Irishman Keith Cronin upset the form book by beating multiple British Rally Champion, and pre event favourite, Mark Higgins fair and square on the opening round of the 2009 MSA British Rally championship, the Bala based Bulldog International Rally of North Wales.

Despite the economic woes gripping the country the entry list for this year's Bulldog Rally, included on the British Rally Championship calendar for the first time, was at full capacity even before the official deadline had been reached. This proved frustrating for double British Champion Guy Wilks who suffered the ignominy of being placed on the reserve list!

This all meant that Mark Higgins, who lives less than 20 miles from the stages, was the pre event favourite despite returning for another crack at the title in the ageing Subaru Impreza N11 that he had used in 2008. Mark duly went quickest on the opening stage, but was a mere 1 second faster than Irishman Cronin, in a Mitsubishi Evo 9, with Higgins team mate, and Pirelli Star Driver, Adam Gould third quickest in his new Subaru N14. One of the pre rally hopefuls, Stuart Jones, picked up a puncture 3 miles from the end of the stage and dropped 30 seconds.

Stage 2, the high speed Aber-Hirnant, saw the top five separated by less than 10 seconds! Cronin had piped Higgins by just 1 second, with young Swede Andreas Sjolander, making his four wheel drive debut, third quickest. At first service all of the top drivers were commenting on the atrocious weather conditions, having encountered everything from snow and hail to heavy winds and rain on the opening two tests. The rest of the top ten was a battle of youth, with Stuart Jones in fourth and fighting off a bevy of Scottish talent in the shape of his team mate David Bogie, Euan Thorburn and Dave Weston Junior.

The third stage, Gartheniog, saw Thorburn slide off and into retirement, but up ahead Higgins was quickest again but only by a mere 2 seconds. Jones was third fastest but admitted that the time loss with the opening stage puncture was too much to claw back and was now focused on consolidating third position. However he then made life more difficult for himself by rolling on the very next stage, dropping just over a minute and falling back into the clutches of Gould, who was adapting well to the new Subaru.

At the final service Higgins held a slim 9 second lead over Cronin but admitted to driving flat out all morning. The battle for the final podium position was just as close, with a mere 20 seconds separating third from eighth position overall! The second run through Gartheniog saw Cronin pull out all of the stops, stopping the clocks quicker than Higgins and carried a slim 3 second lead into the final stage of the rally. But when Higgins damaged a wheel half way through the test he chose to back off and guarantee himself second overall!

Jones held on to take third, whilst Gould, Bogie and Weston junior made up the rest of the top six, all separated by less than thirty seconds after over 80 miles of high speed rallying.

Class R3 honours went to the rapid Renault Clio of Tom Walster, who also finished ninth overall, and over a minute and a half ahead of his nearest rival. Class R2 was a purely Citroen affair with both Andrew Hockridge and Martin McCormack debuting new C2R2 Max cars. Defending champion Jason Pritchard had upgraded his championship winning car to 'Max' specifications whilst Mark Gamble, the 2008 Suzuki Swift Champion, was out in a new Citroen C2R2.

The battle was between McCormack and Pritchard all day, with Jason taking time to adjust to a new co-driver initially but once the all Welsh crew had found their rhythm Jason took chunks of time out of Martin, eventually winning by 14 seconds. Gamble had an interesting day as he learned his new car, but returned to Bala with third position to his name. Hockridge had suffered the worst of luck in the days leading up to the event when his car was involved in a road traffic accident and had to be rebuilt, using suspension off of his 2008 C2R2, overnight. The car never handled properly all day and the Welshman was disappointed to be so far off the pace.

Class R1 saw the Suzukis return for a second season, and proving that rallying is not a sexist sport, was won by rapid Australian woman driver Molly Taylor. Molly had shown flashes of her speed on the International Rally of Yorkshire last year but the young Aussie was on fine form in the Welsh forests. Her eventual winning margin over Luke Pinder was a stunning 25 seconds, but to be fair, Luke did have problems of his own when he hit a pheasant and smashed the windscreen near the end of the rally.

With a healthy entry of over forty cars registered in the main British Rally Championship field, along with a further twenty in the BRC Challenge the 2009 MSA British Rally Championship looks set for a strong season. And if Keith Cronin can maintain his momentum and Stuart Jones is able to debut his new Mitsubishi Evo 10 in time, Mark Higgins might just have a fight on his hands this year!

by Geoff Mayes