behind a three-way dice for the remaining podium positions as he and Patrick Walsh grabbed a 37s victory, Simpson’s first win since 2015.

Simpson said: “An excellent rally, as usual. We did our own thing and got it to the end which is what you need to do. Me and Kev [Procter] go back about 20 years, and now I can say that I’m back to three-all with him now! We finally had a good run of clean stages without traffic just before we took the lead. It’s a shame for those who had problems as you don’t want to take it like that, but I wasn’t going to back off. It was flat chat all the way.”

That second place dice behind went in favour of Andy Scott and Marc Fowler, Scott subbing for Kevin Procter as the three-time winner opted out due to family reasons.

Scott added: “I really enjoyed myself today. A big thanks to Kevin for giving me the chance late on to drive his car, and I got quicker as the day went on which felt good. There was a bit of improvement towards the end and that helped move us up into second place. Changing conditions made it tough, but on SS7 I I knew we had to pull something out of the bag, and I did that and even got a first stage win under my belt.”

The rallycross regular grew in confidence and snatched second place from Graham Coffey – co-driven by our presenter Sam Colman – on the penultimate stage. Coffey had earlier battled boost problems which put the Ford pairing on the back foot initially, narrowly fending off a charging James Self.

Coffey said: “Another great rally, but we had a tough start with a few boost problems that really slowed us down, and it was then a case of catching up to get a good result back. I’d hoped to beat Andy Scott, but I just got pipped at the death. Sam was great alongside me all day, and really started getting into it and telling me to speed up! Another good event all round for Oulton Park, so thank you to everyone involved.”

Fifth on the road went to the spectacular Darrian of Joshua Davey who survived front wheel damage following a trip through a pothole, but it did not deter him as he romped to class C spoils. Another Darrian followed closely, driven by Barry Morris who beat the lead Escort of Steve Tilburn to the D1 class win. Richard Wells and Paul Smith’s Mitsubishis were next up, the top 10 rounded out by Paul Murro’s Escort Mk2.

Former BTCC star Paul O’Neill and journalist Jack Benyon steered their Mazda MX-5 to a spectacular 18th overall, earning the MX5 class spoils while taking the fight to the quicker class C cars along the way.

Class C

With Davey’s dominance making the headlines, Jack Ives and Dave Read were best of the rest in class C in their Ford Escort. The pair ran second throughout but managed to keep Antony Allery’s Escort RS at bay in their own personal dice.

Davey’s win also confirmed maximum MN points for the Darrian man, who intends to launch a championship tilt this year after a strong start. “That’s the plan”, he said. “It feels good so far”

Problems befell numerous rivals. Cathy Sewart’s season opener was blighted by a fuel issue on the opening stage, while the Escort of Mike English could not capitalise after it suffered water-assisted mechanical gremlins following a trip through the watersplash in the afternoon.

Class B

The battle in class B was dominated by the returning Chris Ruck and Steve Harris in their unique left-hand drive Vauxhall Corsa. Ruck also claimed full MN points in class.

The pair romped over two minutes clear of their nearest rival, who turned out to be Paul Gorge in the Mazda MX-5 formerly driven by team owner Paul Sheard. Connor Tolson and Ashleigh Morris recovered to challenge Gorge, but came narrowly short.

Class A

The class A dice was a thriller, decided on the final stage. Problems befell the erstwhile leader Nicky Cowperthwaite as he dropped 23s in his Vauxhall Corsa, handing the class win to Ben Wilson by 13s.

Neither the Vauxhall or Citroen drivers were eligible for championship points however, meaning that MN spoils went to Ron Walker’s Ford Puma after Mark Blackmore’s heartbreaking last-stage retirement while in the prime position.

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