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Following a fierce battle throughout the event’s 12 stages in Kielder Forest, twice British Rally Champion Keith Cronin and his co-driver Marshall Clarke claimed victory on this weekend’s Pirelli International Rally. They crossed the finish line 17.2-seconds ahead of Jarkko Nikara/Petri Nikara, after swapping the lead with their Autosport Technology Citroën DS3 R3 team-mates on three separate occasions.

Cronin and Clarke’s victory means that this year’s three MSA British Rally Championship rounds have seen three different winners. And, with never more than eight seconds between them and their Finnish counterparts until the final stage, the outcome of the rally has once again underlined the closeness of competition generated by the BRC’s two-wheel-drive only formula, which has been introduced this year.

After gathering confidence throughout the rally following their big off in round two, round-one winners Mark Donnelly/Dai Roberts were delighted to claim third place in their Renault Clio R3. Following them home in fourth were Elfyn Evans/Phil Pugh, the Welsh pair posting times equal to that of the R3 category runners in their R2 Ford Fiesta, with their reward for such an impressive performance seeing them come away from the event as championship leaders.

After the autograph session and ceremonial start in Carlisle City Centre on Friday evening – where hundreds of spectators lined the streets to get a glimpse of the cars and crews – competitors set off to tackle two 6.36-mile runs in Kielder Forest. Although both stages used the same stretch of road, the runs were punctuated by a re-group in nearby Newcastleton village, which meant SS1 was held in daylight and SS2 in darkness.

Nikara/Nikara were quickest on both stages and returned to Carlisle Racecourse for the overnight halt 2.2 seconds ahead of Elfyn Evans and his new co-driver for this event Phil Pugh – an impressive performance bearing in mind that the Welshmen were in a less powerful R2 car! Cronin/Clarke were a slender 0.8-seconds further back in third and getting used to their brand new DS3, which was only completed the day before.

At this point, fourth place was held by another Fiesta crew: Alastair Fisher/Daniel Barritt, who were a further 8.3-seconds down, with round-one winners Donnelly/Roberts 6.3-seconds behind in their Clio, which had been rebuilt following their big off on last month’s Bulldog Rally of North Wales.

However, winners on that occasion Tom Cave/Craig Parry did not have the best of evenings. A suspected set-up problem that led Cave to lose confidence saw them lose over a minute to the leaders and drop them to ninth place, whilst another front-running Citroën crew and their Davies Motorsport Services team-mates Osian Pryce/Iestyn Williams, dropped time when they spun on SS1 and then had a turbo pipe come loose on SS2.

Two other Citroën crews also had issues: Jonny Greer/Gordon Noble succumbed to a puncture on stage one, whilst Desi Henry/Niall Burns had a gearbox mounting break in the first stage. This caused a gear linkage problem during the second, forcing them to drive the rest of the stage stuck in third gear. As it turned out, both crews never really recovered from these incidents.

Once again Kielder Forest lived up to its reputation of punishing those who dared make the slightest of mistakes. Going off the road and then helped back on again by spectators were: Chris Ingram/Joe Cruttenden (Renault Twingo R2), James Grint/Phil Clarke (Citroën DS3) and Matthew Cathcart/James Morgan (Ford Fiesta).

The result of Cathcart/Morgan’s excursion meant they did not leave the service area on Saturday morning, their car’s steering deemed too badly damaged. But for Cronin/Clarke, things were going well and they emerged from the first of the day’s ten stages in the lead – albeit only 0.7-seconds ahead of Nikara/Nikara. Evans and Pugh were now third and expecting to drop time to the R3 runners, as the day’s stages featured longer straights and therefore favoured cars with more power.

For USA-based Nick Allen and his British co-driver Andy Bull, their event came to an end on SS3, when their Renault Twingo stopped with an engine problem. Next to retire were Pryce/Williams when their temporary loss of power on Friday evening became terminal on stage four. They were followed onto the sidelines by Alex Parpottas/Chris Davies, when the Fiesta crew’s good run stopped on SS5 when they got sucked into one of the infamous Kielder ditches whilst avoiding a rock in the road.

