BRC title fight starts in Ulster
2 August 2009
The 51st year of the MSA British Rally Championship may have started back in the grey cold of Wales in March, but as far as the title fight between Keith Cronin/Greg Shinnors and Mark Higgins/Bryan Thomas is concerned, it starts on the Toddsleap.com Ulster International Rally in three weeks time.
That's not altogether fair on the other title protagonists though, since it is mathematically possible for anyone down to eighth place in the points table to snatch victory. However, the smart money is almost certainly on the pair at the top with two wins and two second places apiece, jostling for position on 76 points each.
Almost nobody would have guessed this at the start of the season though; Higgins fans were set to cheer on their triple BRC champion to a fourth title. But then came Cronin, stunning onlookers as he tied with Higgins on stage times at the first service halt of the year.
It has been one of the most entertaining scraps in the Championship's recent history since then, gravel wins for Cronin on the very last stage of rounds one and two, followed by a puncture and fight back on tarmac, which nearly saw a debut hat-trick. Never really doubting his ability, Higgins won in the Scottish Borders, but the combined stage times from the first three events left the pair split by just 0.4 of a second. Nail biting stuff.
Next was home tar where Higgins was sure to pull out all the stops. But Cronin astonished the crowds with awesome pace, even forcing an uncharacteristic Higgins error. Transmission problems for both crews left everyone on the edge of their seats as the scrap continued into Saturday afternoon, but another puncture for Cronin put paid to the battle, leaving Higgins with an historic fifth Manx win and the Championship all square.
The tussle for third place has been a thrilling affair too. While the pace of the other new youngsters in the BRC has not been quite on par with 22 year-old Cronin, the chasing pack has been getting steadily closer and there have been four different drivers on the podium's third step so far this season.
Stuart Jones' brief BRC appearance netted him the position in Wales, but it has been a sustained effort from Jonny Greer, Euan Thorburn, Dave Weston Jnr, David Bogie, Pirelli Star Driver winner Adam Gould and Alastair Fisher which has provided most of the entertainment.
These seven drivers have an average age of just 21, the youngest, (appropriately) Dave Weston Jnr, not celebrating his nineteenth birthday until three days after August's Ulster Rally ends. This astounding fact belies talent beyond their years, as Bogie, Gould and Fisher have taken third on rounds two to four respectively.
Their battles have been as hard fought as that at the front; Thorburn and Greer also holding third on the tarmac events before driveshaft problems for the Scot on home territory and a big off for Irishman Greer on the Manx Lanes. Gould has a couple of DNFs on his score sheet after a frustrating slip into a ditch on the Pirelli, joining Greer upside down on the Isle of Man.
In the top ten points mix are two front wheel drive youths; 23 year old Citroën driver Martin McCormack has popped some astonishing times and lies an amazing fifth in the BRC points table, while another youngster Tom Walster has also been inside the top ten on three events and lies eighth in his awesome Clio.
Pleased to be spoiling the low average age statistics and posting respectable times in his debut BRC season has been Chris Firth. The 40 year-old has moved up from National championships and although a costly incident with a Manx wall damaged the car, he continues to learn and improve.
The Toddsleap.com Ulster International Rally, which runs from August 21-22, will provide new challenges for all those drivers in their first British Rally Championship season, but even those who have been before will be presented with a tough competition as the event moves away from Armagh this year. The new Antrim base has opened up stage combinations that may have been used in the past, but some have not been seen on the Ulster for several years.
A Friday afternoon town centre start sees 45 stage miles over six stages, with a further 82 miles on Saturday completed just before six o'clock.