Photos M&H Photography
The MGJ Engineering Brands Hatch Winter Stages opened the circuit’s season on 19th January and provided a great day of rallying in cold but dry conditions.
Chris West, with Keith Hounslow alongside, became only the second driver to win the event twice. In doing so he extended his lead in the MSN Circuit Rally Championship which has now reached its mid-point.
The rally utilised the Indy Circuit, while also running through the pitlane and behind its garages together with sections through the paddock and rallyschool. With laps used too, this meant each stage was around five miles long.
After the first of eight stages John Stone/JackMorton held a five second lead in their ex Mikko Hirvonen Rally Australia winning Ford Fiesta WRC. Second were Chris West and Keith Hounslow with last year’s winner Mark Kelly, this time accompanied by Neil Colman just a second behind.
The driver with the greatest number of starts in the event, Nigel Mummery, posted an unrepresentative 66th fastest time in his Ford Focus WRC after turbo boost pipe issues.
The ever popular Ford Escort made up half of the top 10, but with variety coming from the likes of Mike Taylor’s Sunbeam Lotus and Ben Smith’s Mitsubishi Evo 7.
With the Indy Circuit running in the ‘wrong direction’ in the morning, many eyes were on Graham Hill bend as it’s caught out many early runners before. While it was cold, it wasn’t frosty and with a dry track it was largely free of drama. However the uphill curved braking into the chicane near the top of Paddock Hill was more challenging, with Ray Read having a big looping spin in his gorgeous sounding Audi Quattro.
On stage 2 John Stone extended his lead and with Chris West and Mark Kelly posting identical times they remained separated by just one second.
The final pair of stages before lunch both finished in the order West, Kelly, Stone, narrowing the gaps. Halfway through the event John Stone led Chris West by three seconds with Mark Kelly just a further four seconds behind.
In the classes Roland Brown with son Stuart alongside in his first ever rally, were leading class C and inside the top 10. Class A leaders Christopher and Anthony Newton maintained the theme of running an orange car to lead a class by heading class A and they were five places ahead of class B leaders Paul Sheard and Bruce Lindsay in their Mazda MX5.
The resetting of the stage layouts over the lunch break meant the Indy circuit would run in the conventional direction in the afternoon, with the other infield sections around the pits changing too. This meant the hairpin in the centre of the circuit beneath the commentary tower would become slightly uphill as well.
With the new layout meaning stage five would be unfamiliar, the commentary team thought this might be the best opportunity drivers would have to mount a new challenge to those in front of them.
The decisive moment came when John Stone became stuck behind Antony Robinson and Mark Witherspoon at the pitlane hairpin. This crew had only recently acquired their beautiful yellow Proton Satria Millington and had taken it to fifth place at the Rockingham Stages at the end of last year. However, at Brands Hatch they’d struggled at the hairpin during the morning, reporting it had so much rear grip it was difficult to unsettle the back end to help it around the hairpin.
Unfortunately they became stuck at the now uphill hairpin trapping John Stone behind them while they recovered. John Stone also reported a possible slight misfire and lost 20 seconds to stage winning Chris West. As a result he fell to third place with his three second lead becoming a 17 second deficit. Mark Kelly moved up a place to second, evenly spaced between West and Stone.
Stage 6 was the same layout as 5. John Stone was ahead of the Proton before arriving at the hairpin this time and had a clean run through to win the stage from Chris West with the order of the top 3 unchanged.
Stages 7 and 8 introduced the Clearways loop for the first time and would be the longest stages of the day. Chris West looked uncatchable at the top but could Stone overtake Kelly for second place, by achieving a turnaround of five seconds?
Over the next pair of stages Chris West could have backed off a little and protected his 10 second lead, but he seemed to do the opposite. He clearly had supreme confidence in the car and really hustled the nimble Peugeot around the circuit. It was especially agile through the direction change into the paddock exiting from Cooper Straight. He won both stages to extend his winning margin from 10 to 18 seconds in a fantastic display of driving.
John Stone moved up into second place, a second ahead of Mark Kelly on stage 7 and the pair posted identical times on the final stage to maintain that gap and their positions.
The Top 3 were confirmed as:
1. Chris West/Keith Hounslow – Peugeot 306 Maxi 42:36
2. John Stone/Jack Morton – Ford Fiesta WRC 42:54
3. Mark Kelly/Neil Colman – Ford Escort
Behind the top 3 Steve and Jack Tilburn in an Escort swapped places with James and Tim Self to finish in fourth and fifth respectively.
Sixth place had been held for most of the day by Mark Straker and Simon May in their Darrian T90, but this was still a great recovery, having been an uncharacteristic 40 seconds behind the stage winner after stage one.
It was something of a day of attrition, with 20 retirements, including event sponsor Mick Johnson of MGJ Engineering who unfortunately retired just before the end of the day in his second event in his ex works Ford Puma s1400.
Classes D1 and D2 were won by our top 2 overall, but the class C lead changed on the very last stage. Having led it since stage 3, Roland and Stuart Brown started just two seconds ahead of James Slaughter and Sarah Flynn. James had offered the co-driver seat in aid of charity, so the rally saw Sarah taking part in her first rally, supporting Heart of Kent Hospice. They managed to go five seconds faster than the Browns to take the class win.
In Class B the leaders of the MX5 contingent Paul Sheard and Bruce Lindsay managed to stay ahead all day to win that class.
Photos: David Degruchy-Jones
In Class A it was a commendable performance from Christopher Newton and Anthony Newton in their Vauxhall Nova. This was just their second event in the car after completing the Mini Tempest in December and they came home 18th overall. They survived the huge moment pictured above when the car got up on two wheels turning onto the main straight before they continued to a convincing class win.
The final shout out goes to all the marshals and volunteers. You were on duty early in the day and finished in the dark. Temperatures remained consistently low and sometimes windy.
It’s a huge #thanksmarshal to you all.
Andrew Bisping, Media Officer, MGJ Engineering Brands Hatch Winter Stages