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Mobil 1/Top Gear RACMSA British Rally Championship

Bruno ThieryAfter the disappointment of 1995, the Ford team must have had high hopes for the new season. Indeed, a new assault was to be launched on the British championship. Again, Gwyndaf Evans and Howard Davies were to lead the charge, now in the face lifted Escort. Their new team mate was the Finn, Jarmo Kytolehto, who had previously driven a Vauxhall Astra. There was also Neil Simpson, driving Evans’ 1995 car, and Stephanie Simmonite driving an Escort prepared by Chris Birkbeck, now looking for her second Ladies Cup title.

There were plenty of fresh challenges from the opposition too. Mark Higgins had now moved up to a Group A Nissan Sunny. There was also another Finnish ace, Tapio Laukkanen, in a Volkswagen Golf. Renault were still present in the series, but were now using the Megane Maxi, with Robbie Head and French tarmac specialist, Serge Jordan at the wheel. The Megane was the first of the new generation of F2 kit cars to be used in Britain and, although not eligible for points in 1996, was to show the future of Formula 2 rallying.

Vauxhall Rally of Wales

Bruno Thiery Wales was the first opportunity to see what the new season had to offer. The Welsh weather also threw up another challenge, in the form of thick fog. Local boy, Gwyndaf Evans, settled in quickly, going well in the early stages. The second stage actually saw him set fastest overall time, quicker than that of Alister McRae and Arri Mokkonen in their non-championship Group A Escort RS Cosworths. Evans was flying; “The conditions have been really difficult, the fog has been really nasty...I hate it!”

Kytolehto had not been so lucky however. After an off on only the second stage, this was followed by a roll on the third, which saw him lose over four minutes, and plummet down the order. Neil Simpson was also struggling, and retired early on with a broken driveshaft. The championship rivals were also going well; Laukkanen was keeping in touch, and Higgins was quickly adapting to his new Nissan. Things weren’t going so well for Renault, with Head retiring after head gasket failure.

The final two stages of day one were held on the promenade at New Brighton. Evans went into these stages with the F2 lead, Gwyndaf Evans again bettering McRae and Mokkonen on the first loop. By the end of day one, Evans was still the leading F2 runner, with Higgins and Laukkanen in hot pursuit.

Day two saw the fog lifting slightly, but with rain to replace it. Evans started as he’d begun, pushing hard to retain his Formula 2 lead. Mark Higgins was also getting more comfortable in the Sunny, but dropped to third briefly, behind Tapio Laukkanen. Sadly for the Finnish driver though, his engine failed, and he fell out of the race.

In the Pirelli Ladies Cup, Stephanie Simmonite was settling well into her new Escort. It was a big change from the Civic she had used in 1995, with left hand drive and a sequential gearbox, but she was leading the ladies battle and adapting quickly; “Everything comes up quicker, you’re working so much harder. Your reactions have got to be there just instantly.”

Jarmo Kytolehto was also pushing, trying to make up for the drama of day one. He’d put in an excellent performance and managed to recover to sixth overall, third of the F2 runners. However, he couldn’t match the stunning performance of Gwyndaf Evans; fastest on every stage of the second day, he won the F2 section by four seconds over Mark Higgins, with Kytolehto in third.

Speaking at the finish, Evans said “It’s been a tough rally and very difficult conditions. It’s gone perfectly, Gordon Spooner Engineering have put a fine car together here.”

This early victory put Evans into early control of the championship, with Ford the top of the constructor’s Daniel Alonsoleader board early on. It had been a great start to the season.

Pirelli International Rally

The Pirelli International Rally offered another challenge to the drivers; pace notes were banned, with the crews having to navigate solely off maps, meaning a careful balance of speed and commitment, as well as care, and trust in their co-drivers.

The event didn’t start well for the Simmonite sisters; Steve Wedgebury flipped his Skoda on a bridge, blocking the stage, holding them up for two minutes while spectators moved the car out of the way. The Bradford sisters were left with it all to do. Jarmo Kytolehto started much better however. Despite not having second gear, he held a 13 second lead over Evans after the first four stages. Sadly, it didn’t last. On the very next stage, the normally reliable Xtrac gearbox failed altogether, leaving Evans to take over the Formula 2 lead, and Nissan’s Mark Higgins to move up to second place. Neil Simpson was having better luck than in Wales, running well.

By the end of Leg One, the drama for Renault continued, with both the Meganes out; Head in Special Stage 1, Jordan following later in the day. Jouko Puhakka’s Golf was laying third in F2, with Higgins second, and Evans comfortably in the F2 lead, with only the two Escort Cosworths of Arri Mokonen and Alister McRae ahead of them.

