While tomorrow’s M-Sport Return to Rally Stages might be just a six-stage, single venue event as opposed to a three day World Rally Championship thriller, a rally is a rally. We’ve not had any of those for over five months now in the UK. At last, we’ve got an excuse to dust off the crystal ball and pick out some potential winners and dark horses.
However in the case of this event, picking a winner is fairly straightforward. M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson certainly thinks so too. Armed with M-Sport’s latest Rally1 Ford Fiesta, Matthew Wilson in a class of one even if the entry list suggests differently.
Behind him though, it really is anyone’s game. The field is split into four classes – aptly named Class 1, 2, 3 and 4 – with Class 1 for WRC cars, Class 2 for R5, Class 3 for turbocharged two-wheel-drive and Class 4 for non-turbocharged two-wheel-drive cars.
The rest of the Class 1 pack might feel slightly aggrieved at essentially being robbed of victory before they’ve even started – up against an ex-WRC driver with an extra 80 horsepower and a far more effective aerodynamic package – but much like in Formula 1, there’ll be an unofficial ‘Class B’ title to fight for.
A lot of these drivers haven’t competed for the longest period since they started rallying, so forget the idea that this event is a celebration of M-Sport: they’re out here to compete.
Josh Moffett – who in the space of the last two years has won the trifecta of Irish National, Tarmac and Forestry titles – is usually seen in a Hyundai i20 R5, but starts the rally as the highest seeded of ‘the rest’ in a Fiesta WRC, and is an obvious bet for success.
But Stephen Petch – the man who was leading the BTRDA series with two wins from two before it was canceled – can’t be ruled out in his Fiesta WRC and nor can Frank Bird in the Focus WRC07.
Bird’s is the only fully-active World Rally Car on the entry list, and despite it being the Bentley GT racer’s second ever gravel event, he has form. He won the Greystoke Stages last year on his gravel debut, with the stages this weekend identical to those used on that event. If you’ll excuse the pun, Bird should fly.
Class 2 is arguably creating the most intrigue though. A mammoth 19 Fiesta R5 cars will take the start in Greystoke, led by M-Sport’s WRC2 driver Adrien Fourmaux.
Fourmaux is a hot tip. After his disappointing early exit from Rally di Roma last month, he has a point to prove. And in this exact neck of the woods, he prospered back in March and won the Malcolm Wilson Rally: the last stage rally to run in the UK before the coronavirus brought rallying to a sudden halt.
He’ll be up against fellow M-Sport WRC2 driver Rhys Yates, who arguably has his best chance yet of toppling Fourmaux now he’s on home turf. On the two events the pair have started as team-mates, it’s Fourmaux who’s had the edge, and that’s bound to irk Yates.
Also in the Mk2 version of M-Sport’s Fiesta R5 are Irish visitors Joe McGonigle and brothers Cathan and Conor McCourt. Cathan – the 2019 Irish Forestry Champion – will be trying out his car for the first time and has a seat-time advantage over his rivals, having competed on Rally Liepaja last weekend.
Sam Moffett – brother of Josh and himself a winner of all three of the major Irish championships – is a strong tip too. Though he’d also switched to an i20 R5 for 2020, he’s spent the prior four years switching between a Fiesta R5 and Fiesta RS WRC, so knows the car intimately despite a general lack of action so far this year.
Other notable entries include former Junior WRC driver Tom Williams – godson of 2001 World Rally Champion Richard Burns – who makes his second start in an R5 car, Hugh Hunter who is always quick on gravel and Scottish driver Rory Young who always punches above his weight.
Class 3 will be a shoot-out between three hungry youngsters Finlay Retson, Elliot Payne and Eddie Lewis. Payne holds the ace in terms of recent seat-time – competing in March rather than February like Retson and Lewis – but in terms of overall experience, it’s Retson who is best placed with a full season already under his belt in the Ford Fiesta R2T ’19.
However, Lewis should be the man that comes out on top. Of the three, his Fiesta is the only one to be equipped with the latest Rally4 kit which boasts extra horsepower and better gear ratios among other changes.
M-Sport team principal Rich Millener has his work cut out in Class 4, with a range of Fiesta R2s and STs wading into battle. Ewan Tindall is the top seed of the bunch and showed good form on the Malcolm Wilson Rally back in March, but of course Millener is no stranger to Greystoke with it being M-Sport’s testing venue of choice.
The weather forecast looks ropey at best, so there could be multiple factors at play as the rally kicks off just after 9am on Saturday August 22.
DirtFish will be there bringing you all the action as the rally unfolds.