Report from Motoring News of 30th October 1996-
Report: John McLlroy
A mountain climbed
Hill scores first outright Mintex win as Higgins wins "works" battle
I’ve never had number one on the car for a stage rally,” remarked Steve Mill on Saturday morning as he prepared to lead away the crews on the Bulldog Midland Rally. “I wonder if it’s an omen.” It was, for the Mitsubishi Lancer E3 driver resisted enormous pressure in the early afternoon from F2 chargers Mark Higgins and Robbie Head to come away with his first ever national rally victory.
The organising Wolverhampton & South Staffs CC had put together a route that comprised some of Wales’ finest stages. It featured a three-test loop before first service, followed by two more prior to the lunchtime break. A final three-stage charge through Dyfi, Gartheiniog and Pantperthog would bring the crews back to Aberystwyth by 17.00. To say that Head had been staring at the ground since his Manx misdemeanour would be overstatement, but there’s no denying that the Scot needed to earn a few Brownie points prior to the RAC. On the first two stages, he did exactly that. The Megane’s speed on the loose has been improving all year - witness its near-victory on the McRae Motorsport Stages - and after two days of testing in Sweet Lamb the team was optimistic that Head in particular (he was driving the top-spec car with narrow track, improved steering and a development gearbox) would be able to set the pace. Four seconds faster than anyone else through Llanafan was a good start, and even though he dropped five to Hill in Myherin, the Megane and Lancer were still tied for the lead after two stages.
Behind, Mark Perrott’s chances of lifting the City Speed of Gloucester Welsh National Championship had not been helped by yet another major engine rebuild, and the Leominister man confessed that he was being too cautious in the early stages. Brian Lyall was chauffeuring Brian Goff to the Mintex co-drivers’ crown, but still set joint second fastest time through Llanafan with the flying Higgins, while Gregoire de Mevius got his Renault career off to a shaky start with a “big spin” that cost him 10s.
By the opening service at Sweet Lamb, though. Hill had moved into a lead of his own. 'Four seconds was not enough, though, and the series runner-up was quick to sound a word of caution. “There’s a long way to go yet,” he remarked. “We have a few things to do to the car - the suspension needs softening, for starters.” Head’s charge had been blunted by a costly spin in Terenig. “I just got caught up in the shit on the inside of the corner,” he commented. “Then to make matters worse, I stalled it. At least the car is going well.”
This promoted Higgins to second, although the Welsh-domiciled Manxman’s pace through SS3 would have been enough to do that anyway. Four seconds quicker than the opposition was encouraging stuff, and the young Nissan pilot was understandably keen to move on to the central pair of stages, Hafren and Gartheiniog. “It’s good to be ahead of Robbie,” he said with a grin. “Hopefully we can continue that.”
Behind the leading trio, Jon Bennett-Evans was using his comprehensive knowledge of the region’s forests to keep his Escort Cosworth in fourth, only two seconds behind Head, while Lyall’s cause had not been helped when he lost vision in a flood of standing water in SS3. He was fifth, 10s clear of Serge Jordan, who rated the slippery stages as ideal practice for the RAC.
Glyn Jones/Huw Lewis had made a quick start from a lowly seeding of 19 in their Lancer to claim seventh, 10s ahead of Roger Duckworth’s continually improving Subaru Impreza. The Autosportif car arrived at Sweet Lamb with just four seconds to spare over Perrott, who reckoned that the repaired engine was performing well enough to justify an extra squeeze of boost. The Walkers Delta of Steve Smith completed the top 10, two seconds behind. In the battle for Gp N, meanwhile, Steve Petch had caught Jeremy Easson on the hop through the opening loop and came to Sweet Lamb with 17s in hand. “I think I went to bed too early last night,” said Easson with a wry smile.
Hill’s revised suspension settings were obviously to his liking, as he stole four seconds from his young pursuer in Hafren. Borrowed would be a better word, in fact, because Higgins promptly took them back in Gartheiniog. If the Lancer driver had expected the damp conditions to hand him an easy run to victory, he was being proven very wrong.
At least one of the two-wheel drive brigade was no longer a problem - Head’s development gearbox let go one third of the way through Gartheiniog, and although the Scot managed to jam the unit into third, enabling him to reach service, the gap between the top Renault and the leading pair had grown to a gaping 21s by the time the cars reached Dolgellau.
