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Jason Pritchard got the defence of his Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship title off to the best possible start by winning the opening round of the 2019 series, the Rallynuts National Tour of Epynt Rally, in his North Road Garage Ford Focus WRC05.

Strong winds sent dark clouds sweeping over the military ranges all day long, with heavy downpours of rain, sleet and hail making driving conditions hazardous and tyre choice almost impossible. While a high retirement rate decimated the high-quality field, a brilliantly controlled performance by Pritchard made the extremely difficult look easy.

Having not driven his Focus since last October, Pritchard admitted to being a little rusty on the opening stage – but then he and Phil Clarke took the lead of the event on SS2 and never looked back. On each stage thereafter they stretched their advantage – even when they had to stop for a flock of sheep to cross the road on the penultimate stage.

Their 2 minute 13 second victory margin doesn’t accurately reflect the big battle they had with Damian Cole in his similar Focus WRC05. The Get Connected/Energizer-backed driver led after SS1, and it was only two disastrous tyre choices on two of the longest stages that prevented Cole pressurising Pritchard more for the win. Co-driven by Shelley Rogerson, Cole lost 14 seconds on SS4 when the wintry conditions in the service area at the Quarry could not have been more different to the dry and sunny conditions on the other side of the ranges near the Drover’s Arms. The gap had increased to 57 seconds before the final stage, when Cole’s ice tyres left him with no grip whatsoever – so much so that the car behind overtook him. Not even the sheep could believe what they had just witnessed – yet second and 28 points is still a great start to the six time Asphalt Rally Champion’s campaign.

John Stone suffered an early misfire in the Fiesta WRC that Mikko Hirvonen had won the 2011 Rally Australia in. New spark plugs and a replacement coil cured the problem, allowing the 2014 Asphalt Rally Championship runner-up to press on. Co-driven by Jack Morton, there was to be no heroics from the Blackburn driver this time, as he was keen to keep his Legend Fires-backed Ford in one piece ready for another rally in two weeks time. Fourth overall (behind Sebastian Ling/Aled Rees in a Citroën DS3 R5, who are not registered for the Asphalt Rally Championship) gave Stone third placed points – which was exactly what he was aiming for on a rare visit to Epynt.

On their Epynt debut, and on only their second rally in their new Cairnsmill Caravan Park Fiesta R5, Alan Kirkaldy/Cameron Fair finished fifth overall and fourth in the Asphalt Rally Championship. A fast and faultless run on the driver’s first pace note event was rewarded with top points in the R5 category – beating David Hardie who was contesting his first rally in a Fiesta R5. The swap to a left hand drive car clearly suited him, as he and co-driver John McCulloch set a good pace – with a half spin and stall on SS3 being their only mishap on their way to eighth overall and fifth Asphalt Rally Championship contender.

Reigning B14 class champions Wayne Sisson/Max Freeman picked up points for sixth, exactly what they did on the opening round on Epynt last year before going on to lead the series for much of the season. It was another fine performance in their immaculate AMS Arnside Motorsport Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 10, with a broken rear driveshaft three miles from the end of SS6 their only issue.

Oli Hopkins completed the top 10 after a magnificent drive in the Hopkins Motorsport-owned and Spencer Sport-run Mitsubishi Mirage. It was only his fourth event in the car, and he drove intelligently when he found himself on the wrong tyres and pushed hard when the rubber suited the surface conditions. Co-driven by Ian Taylor, 23 points for finishing seventh registered Asphalt driver was just reward for a magnificent effort. His brother Philip wasn’t so lucky. Back behind the wheel of his rebuilt Hopkins Motorsport-owned and MacWhirter Motorsport-run Mitsubishi Evo 6, he can co-driver Aled Edwards were forced to retire with early engine problems.

A magnificent assortment of Darrians contested the Tour of Epynt, overseen by the brand’s wizard Tim Duffee. Richard Merriman/Kath Curzon came out on top, finishing first in class and 12th overall and in their two-litre Vauxhall-engined Darrian T90. They also claimed eighth overall and maximum Asphalt Rally Championship points in the B11 class, and won two tyres courtesy of the new Protyre tyre bonus scheme.

Huw Reed/Anthony Hackett were flying in their 2.5-litre Millington Series 2-engined, ex-John Dalton/Damian Cole, Darrian T90 GTR, but a coil pack problem on SS4 caused a misfire. They tried to fix it in service, but the misfire returned on SS5 and they called it a day. David Morgan/Richard Suter had to reverse their 2.5-litre Millington-engined Darrian T90 GTR at a chicane on SS1 and then spun at Llandeilo’r Fân Triangle on SS5. They ended the event stuck off the road, after locking the brakes on a muddy fast approach to a right hand corner over a crest.

