By Ian Harden…

The prospect of driving nearly 100 miles of completely untried special stages has created a real buzz of excitement among Mintex MSA British Historic Rally Championship contenders, as they ready themselves for the Todds Leap Ulster Historic Rally on August 23rd and 24th.


This year, the rally moves to a new base in Enniskillen and uses 11 special stages in Co. Fermanagh, most of which have not seen competitive usage for many years.


Every BHRC Tarmac round allows registered contenders to drive over the stages beforehand to make and check their pacenotes. Judging by recce reports filtering through from the Irish lanes, this year’s event looks set to be a lively affair, presenting crews with a whole new set of challenges as they race through the great ‘Ulster Unknown.’


Three times British Historic Champion David Stokes reckons Co. Fermanagh will provide a very different test to the Co. Antrim stages used in recent years. “Some of the lanes are very, very tight; particularly the ones near the Co. Donegal border,” he says. “If it rains during the rally like it did during the recce, there is likely to be lots of mud and standing water to contend with. But in any conditions, wet or dry, there will be little room for error: it will really show who the good drivers are.”


Stokes’s Ford Escort Mk1 sports a powerful BDA engine built by Sherwood Racing Engines, one of the Mintex MSA championship’s much-valued series sponsors. Asked if he thinks he will be able to use the power, Stokes is honest in his assessment. “On these stages it will be essential to have good traction through the corners and I think the more powerful cars might struggle at times. From experience, I would say something like a basic 1600cc Escort could be just as quick on the twisty sections as it will be able to put all its horsepower down onto the road surface.”  


Ford Escort Mk2 driver Ernie Graham has chosen not to travel to Ireland beforehand, but will carry out his recce on the day before the event. He has already checked the stages from the DVD supplied with the proprietary route notes and is clearly excited about taking a leap into the Ulster Unknown. “If anything, the stages look even more flowing than in previous years. The organisers have obviously put a lot of time and effort into picking the roads to use as the competitive route,” he says. “Will (co-driver Will Graham) and myself will drive the stages on Thursday and modify the route notes as necessary, rather than make our own pacenotes. It’s a tried and tested method that we are both very happy with.”


Every crew completing the recce will have their own individual interpretation of the Northern Irish lanes. But, everyone agrees on one thing: this year’s new-look Todds Leap Ulster Historic Rally is shaping up to be two days of superb competition. And, as the Mintex MSA series hits a crucial point on the way to the season’s finale, the ‘Ulster Unknown’ could be just the place to pick up essential points in the race to be crowned 2013 Mintex MSA British Historic Rally Champion.