If you’re a fan of circuit racing and are involved in rallying, you tend to keep quiet. Rallying types don’t always take too kindly to ’roundy roundy’, preferring the rugged, nomadic charms of their chosen discipline.
Imagine the shock and horror then when this year‘s British Rally Championship cast found out their opening round was not going to be in a classic Welsh forest, on Irish Tar or Kielder… it was Oulton Park.
No thanks, I think I’ll pass.
Pass they didn’t though, as over 45 crews threw their entries into the single-venue Neil Howard Stages at a venue that appears a complete antithesis to what the BRC has stood for over the last 63 years.
I’ll stop myself there though, as attitudes toward round one could not really have been further from the picture I’ve just painted. And plus, Oulton has far more pedigree than it’s easy to assume.
While it may be an arena closely associated with Britain’s two other major motorsport championships – the British Touring Car Championship and British GT – the venue is of course not an unknown quantity in the rallying world as it was included as the first stage of Rally GB in 2019.
Neatly, Britain’s Kris Meeke took the final stage win of his World Rally Championship career on the test and it was a monstrous challenge. Slippery conditions – particularly on the rally school section – made it a nightmare and four of the top 10 times on the stage were set by Rally2 cars.
And then there’s the changing landscape of British (and, to a lesser extent, Irish) rallying at the moment. Forest events look under more threat than ever before, while single-venue rallies are booming. It only really makes sense to follow the market and the trends.
It’s also not like the very best drivers in the world have been immune to this style of competition. Remember last year’s thrilling World Rally Championship finale at Monza in Italy?
That worked, and in my opinion, so did Oulton Park in the BRC on Monday. To be honest, given the constant struggle within UK rallying for events to happen at all in the last 15 months, even a rally around the equivalent of a Walmart parking lot would have been sensational.
But needless hyperbole aside, it’s fair to say drivers were more than happy to take on the challenge. Of course most of them would rather be tackling the Manx International, but the world is a very different place now. Simply just to have a rally on in the UK is a feat at the moment. and that was felt by the competitors.
The contest was a corker too, with five drivers slugging it out for victory. GT racer Frank Bird was flying high in the opening phases, only for a spin on the sixth of eight stages to derail his attack. It would all become rather academic as his Fiesta Rally2 was excluded from its initial third place due to failing the weight check in scrutineering.
M-Sport driver Rhys Yates looked to be the man to benefit, only for an inspired Sam Moffett to grab the bull by the horns and launch himself into the lead on the penultimate test and not look back.
Reigning champion Matt Edwards and his new team-mate Osian Pryce were the others in the mix, regularly sharing stage times with Yates in their collective pursuit of Bird. Pryce was the man who took the third place Bird relinquished.
For many, given the unique nature of the rally, the goal was just to get through and bank some points ahead of six further forest and closed-road asphalt events. A sensible tactic that bore fruit for most on what was also an opportunity for many to accusom themselves to new-for-2021 machinery.
I won’t however shy away from saying that the more traditional multi-venue rallies, at least personally, are more intriguing encounters. But I am a fan of rolling the die.
Oulton Park was different, and the lack of any variation is an accusation lobbied at several event organizers in several major rallying championships right now. It’s to be applauded that BRC chiefs were brave enough to include this in the calendar, and who knows how valuable just having rallies in the bank could be further down the line if COVID-19 throws up more complications?
It would be easy to belittle the event – the lack of variation, the long waiting times, the inability to complete a pre-event recce or even use proper pacenotes – but that’s missing the point and the context.
In any other year, you probably wouldn’t see Oulton Park in the BRC. But in 2021 it served a purpose and did so terrifically. Furthermore, just because the event didn’t include all of those above factors, it didn’t make it easy. Several got it wrong with the various splits on stages – some even got disqualified for it.
Would we want to see Oulton back in 2022? It probably depends on the coronavirus situation. There’s certainly a market for single-venue rallying, but perhaps the BRC isn’t the best place for it given the caliber of driver it has proven to attract this term. Their aspirations tend to be for international competition, so aligning the calendar as closely to the WRC as possible has to be the aim.
But stranger things have happened, and a rally is better than no rally. I for one cannot tell you how nice it was simply to just be back. A classic season now awaits, and there should be no asterisk against the validity of the high-scorers from round one. They earned their keep by mastering the elements better than anyone else, and that after all is what rallying is all about.
Final positions after SS8
1 Sam Moffett/Keith Moriarty (Ford) 49m32s
2 Rhys Yates/James Morgan (Ford) +1s
3 Osian Pryce/Noel O’Sullivan (Volkswagen) +8s
4 Matt Edwards/Darren Garrod (Volkswagen) +13s
5 Mark Kelly/Neil Colman (Ford) +20s
6 Desi Henry/Dale Furniss (Hyundai) +22s
7 Joe Cunningham/Joshua Beer (Ford) +33s
8 James Yates/Tom Woodburn (Ford) +37s
9 Kevin Procter/Derek Fawcett (Ford) +42s
10 Seb Perez/Gary McElhinney (Ford) +45s