Cole’s record-equalling Epynt victory makes it winner takes all on Protyre Asphalt Rally Championship finale

Damian Cole scored a sensational record-equalling sixth Old Forge Garage Mewla Rally victory in his Get Connected/Energizer-backed Ford Fiesta WRC (Sunday 25 August) – setting the scene for a winner takes all title decider on the final round of the Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship next month.

Victory was made all the sweeter by the fact that Cole was partnered by Paul Spooner, who had guided him to his first Mewla Rally win in 2008. It was also the perfect 60th birthday present for the experienced navigator.

It was also the Abergavenny driver’s 23rd rally win on Epynt, equalling the all-time record also set by John Price almost 20 years ago.

Having worked tirelessly to get his Fiesta WRC working as he likes it, particularly on the suspension set-up and sensitive throttle mapping system, Cole began the Epynt Motor Club organised event at a blistering pace – setting fastest time on each of the opening three stages to establish a 13 second lead. He remained unbeaten for the first seven stages in fact, although a spin on the grass in the German Village illustrated how hard he was pushing. Both the pace of the rally and the heat of the day were ferocious as crews arrived at mid-day service, where Cole had already edged out a very cool 29 second lead.

From then on, Cole consolidated his advantage, maintaining that exact margin until finally allowing himself to ease off on the final loop of three stages. With all the hard work executed to perfection, Cole’s 19 second win was confirmed at the podium celebrations at the Royal Welsh Showground.

After the first loop of three stages, reigning Asphalt Rally Champion and last year’s Mewla Rally winner Jason Pritchard was down in third, 23 seconds behind Cole. An incorrectly mapped ECU was slowing his North Road Garage Ford Focus WRC05, with valuable seconds lost setting off from each stage start and accelerating out of every junction and tight chicane. At each service halt the team fought to solve the problem, and on each loop Pritchard and co-driver Phil Clarke fought to minimise the time lost – often because one cure had created a new problem.

Pritchard had managed to move up into second position by mid-distance, but the afternoon saw more electronic-related fuel pump and pressure problems, with the car sluggishly getting off the start line and then cutting out near the end of stages. It cut out right at the end of the final stage, and not reaching the podium in Llanelwedd would have been an all-too cruel way to end his title defence. But thankfully the car kept going, and second place was an exceptional result under the circumstances.

Bob Fowden was back to his Epynt best, setting a scorching pace in his Comline Auto Parts/NGK-backed Subaru Impreza WRC S11. He and co-driver Den Golding might have been the most experienced crew on the event, but they never stopped experimenting with settings in an effort to make the car handle even better – although a stiffer set-up contributed to Fowden having his first moment in more than 40 years of competition on the Burma Road. They held second in the morning, dropped to fourth at mid-distance and fought back to finish third, ending the event by setting fastest time on the final stage. Having spent two years getting the Subaru back to where it was before a fire caused considerable damage to it on the Manx National Rally, it was fantastic to see Fowden back to his vintage best.

Having only been to Epynt once before, Alan Kirkaldy was on brilliant form in his Cairnsmill Caravan Park-backed Ford Fiesta R5. New suspension had transformed the car, and he and an unwell co-driver Cameron Fair moved up to third overall after a great run over the New Road (SS7). They did get held up by a slower car a few stages later, meaning that from then on fourth place was the more likely finishing position, and fastest time on the penultimate stage was just reward for a fantastic performance. The result also secures them the Asphalt Championship R5 class title.

John Stone is no Epynt expert either, although he was pleased to arrive in mid-Wales after a marathon Bank Holiday drive from his home in Blackburn. Together with Michael Gilbey, he started well and was pushing hard from the start to establish himself well ahead of many of the locals in fifth. He kept pushing hard right until the end, and running wide on a corner and almost going off on the final stage was testimony to that – but Stone survived to bring his ex-Mikko Hirvonen Legend Fires-backed Ford Fiesta WRC home in fifth. His title chances are now over, although he can still finish second.

Darren Atkinson clinched the Asphalt Championship class B13 title in stunning style by coming home the top two-wheel drive competitor in sixth place in his Atkinsons Sandblasting/Dennison Trailers/S&W Fabrication-backed Ford Escort Mk2. The Lancaster driver’s last visit to the famous military range was in 2014, when he scored a top 10 result on the Tour of Epynt, and he was simply sensational to watch this time again. Atkinson attributed a lot of his new-found grip to swapping to Pirelli tyres, which clearly suited him and the car, and finishing sixth overall with Phil Sandham on the notes was an incredible achievement.

