First of all, let me wish all of you RallyBuzz readers a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Time to look forward to 2024 so here are a few important Irish rallying dates for your diary.
Marty McCormack and Barney Mitchell have won the 2023 Roger Albert Clark Rally. The Magherafelt Motor Club members headed home a one-two for Northern Ireland drivers in Ford Escort Mk.2’s. Omagh’s Cathan McCourt, on his first RAC, and Irish co-driver Liam Moynihan were second 5 minutes and 30 seconds back while Welshman Jason Pritchard and Phil Clarke finished third in their Escort Mk.2 a further 1 minute and 26 seconds behind.
This was McCormack’s fourth victory on the R.A.C. Rally, extending his record. The most successful driver in the rally’s 20-year history paced himself throughout the long event but was never lower than 4th overall, despite sliding into a Scottish ditch on Saturday. Marty knew it wasn’t a sprint and when others hit trouble, he found himself in front when it mattered, at the finish of the final 39-mile stage! A fantastic achievement for the 38-year-old Draperstown driver and co-driver Mitchell from Magherafelt. They totally epitomised the old saying “To finish first, first you must finish”.
Marty McCormack’s previous RAC Rally wins were in 2012, 2017 and 2019. All of them in BDA-powered Ford Escort Mk.2’s.
Meanwhile there was more top 10 success for NI drivers. Vivian Hamill/Andrew Grennan were seventh in their Escort Mk.2 and Robert Woodside/Dean Beckett finished tenth and won their class in a Porsche 911.
The biennial Roger Albert Clark gravel rally for historic cars, which recreates the gruelling RAC Rally GB’s of the 1970’s and 80’s, attracted an entry of 155 of which 70 were Ford Escort Mk.2’s. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the marathon RAC had scheduled no less than 33 special stages totalling well over 300 miles. Leading entries included WRC stars Kris Meeke, Oliver Solberg and Chris Ingram plus 2022 British Champion Osian Pryce, but they all failed to finish.
Pryce was in front after SS1 Crychan, then Meeke led after SS4 Glasfynydd, but retired his Escort MK.2 with a blown engine on the very next test. Pryce led again but the Welshman eventually retired his Escort from second place behind Oliver Solberg in Scotland. After this Solberg led McCormack and increased his lead to 5 minutes until day four. The Swedish WRC star had looked unstoppable, but he went off on SS28 Harewood 2 dropping to fourth. Oliver eventually retired his Viking Motorsport Escort Mk.2 on the fifth and final day. Chris Ingram had earlier retired his fabulous Triumph TR7 V8 from 36th place on SS10 Sweet Lamb Hafren 1 with mechanical problems.
The 2023 Roger Albert Clark Rally ran for five days from Thursday 23rd to Monday 27th November in Wales, Scotland and England.
There were 14 classic stages in Wales on Thursday and Friday including Crychan, Walters Arena, Sweet Lamb-Hafren and Myherin. In Scotland on Saturday the 6 tests included two runs over Ae, Dalbeattie and Glengap. Unfortunately, two 9-mile stages in Arroch Hill (SS19/22) had to be cancelled due to accessibility problems. Then in England on Sunday there were 3 repeated stages in the central block of Kielder including Kershope and Mount Common, both 16 miles long, and the second longest stages in the event. On Monday the remaining 5 stages were also in the Kielder Forest complex.
The final stage of the rally was a huge “sting-in-the-tail”. SS33 The Big One in Pundershaw was 39 miles long, and it produced a major casualty. Seb Perez and Garry McElhinney were cruelly denied second place when their glorious Lancia Stratos ground to a halt mid-stage, the fabulous sounding Ferrari power unit which had entertained the appreciative crowds all rally long had unfortunately overheated.
The 2023 RAC Rally was a massive success. Huge crowds attended the event right from the Carmarthen Town Centre start in Wales on Wednesday evening through to the Carlisle finish on the Monday afternoon. For example, in Wales all the stage car parks on Friday morning had to be closed early when they filled to capacity.
Elfyn Evans had been handed a golden opportunity to become 2024 World Rally Champion, now that Kalle Rovanpera has announced he will go part time. Evans, the “Little Welsh Wizard”, will start his 5th season next year with Toyota in the WRC. The 8-time rally winner has been championship runner up three times, in 2020 and 2021(behind Ogier) and of course this year when he finished second to his Yaris teammate Rovanpera.
Elfyn and co-driver Scott Martin’s only full-time teammate next year will be Takamoto Katsuta who has yet to win a rally. The “Wee Japanese Man” will again have Ulsterman Aaron Johnston alongside him in the Yaris Rally1.
Realistically though, Elfyn Evans only challengers for the 2024 WRC title will be the Hyundai i20 pairing of Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak, who has returned to the South Korean manufacturer after just one year at M-Sport Ford in which he failed to tame the Puma.
Toyota should have the best car yet again in 2024. Unless Hyundai can make serious improvements to the i20 Rally1 ASAP, it is difficult to see them challenging the Japanese mark, who have won the manufacturers prize for the past three years. Meanwhile M-Sport Ford have yet to announce their WRC team for 2024. Kalle Rovanpera and Sebastien Ogier will drive on selected events for Toyota.
Apparently Rovanpera will return to a full-time drive in 2025. The 13-round 2024 World Rally Championship starts with Rallye Monte-Carlo, running from 25th to 28th January.
Maiden City Motor Club are the organisers of this annual clubman Single Venue Rally which is sponsored by MCEVOYMOTORSPORT.COM. Comprising of five stages and based entirely within the Shackleton Complex in Ballykelly. The first car starts at 9.15am. Sign on via rallyscore.net or at the venue on the day. We are providing rescue plus stage marshals and possibly radio cover.