Stone relights his Protyre Asphalt Rally Championship title fire with maximum points in Northern Ireland

John Stone has re-ignited his Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship title challenge by scoring maximum points on the Carryduff Forklift Down Rally in his Legend Fires-backed Ford Fiesta WRC.

Co-driven by Jack Morton, the Blackburn driver was fastest out of the blocks on a very wet and slippery opening stage to open up an immediate advantage – which was the start of a titanic battle between Stone and arch rival Damian Cole, who immediately set about fighting back after an over-cautious start. As Cole began his fight back, Stone lost a slight bit of momentum on SS2 when a software issue with the new boost pack on his ex-Mikko Hirvonen car made it feel down on power, but he’d retained his lead at the end of a tricky opening loop of three stages.

Both cars and drivers were back to full speed in time for the all-important 23.2 mile middle loop of five stages, but try as he might Cole couldn’t quite regain all the earlier time lost. Just 13.8 separated them as they headed into the final 16.85 mile loop, which contained a repeat of the three longest stages. As Cole pushed even harder, Stone was able to control the gap and take a very well-earned maximum points haul. The result moves Stone up to sixth in the overall drivers’ standings, making him a serious title contender as the two scores to drop rule will count in his favour on the final two events.

Despite a torrential overnight storm leaving the opening loop of stages very wet and slippery, Cole was at a loss as to how he’d dropped so much time on the opening stage. But after that he and co-driver Paul Spooner flew over the remaining ten stages, and whilst only a handful of seconds separated Cole and Stone all event, the six time Asphalt champion eventually finished second, just 16 seconds behind, in his Get Connected/Energizer-backed Fiesta WRC.

John Devlin might be a local man who knows the stages well, but his performance in his Escort Mk2 was nonetheless outstanding. Re-united with his normal co-driver John McCarthy, the Banbridge driver charged through a waterlogged opening stage and pressed on when the roads quickly dried in the warm breeze to score third place, and maximum class, points. While Devlin leads the B11 drivers’ category, Ashley Trimble heads the co-drivers’ section, having navigated successfully for David Armstrong (Escort Mk2).

Ross Brusby/Dave Robson also put their Northern Ireland rallying experienced to good use to take fourth place points after a magnificent trouble-free run in their Chesterfield Transporters-backed Escort Mk2.

Disaster struck Wayne Sisson when a suspension joint broke on his AMS Arnside Motorsport Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X, folding the rear right wheel under the car and spinning him around. By luck, it all happened within sight of his service crew at the EIKON Spectator Stage (SS3) and he was able to complete the short test on three wheels and get into service having lost only 30 seconds. After that, he and co-driver Michael Hendry had a great run to score fifth place points and maintain their class B14 lead.

Alan Kirkaldy continues to lead the R5 category after a good day in his Cairnsmill Caravan Park Fiesta R5, although the St Andrews driver might have finished third had the master switch not turned itself off after a heavy landing on the Hamilton’s Folly South test. He and co-driver Richard Crozier had to free-wheel down a narrow section of road to a junction before jumping out to reset the exterior kill switch before continuing, losing a minute. It was still a very impressive performance, which moves Kirkaldy up to second in the overall drivers’ standings, 32 points behind Cole.

Darren Atkinson had an eventful rally in his Atkinsons Sandblasting/Dennison Trailers/S&W Fabrication-backed Escort Mk2. His first rally in Northern Ireland didn’t start well, booking into the SS1 time control late and receiving a 1min 20sec penalty – and then he did the opening stage with the volume on his new digital intercom turned down, so he couldn’t hear co-driver Phil Sandham. They drove brilliantly after that, and even survived a late scare when a problem with the alternator saw the car stop on the road section to the final stage. They managed to fix it, but the earlier time penalty dropped them down the order. Their standings in the Asphalt Championship remain extremely good, however, with Atkinson third in the overall drivers’ table and leading class B13, and Sandham leads both the B13 and overall co-drivers’ sections.

There was a great family battle in the Century Autosport team, with father Chris Ford driving his Fiesta R5, which had received an engine rebuild since Rally van Wervik, and his son James Ford, who normally drives the team transporter to and from events and services for his dad, piloting a 2.5-litre Duratec-engined Escort Mk2. James’ mechanical skills came to the fore on SS4 when the steering rack came loose, and he also survived a very close call when he hit a wooden post after a heavy landing. Despite a spin on the final loop, James and co-driver Michael Gilbey finished 54.5 seconds ahead of Chris who, co-driven by Neil Colman, enjoyed a faultless drive in the more modern four-wheel drive Ford.

Having navigated over the famous Hamilton’s Folly stage many times, this was only Dai Roberts’ second rally as a driver on the island of Ireland, having contested the Circuit of Kerry earlier this year. After a cautious start, he and Pete Phennah pushed hard in their Peugeot 205 GTi to score a fantastic top ten Asphalt Championship finish and take maximum points in class B10.

There is no change in the B10 leaderboard, however, as neither class leader Rhidian Daniels, nor second placed Adrian Drury, reached the finish. Daniels and co-driver Tomos Whittle suffered “gremlins from start to finish” in their JJ Aggregates-backed Citroën C1 Max; first the fuel pump started to play up on the opening stage and finally a lead to the coil pack melted on SS6, putting them out. Drury and Cat Lund were aiming for a strong performance, but retired early in their Drury Deliveries Peugeot 106 GTi.