John Devlin also puts in a very strong case for star driver of the day. The Banbridge man had never been to Epynt before, but was utterly committed to the notes read by John McCarthy and felt right at home over the blind crests and big jumps that have spectacularly caught out a multitude of crews over the years. Having been on the outskirts of the top 10 all morning, he moved up the leaderboard in the afternoon to steal seventh place on the final stage after a magnificent Epynt debut in his Ford Escort Mk2 – a result which gives him the class B11 title.

Phil Turner’s bad luck continued when a coil pack problem caused a severe misfire with his Toovey Race Engines/ST Motorsport-backed Escort Mk2 on the opening loop of three stages, costing him well over a minute. Co-driven by Terry Martin, Turner fought back and towards the end was able to overtake Graham Hollis – who hadn’t even sat in his Escort Mk2 since the Rallynuts National Tour of Epynt back in March, but was still driving superbly well. Turner finished eighth overall and second in class, while Hollis finished 11th overall and third in class, while his navigator Ashley Trimble is confirmed as B11 co-driver champion.

Geoff Glover/Keith Barker survived a near miss on the opening stage in their rear-wheel drive Astra and ended the event with an oil leak worry that thankfully didn’t materialise into anything serious. A fourth place B11 points finish keeps them second in class. It wasn’t a good day for Richard Merriman/Kath Curzon, who reportedly hit something solid in the German Village in their The Roof Hub/Touchline-backed Darrian T90. Paul and Julian Doroszczuk couldn’t wait to let their new 301bhp normally-aspirated Cosworth engined Drockspeed Motorsport Escort Mk2 loose on the ranges, but a sheared alternator bolt brought their event to a halt at mid-distance.

Phil Turner/Simon Anthony had a good run to ninth in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9, while Gary Le Coadou/Bill Paynter completed the top 10 in their Hyundai i20 WRC. It wasn’t exactly a trouble-free day, as an issue with the launch system meant that they had to start each stage in road mode, before putting the ex-Dani Sordo car into stage mode – but at least it was better than stalling the engine, which is what happened on the early stages.

Adrian Spencer/Matt Daniels enjoyed a good return to the Asphalt Championship in their RED Industries Subaru Impreza. It might look like a WRC S11, but it’s powered by a two-litre engine. They snapped the handbrake at the Llandeilo’r Fân Triangle in the afternoon, but it didn’t prevent them reaching the finish.

It had also been over a year since Richard Clews’ last event, and he too started well in his unmistakeable ITG Air Filters Subaru Impreza. Switching to used harder compound tyres in the afternoon helped, and together with Hamish Campbell he was delighted to have finished all the stages – and was on the road section to the finish when the engine overheated and he was forced to retire.

Having retired from the Tour of Epynt with what turned out to be a gearbox ECU issue, Nigel Jones was back in his ex-Petter Solberg Subaru Impreza WRC S9. Co-driven by the experienced Aled Davies, a change to softer springs had improved the car and he was going well until an oil leak in the transmission put him out.

James Ford made a late entry in his Escort Mk2 and was going well with Dale Bowen on the notes until brake problems forced them out at service after SS6. James’ father Chris Ford lost time having to drive five miles on a rear puncture, but together with Neil Colman upheld the Century Autosport fortunes with a good 15th place finish in his Fiesta R5.

Rhidian Daniels/Tomos Whittle survived a scare when their JJ Aggregates-backed Citroën C1 Max went onto three cylinders on SS7. They were able to cure the problem and pushed hard towards the finish to secure the Asphalt Championship class B10 title. Dai Roberts/Pete Phennah started extremely well in their Peugeot 205 GTi, although they had to ease off to avoid disaster on SS10 when a bonnet pin broke. Having won the class on the Carryduff Folklift Down Rally, second place points was a great result for Roberts on his first full Epynt rally as a driver. Adrian Drury/Cat Lund had a day of problems in their Drury Deliveries Peugeot 106 GTi, beginning when an engine seal leaked oil onto the exhaust. They then lost first and second gears, and after that was fixed a crank sensor problem reared its head, probably caused by a faulty wire – but remarkably they survived to finish third in class.

Having successfully defended their class B12 title, Mike Pugsley thought that he was about to record his first retirement in three years when he picked up an engine problem in his 1974 Escort Mk1 RS2000. Luckily he was carrying a spare cam follower and was able to replace it in service, meaning that he and Marc Clatworthy were able to re-join after incurring penalties for missing a few stages to score their fourth class win of the year.

