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A dramatic end to a landmark season culminated in Keith Cronin becoming MSA British Rally Champion for the third time this weekend, at the end of the sixth and final round, the International Rally Yorkshire. By finishing in third place, he and Marshall Clarke had achieved their goal of claiming the 2012 Drivers’ and Co-drivers’ titles.

Ahead of them on the event, a rally-long battle between the two Welsh crews of Tom Cave/Craig Parry and Osian Pryce/Iestyn Williams could not have been closer, when the final results revealed that after 66.31 competitive miles and six stages in the forests over the North Yorkshire Moors, their times were exactly the same.

Organisers therefore invoked the tie-break rule of ‘fastest on the first stage’, which meant that Cave/Parry were declared the winners by one-tenth of a second.

It was the closest ever finish in the 54-year history of the British Rally Championship and one that epitomised the closeness of the competition throughout the season, which has been a hallmark of the two-wheel-drive only format that was introduced this year.

This weekend’s International Rally Yorkshire featured a four-way battle for the Championship. Cronin/Clarke were favourites, starting four points ahead of Cave/Parry – who were yet to drop a round – and, with 50% more points available for season finale, the Irishmen had to finish eighth or higher to claim the title.

Pryce/Williams and Northern Ireland’s Jonny Greer/Gordon Noble were also mathematically capable of claiming the title, but would have to rely on others having problems if they were to secure the ultimate accolade.

The event began on Friday evening with a ceremonial start on Scarborough’s West Pier, before crews made their way to the first stage: a 15.5-mile run through Dalby Forest in the dark. And, with conditions extremely slippery due to the heavy rain earlier in the week, all of the BRC crews had a story to tell when they entered the service halt before the overnight halt.

Emerging from SS1 with a slender 0.1-second lead were Cave/Parry, who reported a temporary visit to a ditch four-miles into the stage. Just behind were Pryce/Williams, who also spoke of a few heart-stopping moments as their car’s brake pedal intermittently went to the floor.

Cronin/Clark also had a torrid time in SS1. After traversing the water-splash near the start of the stage, their Citroën’s windscreen misted up and, from then on, Cronin admitted he lost his rhythm and consequently ended the day in third, 14-seconds behind the leaders.

Greer/Noble’s title hopes took a turn for the worse when they saw their Citroën’s left-front wheel go past the car, after all four wheel-studs sheared when accelerating out of a slow corner one-mile before the end of the stage. Thankfully, with no damage done, they were able to continue on Saturday running under SuperRally rules.

Even before the first stage – in fact at the ceremonial start – the Citroën crew of Callum Black/Paul Wakely had problems, when their car wouldn’t start and they had to be pushed across the line. Fortunately, they managed to fix what transpired to be an electrical problem and were able to continue. However, their weekend was still better than that of James Grint/Craig Drew, who had to withdraw their entry after getting stuck in deep floods when setting up their spot lamps in a narrow Yorkshire lane on Thursday evening.

In contrast, Matthew Cathcart/James Morgan had a clean run through SS1 to hold an impressive fourth place and the lead of the R2 (Class 6) category in their Fiesta. Second of the R2s at this point was the Finnish paring of Jukka Korhonen/Marko Salminen, who considered themselves lucky to not have lost more time when they were caught out in the slippery conditions. Campaigning the Pirelli Star Driver Skoda Fabia for the final time this season, they slid off the road and spent the next 20-seconds getting it pointed in the right direction.

Saturday’s itinerary included five stages, with the morning comprising two six-mile runs through Gale Rigg, followed by 9.3-miles through Cropton. Cave/Parry improved their position by three seconds on SS2, then a further five-seconds on SS3, but then Pryce/Williams went fastest through SS4 and reduced the margin to 5.2-seconds at the lunchtime service halt.

Cronin/Clarke were still third, with the Irish driver admitting he was finding it difficult not to drive faster, but knew very well the job he had to do with just two stages to go. Desi Henry/Barry McNulty were fairing far better than they had done the previous evening and were now up to fourth in their Citroën DS3.

Also making up for lost time were Korhonen/Salminen, who had passed Cathcart/Morgan to take fifth overall and lead Class 6 (R2), with Cathcart now focussed on a finish and scoring maximum points in the FordFiesta SportTrophy.

Black/Wakely were pleased that they had no recurring electrical problems and, with their car running better than ever they were in seventh, followed by the Norwegian crew of Steve Røkland/Kim Hjalmarsen who were eighth in their Ford Fiesta.

With just two stages to go the championship title was now Cronin/Clarke’s to lose, but with Pryce/Williams and Cave/Parry locked in battle for the glory of winning the final round and the very attractive prize of €10,000 for being the Citroën Junior Champion, it was no holds barred. Driving on the limit, Cave/Parry pushed hard on SS6 – another 15.5-mile run through Dalby Forest – but in doing so clipped a bank and bent their car’s rear suspension, This meant Pryce/Williams emerged from the stage in the lead by 8.8-seconds ahead of Cave/Parry, with Cronin/Clarke a further 17-seconds behind and still third.

It was therefore all down to the sixth stage of the rally – and the final stage of the year: a 14-mile run through Langdale Forest. Cave/Parry braced themselves for the big push and, following a supreme effort – amazingly – they went through the stage exactly 8.8-seconds faster than Pryce/Williams which mean both crews finished the event on equal times. Although nothing short of remarkable, the same thing happened on a BRC round in 2006, when Mark Higgins and Rory Galligan recorded a dead-heat on the Jim Clark Rally.

To resolve these situations, organisers refer to the tie-break regulation that states that the fastest time on the first stage will be taken into consideration. In this case, the advantage swung to Cave/Parry by just 0.1-second and provided the Welshmen with their second BRC victory of the year. Although left wondering what might have been, Pryce/Williams remained philosophical and admitted that they were still pleased to finish in second place.

But for Cronin/Clarke third was a perfect result, as they had achieved what they had set out to do and were both delighted – and relieved – to have made it to the finish to become 2012 MSA British Rally Champions. They finished the season on 102 points, with Cave/Parry second on 94 and Pryce/Williams third on 87.

Henry/McNulty were another crew pleased to have ended the event on a positive note by crossing the line in fourth place. But Henry was even more pleased when he found out that he had been nominated as the final driver to go through to the Pirelli Star Driver shoot-out, which will award its winner with a prize drive in a Citroën DS3 in next year’s BRC.

Korhonen was also happy with the outcome of his weekend, as last year’s Pirelli Star Driver winner rounded off his last ever event driving the Škoda Fabia by winning R2 (Class 6) and finishing fifth overall. Black/Wakely ended their rally in sixth, after overhauling Cathcart/Morgan – who were second of the R2 runners – on the penultimate stage.

The next event in the MSA British Rally Championship calendar is the gala prize-giving evening, which takes place in Manchester on 17th November and where all of its 2012 Champions will be honoured.

Catch the action from International Rally Yorkshire on Sky Sports 3 & 3HD this Monday night (1st October) at 22:30hrs, repeated the same night. Full schedule HERE.

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

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