Last weekend’s Plains Rally did not bring the result that Isle of Man co-driver Rob Fagg had been hoping for before the start as he finished seventh overall.
Arriving at the Welshpool-based event alongside Ruthin’s Hugh Hunter as Ravenol BTRDA Championship leaders, the pair were on a high from the previous weekend’s victory on the Manx National Rally.
JR Hinchliffe Plumbing and Heating backed Fagg and Hunter faced not only a change of surface, from asphalt to gravel, but also and a change of car, from Ford Fiesta R5 to a P&R Benn Rallying-prepared RS Hunter Tarmac-backed Ford Focus WRC03, the same car which carried them to fourth place on the Malcolm Wilson Rally back in March.
Adding to that challenge, heavy overnight rain turned the expected dry and dusty Welsh forest roads into a trickier surface with the inconsistent grip levels. But despite this Hunter and Robert Graham & Co Chartered Quantity Surveyors supported Fagg believed they had the tools available to battle for another podium.
However, the pair suffered an early set back just two miles into the 9-mile first stage through Gartheninog lucky to emerge from a quick right hander and stay on the road, narrowly avoiding a huge drop down the hillside.
“We just arrived into the corner too quickly”, said Fagg. “As a result, the Focus to ran wide on the exit and we were inches from leaving the road to what would have been a certain rally ending roll.”
The scare knocked confidence inside the car and they would reach the stage finish in ninth place, 28 seconds down on early leaders Stephen Petch/Michael Wilkinson in their Fiesta WRC.
With three more tests in the opening loop of stages, in Cwmcelli and Dyfi forests, Hunter and MC Locksmiths sponsored Fagg looked to regain their composure and climb the leaderboard.
Frustratingly, progress didn’t come, and worse still as they arrived at the only service halt of the event, main championship rivals Petch and Callum Black (Fiesta R5+) were at the top of the timesheets.
The event was now becoming one of damage limitation.
“It’s not been the start we wanted, coming to the event on such a high after the win on the Manx we really hoped to challenge for victory today” commented Organic Construction Solutions-backed Fagg, “The moment on the opening stage has just hit confidence and we struggled for rhythm, it’s all about getting to the finish and as many points as we can for the championship now.”
A repeat of the opening loop lay in wait for the crews as they left service, but with the sun shining, the surface had dried rapidly with wet, slippery conditions replaced by dry and dusty stages.
The change in conditions certainly helped Hunter and Fagg feel more confident, and the reward was immediate. They gained a place to eighth with a sixth fastest time over the repeat of the Gartheniog test, and were now just six seconds down on seventh.
Their best run of the event on the penultimate stage would see them snatch that place, consolidated over the final miles, to leave them sixth of the BTRDA registered contenders. The results ensure that Hugh and Rob remain in Championship contention, despite losing their place at the top of the standings. Petch completed back-to-back victories, but it is Black who moves in the points lead after adding a second runners-up spot in succession.
“Obviously this is not the result we wanted, but we regrouped and ensured we put further points on the board keeping us in the fight for the championship” explained Rob, “Stephen (Petch) is the in-form man at present with two wins but Callum ( Black) is keeping him honest, we have the pace in the tools available to us to compete with these two and Hugh and I will be looking to get on terms next time out.”
Next up in the series is the DMACK Carlisle Stages which takes place on the 10th June over stages in the largest man-made woodland in England, Kielder Forest. Known in rallying circles as Killer Kielder, it has a nature of biting when you least expect it at any opportunity.
Rob is supported in 2017 by Robert Graham & Co Chartered Quantity Surveyors, JR Hinchliffe Plumbing and Heating, Burger Man Catering, MC Locksmiths and Organic Construction Solutions.
Photo - Hugh and Rob during the opening stage last weekend. Photo courtesy of Ian Francis (IF Image Cymru) (https://www.facebook.com/IFimagecymru/)