03 Feb Bird Delivers a Third Straight Win
In rallying, you can’t ask for much more than a 100% record, and single-seater specialist turned Ford Focus WRC07 pilot Frank Bird delivered a third overall win in 2020, and his third consecutive Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship maximum points haul. But it was far from easy.
The Focus was never short of speed in period – Bird’s model having been driven by Luis Perez Companc and Federico Villagra among others in the World Rally Championship – flowing through some of the world’s most exotic and difficult stages. But show the M-Sport built car a tight Lincolnshire hairpin and things start to go awry.
For the first three stages Bird stuttered and stalled as his rivals stole a march. Mark Kelly – a regular challenger for top points in the championship in the 2017-18 season – is just contesting odd rounds these days but his Millington-powered Escort was shot out of a cannon at Cadwell, launching into an early lead with Neil Colman alongside.
But that early pace on a wet opener slowed slightly on the next test, as Paul Smith – a star of the last round as he looks to get to grips with his new Ford Fiesta R5 – went quickest as Bird once again struggled with the complexities of Cadwell.
However, there’s no shortage of motivation for Bird, driving the car that his superbike team owner Paul has won BTRDA gravel rallies in. Cadwell is British bike racing’s holy place, and to win here would mean a lot to Bird and his family.
And with that, the tides turned. Bird edged into a two second lead having taken 4s it of his closest rival in Kelly. More thought gathering in the break only made Bird a more potent formula up front later in the day.
With Frank and co-driver Jack Morton set for a sterling afternoon, the battle behind was set for Kelly and Smith (partnered by Dale Bowen), as they pulled away from Subaru driver John Griffiths – in his defence in heavier, more uncompetitive machinery than the cars in front.
The big loss for Smith was on stage one when he lost 16s to Kelly in the wet which he amusingly compared driving to “bingo”.
He’d have to spend the rest of the day clawing that back. On stages six and eight the pair tied, but Smith had the gap down to eight seconds moving into the final stage to set up a sterling finale in just his second rally in the Fiesta. However, true to form, the pair tied again!
Smith was left to rue his form in the wet on the first stage, although he bag’s a second overall podium in a row in a brilliant start to his R5 career. Kelly said he felt something in the engine on the last stage, but hopefully the Lee Holland Memorial Rally sponsor will escape trouble next time out.
Griffiths was left in a somewhat no man’s land position, well clear of fifth but out of the fight for the podium. However, his performance with the big burly Subaru around a tight and twisty Cadwell left no one questioning the crew’s ability, that’s for sure. A step forward came from a new engine for he and regular navigator Nigel Wetton.
Former MN championship class winners Stephen/Jack Tilburn took fifth in thier Ford Escort, after a thrilling battle for the second half of the top 10 positions. With many squabbles behind him, Tilburn drove a quick and sensible rally to ensure he was the one who stayed out front.
Barry Morris ended as his closest challenger, the Darrian ace having to work past erstwhile Championship leader Mike Taylor’s Talbot Sunbeam Lotus mid-way through the day. On the last stage Morris all but halved the gap to Tilbury but it wasn’t enough, and he finished six seconds adrift. However, in good news, Morris takes the championship lead on dropped scores with the result.
There was final stage drama elsewhere though as Rob Swann stole seventh from Taylor at the last in his Ford Fiesta R5. Barbados rally regular Swann delivered a sterling comeback drive to secure the position, although Taylor will be happy with more championship points bagged.
Brands Hatch star Richard Wells took ninth in his Mitsubishi Lancer E9, and another Barbados regular and Wales Rally GB National rally winner Roger Duckworth snuck into the top 10 late on.
As the championship race hots up, Bird’s turbo issue at Oulton Park and skipping the second round means even if he wins the remaining rounds, he’ll need some help to score the overall title. With dropped scores taken into account, Barry Morris leads with Tilburn, Taylor and Wells in hot pursuit.
Adam and Ray Ripper dominated the Class A proceedings after taking control of the category on stage two, but it was almost lights out for the pair as they broke a headlight on a board on the first test.
In a similar Micra, James Hardy and Nick Wilkins were a minute behind the Rippers in second, fending off a late charge from the Vauxhall Nova of Matt Wood and Peter Kettle.
Ian Barnes/Jason Cutter’s Ford KA earned fourth, ahead of the stage one winners Sir Andrew McAlpine and Andrew Merrifield.
After an off for Ben Tuck, the Class B fight was played out by Chris Ruck and Steve Harris’s Vauxhall Corsa, and Bob Vardy’s Ford Fiesta R200 co-driven by M-Sport WRC 2 driver and regular MN Circuit Rally Championship attendee Rhys Yates.
Ruck and Harris made use of the extra grunt in the Corsa to take a one-second victory on the very last stage. Behind Vardy, Ashleigh Morris proved her consistency with another podium – Jamie MacTavish the loyal navigator alongside – as Mark Peterson/Jim Bowie and Connor Tolson/Brian Ilaria completed the top five.
MN Championship sponsor Mike English of Cetus Solutions and Andy Robinson turned in a sterling class win aboard their Ford Escort Mk2. Ryan Connolly/Chris Allen held third all day, but were harried by ace Sunbeam Talbot Lotus driver Cathy Sewart and co-driver Colin Stephens. Sewart and Stephens momentarily lost position in class to Stuart Ranby/Jinathan Stockdale on the penultimate test, but roared past once more on the last stage.
Stephen and Jack Tilburn were worthy D1 class winners with an excellent fifth overall finish, while Frank Bird and Jack Morton took overall victory and the Class D2 win.
The next round of the championship is at Snetterton on February 15th. Tickets are available here: https://snetterton.msv.com/SN-20-Rally/Admission-Tickets