Just 15 points separate Neil Roskell and Callum Black at the top of the Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship leaderboard as they head to Round 6 of the series, the Carryduff Forklift Down Rally on Saturday 22 July – although there are plenty of other drivers in the title chasing pack, and others who could take valuable points away from the would-be champions.
Roskell had a good run on the Northern Ireland event last year, despite the bonnet flying open and smashing the windscreen on the famous Hamilton’s Folly jump. Co-driven by Andrew Roughead, last year’s series runner-up will be aiming to improve on the third place Protyre Asphalt points he scored 12 months ago, as he targets extending his series lead in his ND Civils/Burdens/Witham Motorsport Ford Fiesta Rally2.
Black is the only driver to win more than one round this year, thanks to victories on the Manx National and Dunoon presents Argyll Rally. It’s been 10 years since he last contested a rally in Northern Ireland (finishing sixth on the 2013 Ulster International in a Citroën DS3 R3T) – and things will be a lot quicker this time as he returns with co-driver Jack Morton in his Pirelli-shod Pallas Connections Ford Fiesta Rally2.
David Wright/Paula Swinscoe are very much in with a chance of the title. The Lancaster driver may be fifth, 44 points behind the leader, but he has already dropped two compulsory scores and can count every point he acquires in the remaining rounds. Having already picked up points for finishing first, second and third, another podium finish in his Fix Auto/Grove Hill Garage Ford Fiesta R5 will put Wright right back in the mix.
Will Hill/Richard Crozier have been one of the stars of the 2023 sealed-surface series so far this year and lie third in the overall standings in their 1.5 litre EcoBoost engined Hills Ford Fiesta Rally3. Another good result will keep their overall and class B14 title hopes well and truly alive.
Last year Steve Wood claimed maximum points on the Down Rally en route to becoming Protyre Asphalt champion. He returns this year not in his familiar Ford Fiesta WRC (which has been sold) but in an ex-Darren Gass Citroën C3 Rally2. The car will be converted from left to right-hand drive and Wood plans to make his debut in it on the non-championship Sligo Rally (16 July). Wood will be co-driven on the Down Rally by Rob Fagg, which will be the first time they have rallied together.
Talking of experience, there is no crew with more rallies under their belt than Stephen Simpson/Patrick Walsh, who will be aiming for a good result in their Tudor Glass Ford Fiesta Rally2.
Others to keep an eye out for include Lee and Cole Hastings in their John Gibson & Sons-backed Subaru Impreza, Anth Eaton/Ian Jackson in their Autotest Ford Fiesta R5 and Richard Clews/Carl Williamson, who had a fantastic run on day one of the Manx National in their Chevron Motorsport-prepared ITG Subaru Impreza STi before clutch problems stopped them on day two.
There is an equally close battle for 2WD top honours, which is currently being led by Darren Atkinson. He has scored four class B13 wins in his Haldane Fisher Escort Mk2, while he is also an impressive fourth in the overall drivers’ standings. Atkinson, who will be reunited with his former co-driver Phil Sandham, won the 2WD fight on the Down Rally last year and picked up sixth place overall points, so will be tough to beat.
Andy Scott/Ian Robertson arrive in Northern Ireland third in class B13 and another good run in their P.A.C.E. Escort Mk2 will strengthen their title challenge.
Michael Harbour leads class B11 after a faultless 100% podium finishing record this year in his VS Pro Pressure Washing Services/Miller Waste Water Escort Mk2. Co-driven by Ian MacDougall, the Ayr driver will also be hoping to extend his advantage at the top of the Escort Challenge.
John Devlin/John McCarthy will be hard to beat on home turf, as they start in their Ford Escort Mk2, while Geoff Glover/Keith Barker will be looking for their first class B11 podium finish of the season in their rear-wheel drive Vauxhall Astra.
Reigning Northern Ireland Junior rally champion Sam Adams will also be hoping to make home advantage count. Co-driven by Michael Johnston, the Ballymoney driver comes into the event leading both class B12 and the Fuchs Lubricants / OnThePaceNote supported Protyre Asphalt Junior championship in his Pinto-engined Escort Mk2.
Out to deny Adams a fifth class B12 win will be John and Rachael McCullough in their Hoosier-shod KPR Mechanical Escort Mk2.
Protyre Motorsport will take a large number of tyres to the Down Rally, including Pirelli, Michelin and Hoosier, and operate an on-event fitting service for all registered Championship contenders.
Special Stage TV will be live streaming the action from the event on its Facebook page, with commentary from Paul Woodford and special guest John Stone (who normally drives the Legend Fires Volkswagen Polo GTI R5).
Jointly organised by Rathfriland Motor Club and Ballynahinch and District Motor Club, the Carryduff Forklift Down Rally won the Protyre Asphalt ‘Rally of the Year’ Award in 2022 and the Lisburn-based rally returns with its very popular eight stage / 61.4 stage mile format. The event starts at 08:15 and contains two loops of four stages – Drumaknocken (5.74 miles), Bucks Head (7.76 miles), Hamilton’s Folly (8.92 miles) and Gregorlough (8.28 miles). After midday service in Lisburn, crews will repeat the four stages in the afternoon, before the finish at 16:45.