“That’s it,” remarked Robbie. “No chance now. But there’s plenty of time here, so we can at least stick a regular ‘box in and get some more miles.”
He wasn’t alone in finding trouble in Gartheiniog, for Lyall’s encouraging spell in the top five came to a premature end there as well. The Anderson Cars Escort clipped a log pile and damaged its steering, leaving the Scot to struggle to service with a 40s time loss.
Up to fourth, therefore, popped Jordan. “The new track and steering are making a big improvement,” enthused the Frenchman. “We still need more practice on maps though.” Two stunning times - including fastest on SS5 - promoted de Mevius to fifth, albeit some 34s behind his more experienced team-mate. The Belgian champion was tied with Bennett- Evans, whose Escort Cosworth, its previously troublesome suspension now sorted, was suffering from brake worries instead.
Perrott was improving and held seventh, while a frustrated Lyall, Jones (worried about his Mitsubishi overheating) and Duckworth completed the top 10. The Gp N battle, already moving in Petch’s favour, now looked to be almost certainly heading to the Subaru camp. Easson had blown a turbo in SS5, losing about a minute to his rival. After taking five seconds out of the deficit on the previous stage, it looked like a sad end to a potentially great battle.
If Higgins was going to be the man to again deny Hill a richly deserved victory, he would have to start his charge in Pantperthog. When the Mitsubishi emerged three seconds quicker, and then hammered home its advantage by going another 16s clear in Dyfi, victory was assured.
That Higgins had fought all the way gave Hill’s success all the more credibility, for the Nissan driver had wanted to win. “I thought there was a chance, yes,” he confirmed as he reflected on his second place. “There are a lot of uphill hairpins in Dyfi, though, and that’s where we lost out. Plus we’ve been trying different tyres today, and some of them worked better than others. But I’m glad for Steve - I’m even happier that I made him work for it.”
A solid gearbox change by the Renault crew enabled Head to line up as first of three Meganes in the top 10, in a fine third place. “We didn’t push too hard this afternoon,” commented Robbie, but there was no doubting his frustration as another chance to give Renault UK its debut victory had been lost. By contrast, neither Jordan nor de Mevius could have any complaints about two solid drives that netted them fourth and fifth respectively - results that bode well for the RAC, and suggest that the latter in particular is going to be a threat to the established F2 order. The final Renault, driven by Alain Oreille, finished 11th after the driver spent the day acclimatising to new co- driver Bruno Brissart.
Lyall’s Escort’s handling was greatly improved for the later tests, and he recovered from his earlier indiscretion to claim sixth, while Bennett-Evans just pipped Perrott to seventh (and B12 honours) when the Leominister man endured a costly spin on the last stage. He survived to take the Welsh Championship as consolation. Marcus Dodd/Stephen McAuley brought their Gp A Escort Cosworth (see RRU) home in ninth after a day of acclimatisation, with Smith’s Delta secure in 10th, 16s adrift.
The Gp N battle featured a dramatic conclusion (see RRU), when Petch’s Impreza broke its gearbox in Dyfi. Although the County Durham man lost little stage time, he and Peter Croft went OTL as Pye Motorsport changed the unit in emergency service. Easson was thus rewarded for carrying on after his turbo problems, as the Escort Cosworth driver strolled to the class championship for the second year in succession.
Clive Bailye/Mark Freeman took their Peugeot 106 Challenge car to N1 success, while Martyn Price/Allan Gathers were victorious in N2. Roger Davies/Clive Jenkins dominated N3 en route to the F2 title (see RRU), while the Mini Coopers of Trevor Godwin/Rick Spurgeon and Michael Plant/Marina Francks were the A5 and B9 winners respectively. Paul Taylor’s/Andy Cook’s Nova won A6, while Philip and Michael Squires survived late clutch trouble to clinch Bll honours. Michael Hinde/Roger Neale and Peter Lumsden/David Darlington won the two Historic classes.
There was no shortage of smiles on the seafront at Aberystwyth as Hill and Stella Boyles sprayed the champagne, for rarely has someone so richly deserved a win. “I was beginning to wonder what I had to do to win,” said the delighted Hill. “It was hard work today, even without Chris Mellors. Our change of Pirelli compound made all the difference.” Hard work, yes, but so worthwhile.