WELSH / RD5 / WOODPECKER STAGES26/09/2023
The fifth round of the 2023 Motorsport UK Pirelli Welsh Rally Championships was filled with drama from before a competitive wheel had even turned, right down to the final stage of the event. The Phil Price Memorial Woodpecker Stages Rally would take place in hot and demanding conditions for the Welsh National crews over some tough and challenging stages which stretched across the Anglo-Welsh borders.
This Sixty and Worcestershire Motor Club organised event would return to the Ludlow Racecourse for its 40th running and would schedule a revised route for the 2023 event. The typically used Radnor Forest complex was unavailable so Coed Sarnau out near Abbey-Cwm-Hir along with Ceri Forest near to Newtown was drafted in on the Welsh side to join the likes of Hopton and Haye Park on the English side to complete a 43-mile gravel rally, across 8 stages (4 of repeated).
Three times Welsh National Champs Matthew Hirst and Declan Dear would arrive in Ludlow leading the Championship with a sizable lead following their dominant performance at the Nicky Grist Stages Rally previously. However, the pair and the Woodpecker Stages haven’t seemed to have seen eye to eye, having retired from the event last year, on this year’s event the pair would fare up even worse this time around.
Photo: Matthew Hirst
The Ford Fiesta R5’s engine would decide that it simply didn’t want to go rallying and the pair were forced to abandon their assault of the event soon after passing through scrutineering on the Friday before the off.
With Hirst out of the picture, local boy Perry Gardener would be back in the hope of repeating his Welsh National Woodpecker win last year. With Co-Driver Jack Bowen beside him, he would begin his day the right way in Cwmysgawen, the first stage of the rally. The pair posted the top Welsh time in their Ford Fiesta R5 car, stopping the clocks 3 seconds quicker than the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII of Rob Wilson and Richard Morton Crozier.
Photo: Perry Gardener & Jack Bowen
Gardener and Bowen would secure the fastest times of the Welsh Championships registered crews on the first three stages of the event and were leading the way until a bent track control arm which their Fiesta picked up in SS3 Hopton put an end to their charge. They would not make it to the final stage of the morning loop (Haye Park) but would instead return to Ludlow Racecourse for an early bath to wash away all that dust.
The demise of Gardener would pass the Welsh baton onto Russ Thompson in the Mitsubishi Evo 9, who was locked in a battle with Wilson and Crozier. After Thompson put in a storming time in Haye Park, matching the overall fastest stage time, he and Co-Driver Stephen Link would return to the mid-day service halt back in Ludlow with a lead of just 2 seconds over Wilson and Crozier. Eddie Lewis & Sion Cunniff in the Ford Fiesta R5 car, rounded out the top three of the Welsh National crews but were some 39 seconds down on second place Wilson.
Photo: Russ Thompson & Stephen Link
As the temperature began to rise, so did the action out on the stages for the repeated afternoon loop and a big battle of the Mitsubishi Evo’s driven by Thompson and Wilson would ensue. Thompson would get the better of Wilson over the second pass of Ceri by just two seconds but Wilson reacted straight away in the penultimate stage, Hopton. Yet still, his time was not enough to beat Thompson as the pair stopped the clocks on identical times, however, there was trouble in the Thompson camp.
Photo: Russ Thompson & Stephen Link
That EVO 9 was suffering in the grueling hot, dusty and challenging conditions, the temperature of the EVO 9 was soaring high and the anti-lag system was malfunctioning. Thompson and Link would enter the final stage of the rally (Haye Park) with 4 seconds to defend but the big question was not really a case of if they could keep the surging Wilson and Crozier behind them but more of whether they could nurse that fatiguing car through the final 6.35 miles of the event and make it back to the finish at all?
Photo: Rob Wilson & Richard Morton Crozier
Well, yes although they finished the rally, that 4 seconds was simply not enough of a buffer to defend in their ailing EVO 9 against Wilson and Crozier who gave it their all in that final test to secure their first Pirelli Welsh Rally Championship win of the season. Rounding out the Welsh podium was Bob Morgan and Ade Williams in their Skoda Fabia R5 but that was not without issues themselves.
Like the 4WD’s the Two Wheel Drives section also saw some drama for our Welsh Crews; last time out on the Nicky Grist, Kiwi Boyd Kershaw and Co-Driver Keegan Rees secured their third Hockley Motorsport Welsh 2WD Championship win of the season and would be looking to carry on from where they left off.
Photo: Iwan Roberts & Daniel Jones
However, after retiring from the Grist, Iwan Roberts Jnr & Daniel Jones in the Ford Escort G3 would be gunning for it and looking to make amends, and they would be the ones to mount a challenge to Kershaw and Rees. In fact, it would be them who would be the fastest Welsh 2WD crew out of the stables on that opening test, stopping the clocks 3 seconds quicker than Kershaw and Rees which would make for a bit of a rude awakening.
Photo: Boyd Kershaw & Keegan Rees
Kershaw would return fire in the very next test in Ceri Forest, and then follow it up in SS3 Hopton to break away from Roberts with a lead of 15 seconds heading into the final stage of the morning loop. But for Kershaw, unfortunately here is where his rally would end, the MK2 Ford Escort would end up in a bank, forcing retirement from the rally before reaching halftime.
Roberts and Jones now took the lead of the Welsh 2WD’s and were 20 seconds ahead of Mike Brown Jr & Aled Davies in the BMW Compact M3, with Tony Simpson & Stefan Arndt in the R2 Fiesta rounding out the top three.
Photo: Iwan Roberts & Daniel Jones
Over the course of the repeated afternoon’s loop of stages, Iwan Roberts and Daniel Jones continued to be the Welsh 2WD pace setters with just the final stage in Haye Park going to Mike Brown & Aled Davis. Roberts and Jones would emerge from the final test of the rally with 38 seconds in their glove box and would take their second Hockley Motorsport Welsh 2WD Championship win of the season.
This result now puts him at the top of the standings, with an eight-point lead over Geoff Phelps. Finishing a further 51 seconds behind second-placed Brown & Davis were Tony Simpson & Stefan Arndt to round out the podium, Simpson is now third in the standings following the Woody.
Elsewhere, Sam Mason scored maximum points for the Under 25 drivers, beating Dylan Fowler Bishop. Although Callum Griffiths retired from the rally at service out, he still maintains his lead at the top of the Welsh U25 standings but is only 3 points clear of Mason.
Meanwhile in the Historics, having secured his third win of the season last time out on the Nicky Grist, Robert Gough would not fair up so well this time out. Gough alongside Co-Driver Paul Morris would not emerge from the opening stage of the rally in Coed-Sarnau; having picked up a double puncture, the pair were taken out of the fight before they had really got going.
Photo: Andrew Stokes & Jonny Tad Evans
Instead, there was a multi-class spread for the overall Welsh Historics category honors with Andrew Stokes & Jonny Tad Evans coming out on top with an overall win in their W8 Class MK1 Ford Escort. They finished with a time that was just over a minute quicker than Steve Chaplin & Richard Suter who were the top W9 Class crew in their MK2 Ford Escort, with Mark & Debora Tugwell rounding out the top three Welsh Historics and taking the W5 Class honors in their MK1 Ford Escort.
Despite his non-start, Matthew Hirst continues to lead the overall Drivers Championship with two rounds remaining, he is 19 points clear of Martyn Andrews (who leads the Welsh Challenge) with Simon Rogers rounding out the top three.
NEXT TIME …
The Motorsport UK Pirelli Welsh Rally Championships head to Llandudno North Wales for the Cambrian Rally (October 28) where the event will see the return of a classic gravel test which has not seen stage rallying for more than a decade.