Mike Pugsley/Marc Clatworthy have retained their class B12 title after another fine drive in their 1974 Escort Mk1 RS2000. A loose lead caused a misfire on the opening stage, but after that they enjoyed a great run, benefitting from the experience gained on the Down Rally last year to carry more speed and have greater confidence with their pace notes. Three class wins and two seconds gives the Welsh duo an unassailable class lead with two rounds remaining.

Four maximum scores from five rounds has also given Will Mains/Claire Williams the 1400S class title. For his first rally in Northern Ireland, the Llandysul driver had wheeled out his white Ray Thomas & Sons/WCS Environmental-backed Vauxhall Nova, which he last drove on the Masterpixel Media Manx National Rally, and put in another very impressive giant-killing performance.

Oli Hopkins had an early scare when the throttle pedal on his Hopkins Motorsport-owned Mitsubishi Mirage stuck opening, creating a “four hundred yard rollercoaster” which luckily happened on a long straight. That was quickly fixed, only for the water pump belt to break on the first run through Hamilton’s Folly North (SS5), putting him and co-driver Ian Taylor out of the event.

Geoff Glover had rebuilt the axle on his rear-wheel drive Astra for the Down Rally, but he and co-driver Keith Barker retired on the road section between service and SS4. The non-finish has dropped the Middlesbrough driver down to second in class B11, but with leader Devlin yet to decide whether to contest the Mewla Rally or not, and unable to contest the final round on Otterburn, Glover looks favourite to clinch the class title.

John MacNiven/Graeme Kermode were hoping for a trouble-free run in their JAM Drilling-backed Subaru Impreza, but despite a major mechanical overall following the Manx National the Oban pairing didn’t unfortunately complete the opening loop of stages. They set a magnificent time on the opening stage, despite going through the flying finish backwards, but a severe misfire on the very next test saw the car lose power and refuse to re-start, putting them out.

John Stone (1st) said: “This is an absolutely brilliant result for us. We’ve driven within ourselves all day, the car’s been superb – it didn’t feel right on stage two, but apart from that is was really good – and it’s been a great event. Damian [Cole] is a formidable opponent and he’s very difficult to beat, and I don’t often do it, so I’m really pleased with this result. At the end of the day, the car is prepared next to where we make our gas fires by the lads who work in the factory, so it’s not a professional rally team operation. So to score a result like this makes it great for them too.”

Damian Cole (2nd) said: “It was a shame I was so poor on the opening stage, I don’t know what happened but it was a terrible stage time! We did well from stage two onwards, but we just couldn’t get back the time that John [Stone] took out of us on the opening stage, and ultimately that’s what cost us maximum points. Looking at the Asphalt Championship, Jason [Pritchard] has to finish both the remaining events, so there is a bit of pressure on him, and all we can do now is go out and try to win the Mewla Rally and take the battle for the title down to the final round on the Cheviot.”

John Devlin (3rd) said: “Finishing third in the Asphalt Championship certainly exceeds all our expectations, but it is our home rally and I do know the stages quite well. That said, I’m very pleased with our result. The first stage was slippery and very challenging, but despite the standing water we got through it okay, and the car has ran faultlessly all day. We’ve had a good result on the Manx National and now here, so we’ll have to wait and see if we come over for the Mewla. The last round on Otterburn I can’t do, as I’m getting married the next day!”

The Championship’s television crew broadcast stage-side action and driver interviews live from the event, and all the footage from the Rathfriland MC and Ballynahinch & DMC organised Down Rally will remain available to view on the Special Stage Facebook page – with commentary by Howard Davies and Gemma Watson.

The sixth and penultimate round of the 2019 Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship is the Old Forge Garage Mewla Rally on Sunday 25 August.

2019 Carryduff Forklift Down Rally
Top Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship overall finishers
1. John Stone/Jack Morton (Ford Fiesta WRC)….47mins 27.1secs
2. Damian Cole/Paul Spooner (Ford Fiesta WRC)…..47mins 43.1secs
3. John Devlin/John McCarthy (Ford Escort Mk2)….48mins 21.6secs
4. Ross Brusby/Dave Robson (Escort Mk2)….48mins 49.7secs
5. Wayne Sisson/Michael Hendry (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X)….48mins 53.0secs
6. Alan Kirkaldy/Richard Crozier (Ford Fiesta R5)….49mins 09.5secs
7. Darren Atkinson/Phil Sandham (Ford Escort Mk 2)….50mins 10.3secs
8. James Ford/Michael Gilbey Ford Escort Mk2)….50mins 10.4secs
9. Chris Ford/Neil Colman (Ford Fiesta R5)….51mins 04.9secs
10. Dai Roberts/Pete Phennah (Peugeot 205 GTi)….52mins 30.3secs

2019 Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship
Provisional overall driver points after Round 5:
1. Damian Cole….136pts
2. Alan Kirkaldy….104pts
3. Darren Atkinson….97pts
4. Wayne Sisson….95pts
5. Jason Pritchard….91pts
6. John Stone….87pts
7. Mike Pugsley….81pts
8. Chris Ford….80pts
9. John Devlin….68pts
10. William Mains….64pts

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