Without exaggeration, this year’s UTS Cheviot Keith Knox Rally was one of the best Challenge rounds I’ve ever had the pleasure of reporting on. Why? Well, it wasn’t just the phenomenal ding-dong battles we had in both the Civic and 205 Challenge classes that raged right the way through the rally, but also the fact everyone made it round without falling foul of the notoriously tricky Otterburn military ranges. The wins for Euan Duncan/Peter MacInnes in the Civics and Sean Robson/Dave Robson in the 205s mean that both title races are going to go down to the wire at Crail next month.
Although the Cheviot was on Sunday, the rally weekend started for many Challenge crews early on Saturday with an Otterburn tutorial from Dave Robson. Dave very kindly came along to the Otterburn recce to give the Challenge crews the benefit of his years of experience over the ranges, and his insights were probably one of the main reasons we had nobody going off big-time on the Cheviot. We’re very grateful to Dave for lending his support to the recce, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him for his contribution.
Sunday morning was cold, but crucially it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t awning-ripping windy. Hearing the sound of the Civics racing up the hill at the bottom of the airstrip as the VTECs kicked in was truly awesome, producing a sound that only the 6R4s and WRCs could match. Graeme Schoneville and co-driver Michael Hendry – more usually associated with the Smiths of Crossford – stole the early march over Euan Duncan and Peter MacInnes, Graeme revitalized by his win on the McRae. Meanwhile, Ruary MacLeod was contesting his first proper tarmac rally (he did the Jin Clark but only got a handful of stage miles because of the delays and cancellations) and was easing himself in to the asphalt alongside co-driver Will Rogers. It’s also worth noting that Will left his home in Gloucestershire at 4.30am the previous day in order to be up in time for the recce. Now that’s dedication.
Garry Pearson and Tom Hynd streaked ahead of their rivals over the damp and misty opening stages, eking out a sixteen second advantage over Sean Robson and Dave Robson (for the fiftieth time, no relation!) after two tests. Steven Smith and Russell Fair were setting a fine pace just behind the Borderers, Steven’s karting grounding shining through as he made quick and smooth progress over the tar roads.
Over the next few loops, the early pacesetters found their leads coming under pressure. Euan and Graeme were equal over the third and fourth stages, whilst Sean Robson found an extra couple of seconds in the glovebox and started to come back at the black-and-blue Pearson machine. At the service halt just before lunch, Graeme Schoneville became the first Challenge competitor to come into service with bits hanging off his car, the front bumper blown to bits by an off-road excursion. Ever the professionals, Scott and Jock and their team at G&M had colour-coordinated gaffer tape on hand to patch the Civic up, and the Honda was sent back out for the afternoon stages in one piece.
All the while, the rest of the field were quietly and steadily going about their business. Otterburn is never an easy place to compete, and even some of the rally leaders were getting it wrong. Tarmac veteran John Stone brought his Skoda Fabia WRC in with the front bumper – which is probably worth more than a complete 205 rally car – hanging off, and the field got thinner and thinner as the day wore on. But the Civics and 205s kept their cool to stay on the roads, putting us on track for a 100% finishing record.
Ruary MacLeod and Will Rogers suffered a recurrence of losingpowermidstagefornoapparentreason-itis, a problem that’s been plaguing a few Civics this year. But a good look over the car at service revealed nothing wrong, and the problem disappeared for the afternoon. By the end of the day, Steven Smith was almost apologetic as he kept telling me he had nothing to report, car, driver and co-driver all behaving impeccably and putting the engineer on course for yet another strong top-three. Dave Crozier was battling a bug, leaning against the wall of the team caravan during service and reckoning the adrenaline was keeping him going on the longer stages. Graeme Smith was enjoying yet another fast and clean run, holding his own in fourth position and driving for a finish to give co-driver Laura Marshall junior co-driver championship points. And Nick Thorne, with Iain Robson on the notes, continued to apply his philosophy of starting steadily and building up speed, a very wise way to approach Otterburn for the first time.