Will Mains recorded his perfect fifth maximum score of the series to be confirmed as 1400S champion. Co-driven this time by Sion Jones, the Llandysul driver wished for more power from his orange Ray Thomas & Sons/WCS Environmental-backed Vauxhall Nova on the long straights – although he did finish 19th overall and won Class 1 on the event by 5 minutes 25 seconds!

Andy Woodward was contesting his first event since breaking a vertebra in a crash on the Tour of Epynt, returning in a very smart Renault Clio R3. Unfortunately, he had to withdraw before the final loop of stages, as his co-driver Tom Bowen was unwell. David Longfellow/Mark Broadbent also failed to make the finish, their Subaru Impreza stopping with a broken driveshaft.

Damian Cole (1st) said: “It’s an honour to have now won as many Mewla rallies as John Price, and to have won as many rallies on Epynt as John as well. I never thought that when I started rallying and John was winning everything, that one day I’d equal his record. The car has been faultless all day. We’ve done a lot of work on the car’s set-up and the Fiesta WRC is now so much easier to drive. We’ve also re-mapped the throttle as well, so it’s not so aggressive as soon as you touch the pedal, and that’s made a big difference because the car is so much better in all the chicanes and tight corners. We’ve been fastest or joint fastest most of the day, which allowed us to back off on the last loop because by then we had a twenty-nine second lead and there was no point trying to be a hero. The sheep were starting to run about, and we eased off over the bigger jumps a bit. It makes the battle for the Asphalt Championship very interesting, because it’s winner takes all on the Cheviot now.”

Jason Pritchard (2nd) said: “We’ve not really had a clean stage, so it’s good to come home second after such a troublesome day – I think we can say that we’ve made the best of a bad situation. The power difference really showed today, because even without our issues, I think it would have been very difficult for us to beat Damian [Cole] today, because he’s got the ultimate car for Epynt. We were five second down just going through the German Village, it’s just point and squirt in there and there isn’t anything I can do about that. The fight for the Asphalt Championship title is down to the final round, and I hope it’s wet on Otterburn, because the power difference really told today.”

Bob Fowden (3rd) said: “The fire on the Manx National two years ago was a huge set-back, but we’ve finally got the Subaru working again. We finished second to Damian [Cole] on Epynt a few weeks ago and third here on the Mewla isn’t too bad – I’m quite happy with that. You certainly can’t blame the car! We have been experimenting with set-up all event and in most cases the stiffer bars that we have been using worked well. For the last three stages we tried an even stiffer rear bar and it didn’t work, it caused the car to understeer, so we weren’t as quick on the final three stages as we had been on the three prior to that, but we had to try a few different things. We have been pushing hard today. In all the years I’ve been rallying, I’ve never had a moment before on the Burma Road, but we did today!”

As always, action from the stages was broadcast live during the event, with expert commentary and analysis from Howard Davies and Gemma Watson. This footage can still be viewed on the Special Stage Facebook page.

The final round of the 2019 Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship is the overall title-deciding Ford Parts Cheviot Stages Rally, which takes place over the Otterburn ranges in Northumberland on Sunday 22 September.

Old Forge Garage Mewla Rally
Top Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship overall finishers
1. Damian Cole/Paul Spooner (Ford Fiesta WRC)…..1h 02mins 21secs
2. Jason Pritchard/Phil Clarke (Ford Focus WRC05)….1h 02mins 40secs
3. Bob Fowden/Den Golding (Subaru Impreza S11 WRC)….1h 03mins 05secs
4. Alan Kirkaldy/Cameron Fair (Ford Fiesta R5)….1h 03mins 30secs
5. John Stone/Michael Gilbey (Ford Fiesta WRC)….1h 04mins 52secs
6. Darren Atkinson/Phil Sandham (Ford Escort Mk2)….1h 05mins 46secs
7. John Devlin/John McCarthy (Ford Escort Mk2)….1h 08mins 48secs
8. Phil Turner/Terry Martin (Ford Escort Mk2)….1h 08mins 55secs
9. Phil Turner/Simon Anthony (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo)….1h 09mins 12secs
10. Gary Le Coadou/Bill Paynter (Hyundai i20 WRC)….1h 09mins 20secs

2019 Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship
Provisional overall driver points after Round 6:
1. Damian Cole….141pts*
2. Alan Kirkaldy….130pts
3. Darren Atkinson….121pts
4. Jason Pritchard….119pts
5. John Stone….111pts*
6. Chris Ford….96pts*
7. Wayne Sisson….95pts
8. John Devlin….91pts
9. Mike Pugsley….83pts*
10. Rhidian Daniels….79pts*

* best five scores count


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