It was a strong showing under glorious blue Welsh skies for the Group N MG ZR double whammy in the Wales Rally GB first leg today.

MG's rally effort, which consists of rally legend Gwyndaf Evans and co-driver Claire Mole in the number 111 car and the media medley of F1 pundit Tony Jardine and The Times motoring maestro Kevin Eason in the slightly more battle scarred, and probably battle scared, 135 car, put on a fine performance on a day when many of the frontrunners saw their rally challenge evaporate.

With both crews' ZRs competing in the N3 class the emphasis for MG is to showcase the talents of the near showroom spec runner. With modifications running primarily to safety additions, the MG ZR still tackles the very same stages as the far more expensive, and removed from their original state, World Rally Cars.

Gwyndaf Evans is, of course, a rally legend, especially in his native Wales, whereas Tony Jardine is far less well known for his rally activities, although his experience does stretch back a good number of years. Both were performing admirably today, as were their ZRs.

For Gwyndaf, after running the Super 1600 in the British Rally Championship, it was a chance to learn a different specification car, and he certainly was enjoying what he found. Indeed, the Welsh Wizard was soon setting stage times to embarrass machinery in the classes above him.

The Jardine car was also putting in sterling service, though on the dent tally it was certainly edging ahead. A reprofiled bootlid however, was nothing to do with the exploits of Jardine and Eason, but rather an interesting scenario at scrutineering. Seems that someone omitted to apply the handbrake when the car was on the weighing scales, and there was nothing but a Mitsubishi to stop the ZR from rolling away...

Today took the media crew from the sublime to the ridiculous. A Dutch crew took issue with crack MG co-driver Kevin Eason, asking for Eason to book the Jardine ZR into a later stage start slot, and thus take a time penalty for the ZR, on one of the stages. This wasn't going to happen, insisted hardened newspaper hack Eason, though were the Dutch - who were recovering from an incident in their more powerful car - to catch the ZR on the stage, of course car 111 would do the decent thing and let them past. The only thing was, the Dutch weren't able to catch the nimble little ZR on the next stage, and it was only after a long straight on the next stage that they caught, and were let past, the MG.

It didn't do them much good however. A mere handful of corners later and the Dutch car had insisted its way through the foliage and into retirement. Oh, how Mr Eason laughed...

Elsewhere in the rally, which was once famed for its treacherous weather - but on the evidence of the start to this event and the weather last year, could well be gaining a new reputation for fine skies - there were plenty of retirements. There were offs aplenty from the frontrunners and there was even a fire in the cockpit of then championship contender Carlos Sainz's Citroen from the in-car camera.

Completing the Spaniard's bizarre final rally to 2003 - he had also spun his car on the way to the start line on Thursday's opening Super Special - the former multiple world champion then went on to ignore his co-driver, seemingly for no reason. "I heard Marc tell me it was a third-gear corner, but it simply didn't register with me - I went into the corner still in fifth," explained Carlos after his Wales Rally GB exit.

It all goes to show just how difficult this rallying lark is, and how well the MG Sport and Racing team can fly the British flag up against the big-boy multinational motor manufacturers. MG do, however, have a few cards up their sleeves, and more that a little F1 flavour to their Wales Rally GB effort. Cleaning the cars come the service stops in none-other than Jordan F1 designer Gary Anderson. Continuing the F1 theme, Gary could rest between his cleaning duties in MG's new team bus, which was seen in the F1 paddock not so very long ago...

Still, F1 team buses are necessary to keep the likes of Evans and Jardine in the manner they are accustomed to, and the likes of mg-xpower.com newshounds can also adapt to the surroundings. For Gwyndaf and co-driver Claire Mole the biggest upset of the day did come about in their new home, however. Seems the generator diesel level needs monitoring, otherwise the microwave has no power and rally drivers and co-drivers go hungry...

Driving on empty served up no detriment however and Gwyndaf at home was a slight to behold for the thousands of spectators on the stages. "I'm really comfortable with the speed of the MG," grinned Gwyndaf after SS3, Trawscoed. "With this being our first time out in the Group N car, how much punishment it could take compared to the Super 1600 is a bit of an unknown quantity for me, but the boys in the crew have given it a thorough check in service and so far things seem to be holding up incredibly well."

For Jardine and Eason it was a fine day, though once the darkness descended the experienced media duo did begin to think of a thing called ovaltine. "We've had an absolutely brilliant day, with the car performing superbly despite taking a lot of punishment over some extremely tough terrain," explained Tony.

"However, the last stage (Rheola 2) in the dark was at times frightening," he conceded. "We lost our place in the notes, survived a couple of really big moments that could have ended our rally and then rounded a bend to find about 30 spectators and marshals on the stage in the aftermath of one of the Dutch competitors crashing out - I think it's safe to say that we've had our share of dramas today."

From the co-drivers there were quite different perspectives. For the experienced Claire Mole it was an enjoyable experience, first day proper on the Wales Rally GB. "This morning has been really good. It's obviously a lot different to the Super 1600 but things are going really well at the moment," explained Claire early-on in the day. "Gwyndaf is driving a little conservatively to try and find the car's limits and ensure we get to the finish but it's really enjoyable out there."

For man from The Times Kevin Eason it was a bit more manic. "The going is slippery as hell and we've seen a lot of cars off in the first few stages - three in the first and eight in the second," explained the frontrunner in the rally's tightest overalls competition. "It's some of the roughest going I've seen and it'll be a real test of attrition to make it to the finish."

Ultimately, the Group N MG ZR is proving to be a cracking little car, ideally suiting to the conditions. "I'm very, very happy with it," beamed Gwyndaf as he headed to Friday night's Cardiff Super Special.

 

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