BRC’s big reboot gets off to a tricky start

David Evans gives his analysis of the tumultuous North West Stages event

Chris Ingram / Alex Kihurani – Volkswagen Polo GTI R5

At the junction of Tinker’s Lane and Trough Road, sheltering from a brisk wind and waiting for rally cars, we were looking for the positives. At least it wasn’t raining. It started raining. That just about summed up the opening round of the British Rally Championship.

Before we get into this, it’s worth pointing out that I have spent a good while trying to spin this one. I’ve worked with events for long enough to have a genuine insight into the effort that went into Saturday’s North West Stages. From the clerk of the course down, every one of those volunteers put hours, days and weeks into their rally. They deserve a day in the sunshine.

Sadly, Saturday wasn’t it. It was, instead, the perfect storm. There were crashed cars blocking roads, a tractor parked on one stage and quad bikes reported on another. Two stages were cancelled, or was it the whole morning? Who knew? As cars arrived – seemingly from all angles – into service, co-drivers ran in every direction trying to figure out what was going on.

The car park was full, the lanes were packed, fans turned away and went home to watch the telly instead. Saturday was a tough watch. Everybody needed a break.

And, in the afternoon, they got one. A clear run, five stages managed well and with cars arriving around the time they’d been expected. And, of course, there was a Chris Ingram win.

Good for him. Ingram’s been through it in recent years – his struggle, both financially and mentally, to win the 2019 European Rally Championship title is something we will document comprehensively in the coming months. But for now, he’s proved a few of his doubters wrong.

Ingram shunned British competition in the early part of his career, preferring to cut his teeth in Europe, learning his craft on the continent. That put a few backs up in and around home: did he think he was too good for the BRC?

Actually, no. He just felt the investment in his future was better spent elsewhere. But on Saturday he showed the world the way home. To his home.

Meirion Evans / Jonathan Jackson - Volkswagen Polo GTi R5

Meirion Evans finished third in a Toyota GR Yaris Rally2; the car which Ingram will switch to later in the season

Standing not far into Saturday morning’s opener, a junction right in the trees opened out into a quick – and quicker – narrow lane. At the exit of a top-gear left there was a bump before the cars rocketed on down the hill. This was the classic recce-to-rally conundrum. In practice, the bump would be nothing at all. But with a Volkswagen Polo R5 wound up in fifth, it would be very different.

Ingram’s speed through there was definitely a step ahead. Testament to that was the departure of wet wheel tracks from mother earth, only to reappear someway down the road. He’d very definitely flown. Osian Pryce’s Ford Fiesta Rally2 went similarly ballistic.

Testament to just how tricky these stages were was the marshal who ran up the field, waving his arms and warning of a car off. James Ford had carried a touch too much speed down the hill, his Citroën C3 Rally2 touched a compression which sent him and Neil Shanks off to the right. Both off-side wheels were swiped against a tree, the car spun and dumped in the middle of the road.

Stage cancelled. Not really anybody’s fault, part of the game. The second stage ran as planned, but the third was interrupted again after a tractor made its way into the road. This is where things started to unravel. Seven cars made it through the stage with a representative time before it was stopped. There was already a sizey gap between cars after Ford’s shunt, but that was now exacerbated. The lead crews arrived at the start of stage four and were held there. The general feeling was that a rapid decision should have brought the cars straight back to service, absorb as much lateness as possible via the regroup, put the morning behind them and enjoy some sport through the afternoon.

Osian Pryce / Rhodri Evans - Ford Fiesta Rally 2

Osian Pyrce was running in an impressive second place in his BRC return, before a mechanical failure caused his retirement

Instead, the cars were held for an hour and a half at the start of the stage and, even after that wait, those of us gathered between Tinker’s and Trough didn’t get to see any competitive action.

Lessons will be learned from Saturday, but it raised more than the odd question of whether Britain’s premier rally series was the right place for such lessons. Saturday morning did nobody any favours.

But what about the BRC? There was no shortage of hype and hullaballoo before the start. Did it live up to it? What’s the measure on that? If it’s the number of cars, then no doubt. There was no shortage of pukka Rally2 and R5 kit out there.

Entertainment value? Pretty good. Pick the right spot and these cars are still spectacular.

Ollie Mellors / Ian Windress - Proton Iriz R5

Oliver Mellors turned heads with his colorful livery

Career progression? Possibly. Ingram and Pryce are masters with plenty of WRC time under their belts. Will Creighton was strong in second and Meirion Evans an emerging star in his Toyota in third.

Tell you what, I’m going to reserve judgement until we get to the woods. Round two moves to mid-Wales for the likes of Myherin and Hafren. Let’s see who does what when it comes to the proper hero-makers.

Before I sign off, I have to mention Oliver Mellors’ Proton. Did you see it? If ever there was something to brighten Saturday morning, it was the MEM-built Iriz R5. Short of a sponsor and staring down the lens at an all-white livery, MEM owner Chris Mellors gave Anna-Louise Felstead a blank canvas. The result was a stunning Monaco Grand Prix Historique-inspired Proton painting.

Mellors is, obviously, hoping to replace Felstead’s work with a livery reflecting a season-long deal with a major multi-national. If that doesn’t come through for round two, there’s plenty more art to be had.