The beginning of day two saw the longest stage of the event; Pundershaw. Evans was still going well, but Higgins wasn’t so lucky. A huge roll meant air lifting to hospital and a fractured vertebra. Simpson said he’d had a steady run through Bruno Thiery Pundershaw, but was ready to push on and challenge those in front of him, whilst the poor Simmonite sisters were still battling hard, trying to make up lost time.

For Evans though, it was another great drive. Mokkonen’s retirement meant second overall and another storming F2 victory for the Welshman; excitedly saying “Delighted for the team, Ford, and Howard and everyone else. Very Happy!”

Victory in Cumbria meant Evans stretched his title lead to 22 points over Puhakka, with Stephanie Simmonite lying eighth. Ford now had a 12 point lead over Nissan in the constructor’s title battle, with VW only a single point behind them.

Perth Scottish Rally

Round three, a trip north of the border to Perthshire for The Scottish Rally, and another raft of points up for grabs. Conditions were very wet, and this seemed to suit the Finnish contenders. Jarmo Kytolehto shot into an early lead in his Escort, with Tapio Laukkanen in the Golf chasing hard. Evans had a steady start compared to previous events, but was still in contention, and looking to consolidate his championship lead. Neil Simpson was struggling again with Gwyndaf Evansgearbox troubles, this time stuck in third gear. It wasn’t all plain sailing for Evans either; the car was struggling to start and not cranking correctly, meaning frantic work in service halts to try and track down the problem.

Going into the final stages of the day at the Knockhill circuit, it was all to play for. Sadly for Laukkanen, he’d had two gearbox failures, so was forced into retirement. This left Kytolehto in the F2 lead at the end of day one, with Evans in second, and Higgins in third.

Leg Two saw a battle for the top spot that ran to the wire. Stephanie Simmonite was running well, but giving best to Louise Aitken-Walker, previous ladies champion, out of retirement for this one event. Evans was still having a few issues, and required a gearbox change late in the rally. Time was an issue, but the GSE crew managed to change it within the allotted service time, without incurring any road penalties. The Welshman was pushing hard, taking chunks of time out of Kytolehto, but was unable to make up the ground totally, giving the Finn his first F2 win of the year. Evans had to settle for second place, gaining more points, pulling further ahead of Puhakka in the championship table. This also left Ford with a comfortable lead in the constructors chase.

The Stena Line Ulster Rally

The Ulster Rally made up round four of the season, and another trip to Northern Ireland for the first tarmac round of the year. The stakes were high here for Ford. A good result could win them the British Championship, so a strong performance was essential. They were given a dream start too. Their main rival, Mark Higgins retired on the first stage of the event with a blown engine. Bad news for Higgins, but great news for Ford and Gwyndaf Evans; he only had to finish the event to take the title! Alister McRae also made a return to the championship, in a VW Golf. It was to be short-lived for both McRae and Laukkanen however, with both Golfs suffering gearbox failure and early retirement.

The tarmac did finally give Renault a chance to prove the performance of the Megane, with Robbie Head leading the FWD Bruno Thierycars and 1995 Renault driver, Alain Oreille, making a guest appearance in the second Renault and running well. Evans didn’t let the gift of Higgins retirement slow him down however. He took an early lead of the championship runners, but behind both the Meganes. Kytolehto had to give up his seat to another Finn, Harri Rovanpera, who was going well in the other Escort. Kenny McKinstry was also out in his own RS2000, running well in F2, indeed, by the end of Leg One, the top three F2 cars were all Fords, with Evans leading the championship fight over McKinstry and Rovanpera respectively.

Day two saw the Renaults continue their charge, but Oreille wasn’t to make it to the end of the event, after a big off into one of the Ulster hedgerows. Neil Simpson in Evans’ old Escort was pushing, but struggling with clutch and brake issues throughout the day. Once again, the Simmonite sisters were leading the ladies contest, and eventually finished 12th overall and fifth of the British championship contenders. Robbie Head was the star of the front wheel driver runners, second only to the Subaru of Irish legend, Bertie Fisher. He was showing the future of Formula 2 rallying, and just how dominant the kit cars could be in the right hands.

However, it was Evans that was to take the glory. Another shining performance meant his third F2 win of the year, maximum points, and the British Rally Championship crown outright. When interviewed at the end of the final stage, Evans said “A credit to the whole Gordon Spooner Engineering team, Michelin tyres, Response, Ford, and everybody that worked Bruno Thieryso hard during the season to achieve this result...Absolutely great.”