Graham Hollis/Ashley Trimble feared they would be forced to retire after early alternator problems in their Escort Mk2, but they charged on brilliantly to finish 13th overall, ninth in the Asphalt series and second in the B11 category.

Rounding off the top 10 Asphalt Rally Championship crews home were Gary Le Coadou/Carl Sorensen in their ex-Dani Sordo Hyundai i20 WRC. A spin at the first corner of the first stage cost them 25 seconds, but the target for the event was to reach the finish and learn as much about the car as possible – which they achieved in some style.

Rhidian Daniels showed his mechanical creativity when the gearstick on his Citroën C1 Max snapped on SS3 and he continued with the jack handle as a replacement! Together with Tomos Whittle, the talented crew now lead the B10 class – two points ahead of Adrian Drury/Cat Lund who overcame power steering concerns in their Drury Deliveries-backed Peugeot 106 GTi.

Defending B12 class champion Mike Pugsley made an inspired intermediate tyre choice for the second loop of stages, but had to slow when the fibreglass bonnet on his 1974 Escort Mk1 RS2000 blew up, restricting his view and acting like a parachute. He and co-driver Marc Clatworthy were first to stop at the scene of a nasty accident in the afternoon and were given a nominal stage time, but that didn’t stop them winning their class and collecting two Protyre tyre incentive rewards.

Will Mains/Claire Williams were adamant that they were having a nice quiet run in their Vauxhall Nova – although finishing 21st overall, nine seconds behind a Subaru Impreza WRC and winning class one by seven and a half minutes suggests that maybe it wasn’t the Sunday drive they modestly claimed it to be! Needless to say, they now lead the 1400 class.

The event was a very special milestone for Geoff Glover, as it was his 100th Asphalt Championship rally in his self-built rear-wheel drive Astra – and in celebration, he was seeded at number 100. Not only that, it was his 36th rally on Epynt and his 18th Tour of Epynt start – and he and co-driver Keith Barker put all that experience to very good use to finish 24th overall and claim third in the B11 class.

Chris Ford/Neil Coleman were having a solid run in their ex-Chris Atkinson Century Hose-backed Impreza WRC S11, until a very heavy landing on SS6 – yet they were still rewarded with 18 points for 12th registered finisher.

Hugh Hunter was making his rally debut in his newly acquired ex-François Duval factory Focus WRC05. Keen to get miles under his belt, the 2017 Manx National winner started steadily, but a problem with the fly-by-wire system brought the P+R Benn-prepared car to a halt for 15 minutes on SS3, meaning that he and co-driver Rob Fagg were OTL.

Phil Turner/Simon Anthony were fourth overall in their TCS-backed Mitsubishi Evo 9 until they lost turbo boost halfway through SS5 and were forced to retire when they discovered the turbo had broken away from the exhaust.

Nigel Jones was doing his first rally for three years in his ex-Petter Solberg Subaru Impreza WRC S9. Co-driven by Tracy Davies, the Carmarthenshire driver was going well until SS5, when a problem with the gear selection saw the car remain in service.

A spin at Llandeilo’r Fân Triangle on the first stage meant that the time didn’t reflect John Indri’s pace in his Spencer Sport-built Mitsubishi Mirage. Despite a lack of grip, he and co-driver Matthew Smalley were determined to climb back up the leaderboard, but a rare turbo issue forced them into retirement before they got into their stride.

Richard Clews was contesting his first event since last July’s Carryduff Folklift Down Rally, yet despite the long layoff he had made a great start. That was until the clutch in his ITG Air Filters Subaru Impreza failed on the road section to SS3, putting him and co-driver Hamish Campbell out. Marcus Padgett/Rhys Stoneman had also made a good start in their rapid Nissan touring car engined Micra Kit Car, until a loss of oil pressure on SS2 forced them out.

Chris Rice/Craig Cameron hit a rock in their Subaru Impreza and retired on SS2, while David Longfellow/Mark Broadbent had an early oil leak in their Witch Craft Beers-backed Subaru Impreza LX, which filled up the co-driver’s footwell. The problem was fixed, but they failed to reach the finish when a severe misfire developed on SS5.

