Ryan Champion has become the first non-Ford Escort driver to win the Roger Albert Clark Rally by winning the epic five-day event in 2021 with a Porsche 911.
Since the historic rally’s inception in 2004, no car other than a Ford Escort Mk1 or Mk2 has topped the podium, but after several of their Escort rivals fell by the wayside this year, Champion and co-driver Craig Thorley have made history, beating Seb Perez/Gary McElhinney and Adrien Hetherington/Ronan O’Neill who completed the podium.
Beginning on Thursday November 25 and ending on Monday November 29, the RAC Rally was the longest event both in terms of duration and stage mileage to be held in the UK for several years. And with the absence of Rally GB from the World Rally Championship calendar, it was the first major, multi-day rally to take place in Britain for two years.
Pre-event favorites and winners of the past two editions, Marty McCormack and Barney Mitchell, pulled out of the event just a week before it began with work commitments taking priority, so Jason Pritchard/Phil Clarke assumed the position of favorites having challenged for the rally win in both 2017 and ’19.
The three-time British Historic champions duly led the way after the first evening in Kielder forest, opening up an advantage over Paul Barrett/Gordon Noble and Osian Pryce/Noel O’Sullivan.
But the first evening was punishing as Roger Chilman/Patrick Walsh were one of several crews to be caught out, crashing out on the very first stage – eliminating one of the expected victory contenders in an instant.
Matthew Robinson/Sam Collis – winners in 2014 – aren’t big fans of night-time stages and lay an early seventh, but were on the pace in the daylight on Friday (another leg in Kielder) before a puncture and then a crash later in the day curtailed their event.
Out front, despite pressure from Barrett in particular, Pritchard was in control and carried a 37-second lead into Saturday’s Scottish leg despite some truly dreadful conditions that Rhys Yates – a former WRC2 pilot who’s competed on events like Monte Carlo before – described as “the most difficult I have ever driven in”.
Storm Arwen had hit the rally route, with high winds and snowfall blighting the final two stages. Most competitors made it through albeit at a snail’s pace, but others were stranded on the stages with trees falling down and had to sleep in their cars overnight, still stuck on the stage.
This disruption prompted the event organizer to cancel Saturday’s leg and instead competitors were afforded the chance to do a proper re-prep as the rally headed down the M6 to Wales for the final two days.
The Gartheiniog stage was axed from the itinerary but there were still four stages on offer, and it was third-placed Pryce – who felt he would’ve been quicker on maps than the organizers’ pacenotes earlier in the event having spent the season making his own notes in the British Rally Championship – that set the pace in his local forests.
But the rally would turn on its head on the first pass of Dovey as Pritchard crashed. “Soft mud in a logging section put us sideways and I clipped a log pile and rolled out, [it was] all over in seconds,” he explained.
That handed Barrett the lead, but Pryce was coming at him hard from behind. Beginning Sunday 2m50s behind, Pryce had closed to 1m46s adrift ahead of the final day on Monday – where again the rally would turn on its head.
Barrett knew he needed to keep his foot on the gas to resist Pryce’s charge but he threw away victory when he too rolled his Escort on the Walters stage.
“We had to try and keep Osian behind us, we didn’t want to give him a whole load of time in there so we were going reasonably sharp but not being dangerous,” admitted co-driver Noble.
“But we just got caught out, simple as that. It was a slow corner but we slid wide, there was a small bank and the car rolled. The steering arm then broke so that was then us stranded, not able to get out. Stuck, we then realized Osian wasn’t actually coming behind us.”
That’s because Pryce, agonizingly, was also out. A rear stub axle broke on his Escort under braking and sent him spinning into a bank, ending his rally when he should’ve inherited the lead.
Champion meanwhile had executed the perfect game plan. Staying out of trouble, he was fourth for much of the event before climbing all the way up to first as his rivals fell by the wayside.
Suddenly he had a 4m05s rally lead which he duly protected to the end to add another major historic rally victory to his CV following success on the East Africa Safari Classic in 2017.
Perez survived a collision with a deer on Friday to secure second ahead of Hetherington, while 2021 British Historic champions Ben Friend and Cliff Simmons missed out on the podium by just six seconds after four hours of competitive driving.
Yates and co-driver Max Freeman completed the top five.
Overall classification after SS31:
1 Champion/Thorley (Porsche) 4h13m10s
2 Perez/McElhinney (F0rd) +4m04s
3 Hetherington/O’Neill (Ford) +5m20s
4 Friend/Simmons (Ford) +5m26s
5 Yates/Freeman (Ford) +7m39s
6 Gough/Bowen (Ford) +9m28s
7 Webster/Rogers (Ford) +12m16s
8 Milner/Jarvis (F0rd) +14m02s
9 Street/Jones (Ford) +14m13s
10 Kakad/Aldridge (Ford) +17m14s