MSN Rally Championship | Bird flies to victory on MSNCRC opener
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Bird flies to victory on MSNCRC opener

Frank Bird and Jack Morton kicked their Neil Howard Stages bad luck to one side with a spectacular win in the 2021/22 Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship opener at Oulton Park.

The pair, previously denied from winning positions by mechanical problems and most recently a technical exclusion in May when taking the fight to BRC regulars, hit back in style with a scorching win in winter conditions to kick off the season in the Neil Howard Stages in assoc. with Graham Coffey & Co. Solicitors at the Cheshire circuit.

It would be a victoy that created history, Bird and Morton now the first rally crew to have won at every national circuit to have hosted a rally, after beating their nearest rivals by over a minute with a near-perfect string of eight stage wins from eight contested over a day of changeable conditions.

The Ford Fiesta Rally 2 pair were pushed hard initially by a brace of fellow Fiesta continigents in the morning, Neil Roskell taking up the mantle of his potential championship rival with his best rally performance to date by setting a string of quick stage times to move him away from previous champion Barry Morris, making his series return.

Despite a pair of awkwardly-timed downpours in the afternoon making tyre choices tricky for stages five and six, wet tyres went on the cars at the head of the field to set up a potential dogfight. Sportscar and single-seater racer Bird showed his experience however to eek out a winning margain of 1m40s by the final time check and lay down a major marker to his rivals.

Roskell showed his love for tricky conditions by steaming clear of his opposition behind to seal a personal best result of second place, beating Morris who held off the attentions of Ford drivers Darrell Taylor and series sponsor, Graham Coffey, Taylor stealing fourth place by just four seconds thanks to a late charge in the final three stages under darkness.

One of several Ford Fiesta converts, the new car of series regular Nick Whale shone throughout the day as the former BMW driver took the final time check in sixth place, beating the Skoda of Tony Robinson in the process.

Josh Payton enjoyed another of his regular giant-killing performances in his Ford Escort Mk2 for a Class C win, finishing ahead of Mike English in his all-new Fiesta R5 after the latter began his transition from a Mk2 in a learning experience for the series stalwart. Behind them, a heroic effort by the CGS team allowed Rob Hughes to reach the finish in a top-10 position after a puncture initially hurt his chances, the team repairing a gearbox issue in the afternoon within a mere 40-minute period.

Frank Bird: “A really good day. It’s only our second rally in the car and its second win, so I couldn’t ask for much more really. A few little tricky bits along the rally, but we were making sure not to take too many risks. Thanks to Jack for keeping me on my toes all day; we had a few stressful moments due to the rain with a couple of late tyre calls, but it wasn’t too bad once we put the wet tyres on which were used for the rest of the afternoon.”

Neil Roskell: “It’s been fantastic today. I think, for us, the biggest thing was tyre choice, but when it started raining I loved the wet. It was about getting it right and seeing what others did, then when we looked at it we stuck the wets on and I got full control of the car and knew what to do with it. We’ve had a fantastic run, both done a brilliant job and we set some good times today. I’m not going to tempt fate for Cadwell, but we’ll try our best to go one better!” 

Barry Morris: “It’s been a good start to the season for us. A good steady run all day really, and also good work from Marc [Fowler] for stepping in to co-drive for me – I’ve been very lucky to get him. The northern Ireland championship finished two weeks ago, so we probably didn’t have as much seat time as we would have liked, but we’ve done a great job and scored good points today.”

Class A

Reigning Class A champion Christopher Newton was untouchable on the first round of his title defence, climbing his Vauxhall Nova up the field into a spectacular top-15 result overall against all odds and better machinery around him. Nicky Cowperthwaite was closest to spoiling the show in an Opel Corsa, with the top three in the class rounded out by the charging Nissan Micra of James Hardy.

Class B

Class B was left to a thrilling fight up front between two championship contenders. With reigning champion Chris Ruck absent and hopeful of a swift return, Ben Wilkinson (Peugeot 106 Maxi) and Alex Cannon (Ford Fiesta R2) took up the mantle of entertaining the onlookers in a battle for class success. The pair were never separated by more than five seconds in individual stage times throughout the morning, until the wet run through SS5 produced an eight-second swing in favour of Cannon to seize the chance. He took it, surviving a four-second disadvantage on the final run of the day to narrowly clinch a fine win by a mere four seconds at the finish. Richard Kay rounded out the top three in class for championship points.

Class C

Of the 17 finishers in a competitive Class C, it was another dominant performance from last season’s class champions Josh Payton and Jamie Vaughan that took the headlines. The pair were almost four minutes clear of their nearest rival, which would be the returning Rob Cox who launched a strong return to the championship with a new Honda-powered Citroen C2, finishing second despite fighting against a gearbox drama. Phillip House (Ford Escort) rounded out the top three MSN runners in the class, ahead of Adam Midghall and Lucy Wigley.

Class D

The split Class D included a D1 triumph for Barry Morris on top of his overall podium, but it was the D2 battle that proved intense from lights to flag. The returning Ryan Connolly in his Ford Puma went into combat with the Honda Civic of Thomas Barlow, but the former was forced to play catch up after losing over a minute on SS1. Barlow leaped at the opportunity to grab a huge class win, and gave as good as he might to hang on for a fantastic victory by 16 seconds. Kevin Gilgrist and Keith Anglesea were next up.


Class E

The Subaru of Greg Williams was a popular sight with fans, and came out on top in the battle to win E1 ahead of Michael Stanley, while overall winner Bird added the E2 class spoils to his tally.

The series next heads to Cadwell Park for Round Two of the championship which will be The NHMC Cadwell Park Stages on Sunday 21 November.

RESULTS:

  1. Frank Bird/Jack Morton (Ford Fiesta R2) 50m47s
  2. Neil Roskell/Shaun Layland (Ford Fiesta R5) +1m40s
  3. Barry Morris/Marc Fowler (Darrian T90 GTR) +2m45s
  4. Darrell Taylor/Dylan Thomas (Ford Fiesta R2) +3m08s
  5. Graham Coffey/Matt Daniels (Ford Fiesta) +3m12s
  6. Nick Whale/Sally Whale (Ford Fiesta) +3m29s 
  7. Tony Robinson/Paul Spooner (Skoda Fabia R5) +4m06s
  8. Josh Payton/Jamie Vaughan (Ford Escort Mk2) +4m41s
  9. Mike English/Andy Robinson (Ford Fiesta R2) +4m52s
  10. Rob Hughes/Sion Cunniff (Ford Fiesta R5) +5m01s
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