Then it all kicked off on the last stage. Schoneville/Hendry headed off into the last fourteen mile stage just three seconds ahead of Duncan/Macinnes, whereas Robson/Robson had got the gap to Pearson/Hynd down to just two seconds after Garry had suffered brake problems and a couple of overshoots. Waiting anxiously at the finish, we saw a red Civic, a red-and-white Fiesta and a yellow Civic come over the horizon in short order. The cars had their timecards signed halfway down the hill and proceeded to make their way to us. First in was Euan’s time, a belter that was tenth fastest out of the whole rally on the stage. Then came a slight delay as Mike Hendry checked and double-checked his time. Euan and Peter had done it by one second. Steam billowing out of his helmet, Graeme slumped back in his seat, motionless and staring straight ahead. The occupants of the red car, meanwhile, were still shaking with adrenaline. After being told in no uncertain terms that they couldn’t have a bigger gap to the car in front, Duncan and MacInnes went into the stage knowing that they were more than likely to catch the slower Fiesta in front. That they did, but the Ford was dispensed with in a matter of seconds and the Civic went on its way. “That was mental” Euan declared.
“That’s the best stage I’ve ever done in a rally car,” added Peter. “I can’t think of a single place we could have been faster.”
The second yellow Civic of MacLeod/Rogers duly appeared at the final control, Ruary delighted with a strong result on his first full tar rally. With the early-season reliability gremlins now firmly behind him, Ruary is making a strong claim for a top-three spot in the inaugural Civic Challenge, something that’s definitely possible with another solid result at Crail.
With the Civic result decided, there came the wait for the 205s. The white machines of Sean Robson and Steven Smith came over the brow of the hill, but Garry Pearson’s car was nowhere to be seen. We didn’t have to wait long to find out what was going on, because Steven Smith had spotted Garry stopped at the side of the road with the bonnet up, effectively leaving Sean Robson and Dave Robson to take the 205 spoils. No matter how you try to write it (or maybe I’m just a bad writer), when reporting that somebody has won a rally after someone else retires it always sounds like the winner only won because the other person retired. So let me make it very clear that Sean drove a terrific rally that was more than a match for the pace of Garry Pearson and Tom Hynd, and no matter what happened on the last stage either Garry or Sean would have been worthy winners.
With Dave Robson not registered, Russell Fair took maximum co-driver points as Steven Smith scored another brilliant result. I remember speaking to Steven at the Cheviot last year, where he’d come to the event on the back of a run of terrible luck, and it’s great to see that in the space of a year Steven has established himself as one of the series’ most consistent and quick competitors.
Much to the concern of the various Crozier/Smith-Marshall supporters gathered at the in-control, the next car along was that of Nick Thorne and Iain Robson. As his familiarity with the ranges increased, Nick picked up the pace and was trading times with Dave Crozier by the end of the day. Even a scary 720 degree spin and an attempt to tilt at a fence couldn’t stop the farrier from Lauder from taking third 205 spot, sealing the Autumn Cup in the process.
Next in were Dave and Alison Crozier, who came clanking along the road on three tyres. It turned out that it wasn’t a weight-saving experiment or an early trial of Hankook’s new invisible tyre, just that Dave had picked up a puncture halfway through the final stage and decided there was no point in stopping to change the wheel. Fourth place and a good haul of points was the reward for battling through illness all day.
Eventually, the Border Rally Sport car made it. It turned out that a heavy landing had knocked one of the wires loose in the engine, bringing the car to a halt. Garry and Tom lost nearly eight minutes as they battled to fix the problem, but they were able to get going again and make it to the end of the rally. They duly picked up twelve points, which could prove vital given the closeness of the 205 championship battle.
Last but not least were Graeme Smith and Laura Marshall. The Valley International 205 was muddy and battered, having stopped for five minutes while Graeme changed a puncture. The younger Smith was gutted to have dropped so much time after being on course for a great result, but the objective of getting Laura maximum junior co-driver points had been achieved.
So where does all of this leave the championship? Well, both title races will go down to Crail at the start of November. Euan Duncan and Peter MacInnes’ win means they only need to drive round Crail and finish to win the Civic Challenge – but Euan is taking nothing for granted and has vowed to prepare for Crail just as rigorously as he’d prepare for any rally. Graeme Schoneville can be justifiably proud of a stonking drive that did himself and the Challenge proud, and can go to Crail knowing he’s still in the hunt for the Civic crown if he wins and if results elsewhere go his way. And Grant Inglis can retake the lead at the death if he gets a good result at the Kingdom and Euan doesn’t finish.
In the 205s, it’s too complicated to work out. Basically, though, Garry Pearson and Sean Robson are neck-and-neck, and whoever takes the most points on the last round wins it. Steven Smith is out of contention (just), but Russell Fair is still in with a chance of taking top co-driver honours.
Once again, then, the Otterburn ranges have served up a cracking Challenge round. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Brick and Steel Ecosse Challenge is going to go down to the final round. Let’s just hope Crail can serve up as exciting a challenge as Otterburn did and provide a fitting finale to what has been an excellent season.