Back at the front, Cronin/Clarke extended their advantage to 4.1-seconds on SS4, but Nikara/Nikara went back into the lead by 3.3-seconds on SS5. The tables then turned again on SS6 when Cronin/Clarke emerged a slender 0.3 ahead, before going on to extend their lead to 1.5-seconds when they booked into the lunch time service halt at Carlisle Racecourse by 1.5-seconds.

Taking advantage of the faster roads were Donnelly/ Roberts, who moved from fifth and up to third on stage six, relegating the charging Evans/Pugh into fourth. Even so, the Fiesta crew were now comfortably leading the battle of the R2 category cars, especially as Alastair Fisher/Daniel Barritt had been slowed when stones became caught up in their Fiesta’s rear brakes.

The afternoon comprised a further five stages over Kielder’s demanding gravel roads and the battle between the leading pair continued, with Nikara/Nikara getting within 0.3-seconds from Cronin/Clarke by the end of SS9. Donnelly/Roberts were now consolidating their third place, even though they had to cope with leaking front-damper for a large part of the event.

Evans/Pugh were still entertaining the spectators with their committed driving style, up until SS11, when Evans found he was struggling to change gear. Getting the car to the end of the stage, he managed to effect running repairs and, although dropping time, was relieved to make it to the finish without losing position.

Other than a slight worry with an engine mounting on Friday evening, Peter Taylor/Andrew Roughead had en excellent run and posted a series of more than respectable times to claim fifth place in their Renault Clio R3. Behind them, Jukka Korhonen/Mikael Korhonen in the Pirelli Star Driver Škoda Fabia R2 were making up ground after a opting for an unsuitable set-up early on and Jussi Kumpumäki/Marko Salminen were also gathering pace in their Ford Fiesta – so much so, Kumpumäki was later awarded the Pirelli Star Driver nomination and yellow jersey.

Fisher/Barritt were next across the line in eighth, with Cave/Parry ninth and Greer/Noble tenth, all three crews suffering delays and therefore not achieving the results they had hoped for. But for Ruary Macleod/Paul Beaton, their outcome was less fortunate, when a problem their Fiesta’s clutch meant they went no further than stage ten.

With just 8.2-seconds between them, the Cronin/Clarke, Nikara/Nikara battle went down to the 12th and final stage. And, following a nail-biting conclusion, it was Cronin/Clarke that came out on top by 17.2-seoncds after the Nikaras momentarily struggled for gears during the 11.5-mile Pundershaw stage.

“It’s been a fantastic battle and a win always feels so much better when you have to fight for it”, said Cronin at the finish. “Once we had settled into the new car and tweaked a few things, we had no problems at all, so it’s been a very enjoyable rally and great to win a round of the British Championship again. Thanks must go to Autosport Technology for getting the car ready, Marshall my co-driver and everyone who has helped me achieve this.”

The fourth round of the MSA British Rally Championship sees a switch from a gravel to an asphalt surface for the Jim Clark International Rally, which takes place on 1st & 2nd June.

MSA BRITISH MANUFACTURERS RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
This year’s MSA British Manufacturers’ title is a three-way battle between the brands: Citroën, Renault and Ford. Scores towards the title are calculated from the two leading cars from each of the manufacturers.

With the Citroën DS3s of Keith Cronin and Jarkko Nikara first and second, Citroën UK has extended its lead in the standings. Mark Donnelly’s third and Peter Taylor’s fifth places gave Renault UK the points to consolidate its second-place, whilst Elfyn Evans in fourth and Jussi Kumpumäki in seventh were the two scorers for the Ford Motor Company.

MSA BRITISH JUNIOR RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP
Underpinning the BRC’s commitment to reward its rising stars, a new-look Junior Championship has been introduced for this season. Open to drivers of 23 and under in Class 10 (R1) cars, this initiative sees the winner recognised with the prestigious title of MSA British Junior Champion.