Of the Formula 2 runners, Head had run away with it, but was not eligible for championship contention. Evans had dominated the points-scoring runners, backed up by Kenny McKinstry in second, Neil Simpson in third and Stephanie Simmonite fifth of the British Championship runners. Fords had dominated the Ulster Rally and Evans had taken the ultimate prize; recognition at last of the potential of the RS2000.

Once the dust had settled, Evans had an unassailable 49 point lead over second-place Justin Dale, with Neil Simpson fourth, and Stephanie Simmonite sixth.

Manx International Rally

As always, the British championship enjoyed its final round in the stunning scenery of the Isle of Man. The Manx is always dramatic, and 1996 was to be no different. As Gwyndaf Evans had already clinched the British title, it was to be something of a different event for him and co-driver, Howard Davies. The Escort they were using was a very different machine compared to the one they’d used in Ulster. The decision had been made, with both championships sealed, to sacrifice points and use the rally as an extended testing exercise. The car was hugely modified from Ulster spec, with clearly wider front wings, and a howling engine under the bonnet. The regular Group A unit had been replaced with a development kit car engine, giving the Escort a huge power increase. When asked what he was expecting of the rally, Evans replied “Just come here to enjoy ourselves really and obviously learn a bit on the car for next year.”

The development car was clearly working well, with Evans running third overall, behind Bertie Fisher and Armin Schwartz, both in Group A, four wheel drive, cars. The Escort was even beating the Renault Megane Maxi of Serge Jordan in the early stages, showing the Escort was definitely going in the right direction for 1997. Rovanpera was back in the second RS2000,Gwyndaf Evans running in third place the F2, but sadly crashed out on stage six. By the end of day one, Jordan had pushed ahead of Evans, with Mark Higgins the leading F2 runner, and Neil Simpson chasing hard.

Day two saw Jordan out early with transmission trouble, leaving Evans to take back the front wheel drive lead. Simpson was still pushing hard, trying to catch Mark Higgins’ Nissan, and with good reason; “I’d love to be second in the British Championship and give Ford a one-two, that would be excellent, but Mark’s really flying here; it’s his home territory so I’m struggling to catch him.”

Evans too was pushing. With Fisher forced out with mechanical problems, it was a straight fight between Evans’ Escort and Schwartz’ WRC Celica. On the fourth stage, Evans actually equalled the time set by the Toyota. When talking in service, Evans said “We are learning with the car, it’s a development. It’s an interim stage of the car for next year” going on to say excitedly; “We’ll hopefully have a bit more power again next year, so look out is it!”

A worrying prospect for Ford’s competitors indeed, as on Special Stage 14, Evans beat Schwartz to set the fastest overall time; an impressive effort for a front wheel drive F2 car! However, the fun soon ended. As they reached the stage end, the car sounded very unhealthy = the development engine had given up the fight. Gwyndaf Evans: “It was a good development trip and we’ve learnt. So we’ll go back and try and put things right.” Even Howard Davies could feel it from the passenger seat, noting “There was a lot more power in the car.”

Simpson had still been trying hard to catch local-boy Mark Higgins; a little too hard in places, going off into a river, and Bruno Thieryhaving to follow co-driver, Steve Martin, through the water to find a way out! Simpson’s Escort had been upgraded with the previous engine from Evan’s car and was showing good pace, but sadly the engine didn’t last, and Simpson was forced to retire, leaving Stephanie Simmonite as the only factory RS2000, sitting just outside the top ten.

The final day saw Armin Schwartz go on to take the rally win, with F2 being dominated by Manx drivers, Mark Higgins and Martin Rowe.

1996 saw the championship finish with Gwyndaf Evans a comfortable first, Stephanie Simmonite in fourth, and Neil Simpson sixth. Ford also took the manufacturer crown by six points, meaning 1996 would be the most successful year for the RS2000.

Network Q RAC Rally

After two consecutive RAC F2 victories and the British title, Gwyndaf Evans must have been confident for the 1996 RAC Rally. It was certainly going to be a difficult event, with snow and ice to challenge the drivers. Sadly it wasn’t to be three out of three for the British Rally Champion. Going into the Chatsworth House stage, the roads were extremely slippery, and the front wheel drive Formula 2 cars were struggling to get traction. Evans was to find out just how difficult the conditions were, to his cost. He slid wide on a right hander and clipped a huge tree stump hard, flipping the Escort, with a heavy landing on the roof. They managed to get out of the stage, but the roll cage was badly damaged, and the champions were out. They weren’t the only crew to fall victim to the conditions, and Robbie Head was to clip the very same tree stump and roll his Megane heavily. There was to be no RAC in 1996, so Evans was left to look forward to the 1997 British Championship and the new Escort kit car.