Paul and Julian Doroszczuk made a fantastic start, despite their normally-aspirated Cosworth-engined Drockspeed Motorsport Escort Mk2 feeling unstable at high speed on the opening loop of stages. Sadly, the reigning B11 class champions retired on the second loop when the sumpguard broke after a very heavy landing and they lost the engine oil. Phil Turner/Ryan Griffiths retired when their Toovey Race Engines/ST Motorsport-backed Escort Mk2 got stuck in sixth gear on SS2 – an annoying early end to a flying start, especially as the gearbox had only just been rebuilt.

Other retirements included Richard Felgate/Mark Mason in their new BMW M3, Jonathan Stepney/Aled Davies in their Peugeot 205 GTi, Wayne Ellis/Gareth Price in their Peugeot 206 and Roger Priestnall/Jamie Forrest who parked their Proton Satria S1600 on SS2. Andrew Woodwood/Rich Pover found the set-up of their WMD Motorsport Peugeot 208 R2 was too soft, but once adjusted they were setting good times. Unfortunately their rally came to a dramatic end on SS5, when they crashed heavily on the Burma Road, badly damaging the car and red flagging the stage. Bob Fowden/Aled Davies (Comline Auto Parts Subaru Impreza WRC S11) and Jamie Jukes/James Morgan (Spencer Sport Mitsubishi Mirage) were non-starters.

Jason Pritchard (1st) said: “We just kept our heads down and drove to the conditions. The car’s ran faultlessly, Phil’s been faultless on the notes and it’s nice when you have a day like this because all the boy’s have done in service is changed the tyres once, slicks on for one loop and then back onto wets, so it’s been a very good and enjoyable day. It wasn’t easy, but the only stage we struggled on was the first one because I was a bit rusty and I messed up on the paddle shift going around the hut because I was in the wrong gear and I don’t know how the car didn’t stall. I got my act together after that and it’s been good. A big thank you to the marshals who stood outside all day in torrential weather, and it’s been a good slick event with no major hold ups.”

Damian Cole (2nd) said: “We had a good run through the first stage, but I chose completely the wrong tyres for two of the longer stages – my fault, but that’s what did a lot of the damage today. I think we were lucky in the end to come second, because we went on an ice tyre for the last stage that gave us no grip at all, I might as well have had Plasticine on the rims! It was really nice to be back in the Focus and we’ll use it for the rest of the year.”

John Stone (3rd) said: “I’m not an Epynt expert and the place frightens me to death, but I have to say that it was a great day and the result is exactly what we had targeted. The conditions were really difficult, especially when we were going over Mabion Way towards the end and there was ice and snow – but it really was a brilliant day. We’ll come back to Epynt – I don’t really know why we’ve stayed away for so long!”

Two camera crews enabled every stage to be broadcast live on the internet for the first time in the Asphalt Rally Championship, and the web-stream coverage from the Port Talbot Motor Club organised event will remain on the Special Stage Facebook page for fans to view.

The Masterpixel Media Manx National Rally on 10/11 May hosts Rounds 2 and 3 of the Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship, with full points awarded on both the Friday and Saturday nights.

2019 Rallynuts National Tour of Epynt
Top 10 Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship overall finishers
1. Jason Pritchard/Phil Clarke (Ford Focus WRC05)….58mins 59secs
2. Damian Cole/Shelley Rogerson (Ford Focus WRC05)….1hr 01mins 12secs
3. John Stone/Jack Morton (Ford Fiesta WRC)….1hr 03mins 05secs
4. Alan Kirkaldy/Cameron Fair (Ford Fiesta R5)….1hr 03mins 19secs
5. David Hardie/John McCulloch (Ford Fiesta R5)….1hr 04mins12secs
6. Wayne Sisson/Max Freeman (Mitsubishi Evo 10)….1hr 04mins17secs
7. Oli Hopkins/Ian Taylor (Mitsubishi Mirage)….1hr 04mins 32secs
8. Richard Merriman/Kath Curzon (Darrian T90)….1hr 04mins 43secs
9. Graham Hollis/Ashley Trimble (Ford Escort Mk2)….1hr 05mins 06secs
10. Gary Le Coadou/Carl Sorensen (Hyundai i20 WRC)….1hr 05mins 09secs

2019 Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Championship
Overall driver points after Round 1:
1. Jason Pritchard….30pts
2. Damian Cole….28pts
3. John Stone….27pts
4. Alan Kirkaldy….26pts
5. David Hardie….25pts
6. Wayne Sisson….24pts
7. Oli Hopkins….23pts
8. Richard Merriman….22pts
9. Graham Hollis….21pts
10. Gary Le Coadou….20pts

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