Once again, it was 19-year old Norwegian Steve Røkland in a Ford Fiesta R1 and 20-year old R1 Renault Twingo driver Garry Pearson – the winner of the last two rounds – who battled for supremacy in this category. Whilst Røkland and his co-driver Kim Hjalmarson overcame the issue of a damaged exhaust system for most of Saturday to win the category for the first time this year, Pearson and his co-driver Craig Wallace scored another finish, even after a brief off road excursion on Friday evening.

PIRELLI STAR DRIVER
This year’s Pirelli Star Driver competition again selects a winner from each round. Each of the six winners will then go forward to an end-of-season shootout where they can win a Pirelli funded prize designed to boost their progression in the sport.

With the two rally winners Mark Donnelly and Tom Cave awarded the yellow jersey and a nomination towards the end-of-season finale so far, the Pirelli Rally saw a change to the pattern, when a surprised Jussi Kumpumäki was announced as the winner at Carlisle Racecourse on Saturday evening, in respect of his impressive stage times during the event.

BRC TEAMS CUP
The new-format BRC Teams Cup is aimed at professional motorsport teams running two cars. Six teams are currently registered.

Drivers are pre-nominated, but can change from event-to-event. All six rounds count towards the final championship classification, with the first of the team’s two cars scoring points.

In fourth-place overall, Elfyn Evans was the top-scorer once again this weekend and therefore keeps M-Sport Ford at the top of the tables, whilst his team mate Alastair Fisher again suffered a series of small time-delaying problems that meant he crossed the line in eighth.

Jukka Korhonen’s sixth place meant that he picked up points for second place in the BRC Teams Cup. His Pirelli TEG Sport team-mate Arron Newby had his best BRC rally outing so far, with the 17-year old putting in a faultless performance to bring his Škoda Fabia home in 14th place.

Ford Junior Team Finland were third on this occasion with Jussi Kumpumäki the scorer once again with a seventh place overall, four places ahead of fellow Fiesta driver Niko-Pekka Nieminen.

Although a disappointing ninth overall, Tom Cave bagged the points for Davies Motorsport Services and was the only finisher for the team after Oisian Pryce retired on Saturday morning.

AVS Motorsport and its two Class 8 Fiesta STs were again driven by Gethin Jones and Matt Cotton. The pair of them battled with each other throughout the event, with Jones finally holding the advantage by 8.1 seconds at the finish.

RAVENOL OILS BRC PRIVATEERS CUP
For competitors who compete outside of one of the six official teams, the Ravenol Oils BRC Privateers Cup allows 18 out of the 27 registered drivers to score points towards this recently introduced category.

The top-three finishers in the event were also the top-three finishers in the Ravenol Privateers Cup this time around, which means Keith Cronin moves into third place, whilst Jarkko Nikara and Mark Donnelly are joint fifth. Even though he had a difficult rally and crossed the line in 16th place, Desi Henry still tops the tables by just one point ahead of Peter Taylor, who’s strong fifth overall sees him maintain second place in the Ravenol Oils BRC Privateers Cup standings, whilst Garry Pearson’s consistent scoring has enabled him to move into fourth.

BRC ONE-MAKES SERIES
The MSA British Rally Championship also features three one-make series: The Citroën Racing Trophy UK, FordFiesta SportTrophy and the Twingo Renaultsport R1 & R2 Trophies UK.

The third round of the Citroën series was won by overall rally winner Keith Cronin. Elfyn Evans was by far the quickest of the Fiestas, whilst Chris Ingram and Garry Pearson won the R1 and R2 Twingo Renaultsport Trophies respectively.

CATCH UP WITH THE ACTION!
For live information, photos, driver quotes, radio coverage and results, the BRC App can be downloaded by searching ‘British Rally Championship’ in the App store.

Podcasts from the event were recorded by British Rally Radio and can be accessed from the rallyfm.net website.

Coverage of the fight for the 21st Pirelli Rally will go out on Sky Sports 2 & 2HD this Monday (30th April) at 21:30hrs, then repeated across the Sky Sports channels.

For more information on the MSA British Rally Championship visit http://www.rallybrc.co.uk

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