Crucial Ulster double header for ‘Challenge…

The 2013 NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge returns to its role as the premier support series of the MSA British Rally Championship next weekend, as the battle for the championship sparks back into life on the sealed surfaces of the roads of Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone after an eight week summer break.

The Todds Leap Ulster Challenge Rallies provide the only “double header” event on this year’s championship, the two days of competition around Northern Ireland’s Lakelands providing a fresh test for the NGK BRCC crews, with the collection of stages in operation being new to most of the field, following the move from last year’s base in Antrim.

With lack of familiarity added to the traditional Ulster ingredients of unpredictable weather, evening running and spectacularly fast roads, this year’s event has all the hallmarks of providing a classic rally  and of playing a pivotal part in the destiny of the 2013 titles.
The NGK BRCC rolls into Enniskillen on Friday afternoon with a full-on championship battle raging.  Currently leading on 86 points is Russ Thompson & co driver Andy Murphy in their Renault Clio, delivering three excellent performances over the first part of the season.
Winning the season opening Pirelli Richard Burns Foundation Rally in Cumbria and following up with a solid second on the Jim Clark Rally, the pair then recorded a crushing victory on the RSAC Scottish Rally in May when, despite nursing a broken front suspension wishbone for a large portion of the event, they secured their second victory of the season by a clear 58 seconds.

They are followed in second position by RC5 class leaders Gareth White & Mike Dickson who have earned their 73 points through consistent, controlled drives that have delivered a hat-trick of forth place finishes in their Citroen C2R2. While in third place, only six points behind are reigning champions Richard Sykes & Simon Taylor, who are enduring a trying defence of the 2012 title.
The crew from Stourbridge began their year by posting a strong second place on the season opener, but have subsequently encountered a host of trials and tribulations which have restricted them to a ninth and sixth place finish on the last two rounds. They are however still handily placed to launch an assault on the standings which a repeat of last year’s double win on Todds Leap Ulster Challenge Rally would provide a timely kick start to their season.

With things finely poised between the three leading crews all three will be looking to record the strongest possible finishes this weekend, however the return of Galway’s Dean Raftery will provide an additional consideration for the championship contenders.
Raftery was hugely impressive on the season opening Pirelli Rally and after winning two of the first three stages of the event, looked like he was going to provide an enormous challenge for the overall event victory.  Two punctures in quick succession resulted in retirement, as the 21 year old’s Honda Civic only carried one spare. However the lightening pace he demonstrated up to that point makes him a serious dark horse for the victories in Ulster.

Lurking just outside the top three and also handily placed to climb up the leader-board are Scottish drivers Steven Smith in fourth and Ross Hunter in fifth. Lanarkshire based Smith has been demonstrating strong speed all year and has put a disappointing outing in Cumbria behind him by recording a second and third place finish in the next two rallies.
Borderer Hunter, who hails from St Boswells in Roxburghshire, bounced back from retirement on round one to make effective use of his local knowledge to win the Jim Clark with a performance that marks him out as one to watch this weekend back on tarmac.  He then added a second consecutive podium finish by coming home second last time out.

Sitting in sixth, Fiesta SportChallenge and BRC Challenge Star of the Future leader Chris Wheeler will be looking to continue his rally education with another solid points haul while his Fiesta driving rival Aaron McClure will be eager to bounce back from a hefty shunt on the previous round.

Des Campbell missed round one, but was quickest of the combined RC2&3 classes on round two. Another good finish in Scotland means he could do well when dropped scores are taken into account at the end of the season. He leads a trio of Peugeots, although Tim Daltry and local Jonni McDaid are new to the series and must get quickly up to speed.
The first of this weekend’s BRC rounds gets under way from Enniskillen Town Hall on Friday lunchtime as part of the event’s ceremonial start while Saturday’s second event will see prizes awarded as part of the ceremonial finishes at around 4pm.

To stay updated with all the latest action from the NGK BRC Challenge, download the free British Rally Championship App or follow the trials and tribulations via the official Twitter feed @britishrally.