So here we go, another season of Hirvonen, Loeb, Hirvonen, Loeb is upon us with an extended supporting cast of guys who can get close and then crash or break down. Or at least that’s how the WRC must seem to the people who know it only from the coverage on Dave. As excited as those of us within motorsport are at current developments in rallying, let’s not get carried away just now with talk of a renaissance. We’re a few years away from that yet, but what’s going on in Scotland at the moment is symptomatic of the resurgence rallying will hopefully enjoy soon. It’s for this reason that proceedings on the upcoming Snowman Rally in Inverness are going to be so interesting.
You see, 2009 was the first year that everyone in Scottish rallying started to take junior development really seriously – and look what happened. In front of five hundred well-fed and intoxicated diners last December, 20 year-old John MacCrone received an award of such magnitude it reduced him to tears. Scottish Rally Championship title sponsors Hankook put up a fully funded prize drive on an international rally for the junior driver they deemed the most deserving, and the Isle of Mull joiner was the delighted recipient. Just one month earlier, the Grampian pairing of Colin Smith and Craig Chapman found themselves duking it out with the world’s best two-wheel drive competitors on the international Rally of Scotland. And a further month before that, David Bogie became the youngest Scottish national champion in quite some time. For a wee country of only six million and a bit people, we are producing an awful lot of talented rally competitors.
Now that the building blocks are in place, we can expect even more excitement from the youngest Scottish drivers and co-drivers this year, and it starts on the Snowman this weekend. Bothwell’s Alick Kerr – the guy who made everyone’s jaws drop at the start of last year when he went fastest through the first stage of the year in a Ford Fiesta – is gearing up for his first full season in a fully-specced Subaru Impreza. Kerr has brought hugely experienced navigator Neil Shanks on board for 2010, and there’s a pretty good chance of the 21 year-old repeating his fastest stage time this year – without the aid of snow.
Just behind Alick on the Snowman entry list is David Wilson, another who stunned the Scottish rally establishment in ’09 with some superb performances in an ageing Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 4. Said Evo 4 took a fair old battering as it used a number of trees, rocks and ditches to aid (and occasionally hinder) its progress through the forests, so for this year it’s been replaced with a much newer and faster Lancer Evolution 9. Further adding to the level of talent in the Wilson car is Drew Sturrock, widely regarded as one of the finest young co-drivers in Scotland if not Britain (and while we’re on the subject of co-drivers, Kirsty Riddick will be out with Jock Armstrong on the Snowman, a rare weekend when she’s not competing at international level!)
It looks like Alick Kerr and David Wilson are going to do exactly what their fellow juniors David Bogie and Euan Thorburn did last year and become championship frontrunners in their own right – and given that Euan Thorburn has since found a place with one of the leading British Championship teams, a season at the sharp end of the Scottish series certainly doesn’t do a junior any harm. But just as Kerr and Wilson picked up their speed over the course of last year and started to trouble the more established leaders by the second half of the season, so some other juniors are looking to work on their outright pace in the first half of 2010. Newton Stewart graphic designer Mark McCulloch has taken the plunge and moved up to four-wheel drive with the acquisition of a Group N Subaru Impreza. It’s true that Mark’s Subaru isn’t the newest or most expensive car on the Snowman list, but McCulloch has already demonstrated his ability to coax every last horse out of his car – a 100bhp Corsa on throttle bodies beating a 230bhp dog-boxed special ring any bells? Those in the know are already aware of McCulloch’s potential – he’s won the 205 Ecosse Challenge and the John Easson Scholarship – but if Mark and co-driver Craig Wallace can put their car into the top five against much newer machinery we’ll know we’re on to something very special indeed.
Most young rally drivers start their careers in a low-power front wheel drive car before progressing to something with all four wheels spinning, but Alasdair Graham decided to start at the back and work forwards. For the last few years he’s been honing his skills in Mark 2 Escorts to the point where he could probably mix it with Vatanen and Mikkola, but now he’s stepping up to a Group A Subaru Impreza. Graham hasn’t enjoyed himself too much on his previous excursions into four-wheel drive, but with a good car under him this time he could prove to be a real contender.
Like Alasdair Graham, Borderers Dale Robertson and Doug Brydon have both taken time out of competition in order to come back with the most competitive car possible, and will be hoping they can be as quick in their Mitsubishi Lancers as they were in their Peugeot 205 Challenge cars a few years back. Dougal Brown and Scott Murray, both late starters in rallying but still young in comparison to much of the field, upgrade to a Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer respectively.
The next wave of Scottish rallying stars are also making their way through the two-wheel drive ranks. Ross Hunter returns to gravel in a Honda Civic after spending a couple of years in a Mitsubishi showing his ferocious pace on tarmac, and Graeme Schoneville steps up to a Civic Challenge car after showing his pace – if not his luck – in the Peugeot 205 Challenge. Speaking of 205s, the one-make series doesn’t start until the end of March, but Garry Pearson, Steven Smith, Sean Robson, Sarah Hunter and Dave Crozier are all out for an early season warm-up. Euan Duncan is sitting out the Snowman but will turn out in the Civic Challenge with new co-driver Peter MacInnes. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of Colin Smith and Craig Chapman coming out for a practice in the Honda Civic Type-R before they pack their suitcases for a season on the road in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
Rallying writers – especially at this level – are often accused of talking things up too much and trying to make something that isn’t exciting seem exciting. But each and every one of the guys I’ve written about above has serious potential – I’d only planned to write a couple of paragraphs, but every time I went to wrap up I spotted another name on the Snowman entry list that it would be unfair to finish without mentioning (and I’ve just thought of another one that I’ll need to go back and edit in). I’m not trying to claim that we’ll be seeing all, or even any, of these guys at World Championship level in years to come – there’s far too much money and luck involved to make predictions – but with the effort the Brick and Steel 205 Ecosse Challenge and Hankook Scottish Rally Championship are putting into developing the rally competitior as an athlete and sportsperson, and of course the technical challenge afforded by Scotland’s rally stages, the Scottish juniors are getting a fantastic grounding for furthering any motorsport career they might have.
It may be true that the public profile of rallying isn’t at its highest, but every type of motorsport goes through peaks and troughs – remember when the Ferraris were winning everything in F1 by means fair and not so fair? It hopefully won’t be too long until rallying comes back into mainstream sports coverage, and when it does the talented young drivers and navigators we’re seeing coming out of Scotland will be in prime position.