After a Ceremonial Start in Chester city centre on Friday afternoon, the National Rally ran to a revised two-day format, shadowing the WRC show on both Saturday and Sunday. As well as a new route, it also produced a new winner – Tom Preston. In fact, it wasn’t only Preston’s first WRGB victory but also his first ever rally win aboard his Hippo Motor Group-sponsored Skoda Fabia R5.
Adding to the synergy, Preston and Evans’ co-driver Dan Barritt hail from Lancashire, so both will be taking their spoils back to the north west of England.
Indeed, Preston is the first Englishman to win the event since its move to North Wales, coming after four successive Scottish victories. Last year’s victor Bruce McCombie had to settle for second in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX with Roger Duckworth – a long-time supporter of the event – completing the podium in his familiar Subaru Impreza World Rally Car.
Preston, a regular competitor in the Prestone MSA British Rally Championship as won by Elfyn Evans in 2016, was quick off the mark – the Skoda ace was fastest on both the opening two stages.
The first of these was a blast through Cholmondeley Castle in front of thousands of spectators, the second a rather more challenging stage through the classic Aberhirnant forest. Impressively, Preston’s time was far from overshadowed by those contesting the WRC event in which drivers also benefit from making their own pace-notes.
Dylan Davies, a regular frontrunner in Welsh rallying, was another to impress over the first two speed tests.. A last minute switch to a Subaru Impreza R4meant he wasn’t as familiar with his machinery as his closest rivals, but there was no sign of a slow start as he headed both Duckworth and McCombie.
The third stage took the crews to Dyfnant where Preston had rolled his Skoda into retirement 12 months earlier, and it came close to being his downfall again.
Carrying too much speed into a corner, the Fabia spun to halt leaving him and co-driver Andrew Roughead facing the wrong direction. McCombie was fastest and slashed Preston’s lead from 15 seconds to just over six.
Undaunted by his mishap, Preston responded in Gartheiniog with another quickest time – this time ahead of Scottish raider John Wink in his Hyundai i20 R5. Another fastest time on Dyfi saw the pace-setting Skoda establish a more comfortable 25-second overnight advantage over McCombie and Duckworth.
Dylan Davies was fourth overnight in his Subaru Impreza after a puncture and McCombie’s progress had also been slowed by deflating rubber. Duckworth’s Subaru was suffering too – with a differential problem and, while it held together, the noise deafened the crew!
Sunday’s schedule featured a further 15 miles of edge-of-the-seat action, this time with the stages set further north, including the Brenig ‘Power Stage’ fresh from hosting Evans’ historic win.
Thanks to his substantial lead, Preston was able to take his foot off the gas and, in fact, there were no changes in the top four on the final day as the smiling crews reached the finish in Llandudno.
“This is my first rally win,” grinned an understandably delighted Preston. “It’s been a good laugh today and we just wanted to get to the end having not won one before!
We were desperate to win and although there were only three short stages on Sunday, it was still possible to mess it up. The only problem we had was the spin on Saturday. I went too quick into a left-hander on the third stage, cut the corner and it dug in – we spun and stalled. I had to turn it around. We lost a bit of time there.”
Behind the top four, Wink finished fifth ahead of local man Keith Parry in another of the Imprezas, who enjoyed a ding-dong battle with leading Ford Escort Mk2 finisher Ieuan Rowlands. Just under 10 seconds separated them at the finish in Llandudno where the crews celebrated over the same WRC podium ramp as the international rally stars.
Alasdair Graham scored eighth on his event debut, in part down to the brilliant sportsmanship from others in the Service Park – McCombie lending Graham a fuel pump in order that he could finish the event.
John Rowlands, Ieuan’s brother, took the honours in the B3 class in his Escort Mk2 finishing an impressive ninth overall. BTRDA Silver Star champion Ashley Davies rounded out the top 10, despite suffering a puncture which hampered the Duractec-engined Mk2’s progress.
Just outside the top 10, Shawn Rayner put a season of asphalt rallying to bed with a brilliant win on gravel in the Historic classes. His H3 class-leading Escort wasn’t challenged but his overall 13th position on the rally did the talking.
Rikki Proffitt in his wonderfully eclectic Datsun 240Z took the H2 class spoils, while Ken Davies’ Volvo Amazon won H1, even after rejoining the event on Sunday having retired on Saturday with a gearbox problem.
Alasdair Currie, from Mull in Scotland, netted a dominant B2 class win on debut in a Ford Fiesta R2. He was minutes clear of Zak Hughes, who won the Suzuki Swift Shining Stars Championship on this event in a production-spec Suzuki Swift.
The 1400 class was won by Gary Wright in his MG ZR, as early class-leader Joe Evett retired with no clutch.
In total, 63 of the 76 starters were classified as finishers, providing WRC fans with some spectacular entertainment.
“The WRC may get all the attention, but the National Rally is really important part of this event,” said Ben Taylor, Managing Director of Dayinsure Wales Rally GB. “We see everyone over the finish ramp in Llandudno and celebrate with the class winners, because this is the sport’s premier showcase in the UK and whether it’s in the Rally Village or in the forests, these guys add massively to it. The fans always love the variety of cars, many providing the old-fashioned sideways thrills that we all adore.
“We congratulate all this year’s class winners and thank all those who contested the WRGB National Rally for their part in making the weekend such a huge and memorable success.”
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2017 WRGB National Rally results
1     Tom Preston/Andrew Roughead (Skoda Fabia R5) 1h04m14.4s
2     Bruce McCombie/Michael Coutts (Mitsubishi Lancer E9) +23.2s
3     Roger Duckworth/Mark Broomfield (Subaru Impreza WRC) +47.5s
4     Dylan Davies/Llion Williams (Subaru Impreza) +59.7s
5     John Wink/John Forrest (Hyundai i20 R5) +1m 04.1s
6     Keith Parry/Eryl Evans (Subaru Impreza) +2m 26.6s
7     Ieuan Rowlands/Emyr Hall (Ford Escort Mk2) +2m 36.7s
8     Alasdair Graham/Laura Stuart (Mitsubishi Lancer E9) +4m 35.0s
9     John Rowlands/Glenn Latham (Ford Escort Mk2) +5m 11.3s
10     Ashley Davies/Sam Fordham (Ford Escort Mk2) +5m 32.7s