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Mobil 1/RAC British Rally Championship

Gwyndaf Evans Vauxhall Rally of Wales 1997After the successes of 1996, the 1997 season had a tough act to follow. Gwyndaf Evans had dominated the championship the previous year, but 1997 brought many new challenges. The new generation of kit cars had arrived and the new Escort Super Rally Car was here; with wider wheel arches and a more powerful engine. Ford had another strong entry into the championship, with a number of drivers ready to do battle and help Ford retain the title. The line up was still lead by the Welsh crew of Gwyndaf Evans and Howard Davies. This time their team mate was Indonesian driver, Dandy Rukmana, driving a similar Escort. The Simmonite sisters were back again, looking for their third Ladies Cup, but still using an older, Group A, car. Other drivers included British championship regulars; Julian Reynolds, and Irishman, Philip Young.

The formidable challenge from Renault would continue; with Robbie Head and Manxman, Martin Rowe, joining the line up. Tapio Laukkanen remained with VW, now joined by 1995 champion, Alister McRae. Mark Higgins was still with Nissan, and the veteran, Stig Blomqvist, joined the Skoda team in the new Felicia kit car. With so many big names in the championship, it was going to be a big year.

Vauxhall Rally of Wales

The start of the season saw a return to the Welsh forests, and everyone was expecting a big battle between the top drivers. Evans said before the start “There’s no such thing as being tactical, it will just mean being flat out from the word go.”

British International Motor Show 1997He was right too; after the first three stages, it was closer than ever. Evans was in a dead heat for first place with Mark Higgins, it was that tight at the top! 1995 champion, Alister McRae was sitting in third place, but was suffering mechanical troubles, with an overheating engine. The tricky Welsh roads were to bite Evans, though. On stage four, Penmachno, a right front puncture saw him limp out of the stage with the front wing hanging off the car. Then, the second run through Penmachno saw Evans clip a rock with a rear wheel, wrecking the rear beam. Time was lost, with Howard Davies even having to bodge the rear brakes back together to get the car to the service area, where the GSE crew could get to work and fix the damage. With the car repaired, the Welsh pair could get back to the race and were still in third by the end of the day, albeit some way behind the new leader, Alister McRae.

Leg 2 saw Evans and Davies on the pace, but unable to make up the time they had lost the previous day. Elsewhere, Swede Andreas Eriksson was going well, starting the day in 10th place in his Escort. The Simmonite sisters were also running well, and would go on to take another Ladies Cup win, finishing 21st overall, a perfect start to their title defence. Unfortunately for the other runners at the front, McRae’s overheating issues had been left behind, and he was battling with Higgins for the rally lead until stage 13, which saw Higgins go off and drop down the order. Evans, who had been happy to hold station and take some championship points, had now been promoted to second place, better than they had expected, and Gwyndaf Evans Manx International Rallywhere they would stay. McRae was well and truly in control, and would prove impossible to beat in Wales. Eriksson went on to finish seventh, a good result for the Swede, with Philip Young just outside the top ten in 11th place.

Pirelli International Rally

April meant the second round of the championship; the fearsome Pirelli International Rally of Cumbria. Taking on a new format for 1997, the event was to be split over the two days, with points available for both, as well as the overall honour of an outright win. The event started well for Evans again, running in third place after the first three stages, however he was forced down to fourth after stage four, behind the flying Robbie Head in his Megane Maxi. McRae was going well again, but a spin in the Falstone stage saw him drop some ten minutes and plummet down the leader board. Evans lost some time, almost collecting McRae’s front bumper whilst passing the stricken Golf, which Mark Higgins was all too happy to capitalise on, storming into the lead, leaving Evans in second after Head had dropped a little time, now in third position. Higgins held the rally lead, but a slight off lost him time, and by the end of the day, the pair had scored another dead heat, proving just how close the competition was. Evans took maximum points for day one, after setting fastest time on stage one, keeping him in touch of the title battle.

The second day started with fog, with McRae keen to score maximum points to make up for his off on Leg 1. As well as fog, the first stage saw the drivers face the longest stage of the event; Pundershaw. Evans proved the new Escort kit car had the goods, beating McRae to the fastest time; a lead he would keep for Julian Reynolds Manx International Rallymost of the day. Irishman Philip Young wasn’t so lucky however; a roll saw him lose a minute and drop down to 14th place. Stephanie Simmonite was having another good run in her Escort, taking her second Ladies Cup win of the year, and 18th overall, eighth of the F2 runners. Julian Reynolds was also running well in his new Escort, finishing fourth in Formula 2, giving Ford another good result for the Escort. With one stage to go, Evans was left with a 14 second lead over his rivals, and in prime position to take another good haul of points, as well as the first win for the new Escort kit car. McRae was on the pace, keen to overhaul Evans, meaning the battle would go right to the line. It certainly did that, but not quite as the lead crews had hoped! The final stage was filled with drama. McRae was pushing to the limit, hoping to catch Evans, but a heavy spin meant he was off the road and out of the event. Rovanpera also rolled out in the Ibiza Kit Car on the same stage. All looked good for Evans, until he slid slightly wide going through a fast, sweeping section, slipping into a ditch and rolling the Escort heavily. The car ended up on its roof, and Evans race was over. The dramatic end to the event saw Robbie Head take a surprise win, with Laukkanen second and Blomqvist third in the 1.6 litre Skoda, leaving the championship wide open!

RSAC Scottish Rally

The third round again marked the last outing in the forests, and the mid-point of the season. After the disappointment of the Pirelli, many of the top drivers had points to prove, and work to do to keep their title hopes alive. Evans had scored good points on day one of the Pirelli, but his day two exit had cost him dearly, leaving him second in the championship to Alister McRae by a point. A win on day two would have given him a comfortable lead, so there was a lot to play for in Scotland.

The Scottish roads seemed to suit the Golf however, with McRae and Laukkanen setting the early pace. Evans could only manage fourth spot, behind Mark Higgins, after the first stage, but the second stage saw him fastest overall, passing Higgins. Laukkanen and McRae were flying however, and Evans would be unable to catch them on day one, having to settle Gwyndaf Evans Manx International Rallyfor third spot at the end of the first leg. It was all to play for on Leg 2 though, with only 12 seconds covering the top three runners.

Day two started in much the same way as the first, with the two Golfs trading times. Higgins suffered a puncture in the Nissan, meaning he dropped time to Evans’ Ford, giving the Welshman room to breathe and concentrate on trying to catch the two leaders. With only one stage remaining, there was now only nine seconds covering the top three, with just 19 miles left. When asked what his approach would be to that final stretch, Evans replied “What do you think? Maximum!”

Laukkanen was confident, boasting that the rally was his, but McRae wasn’t to be beaten in his home territory. He beat Laukkanen by some eight seconds, taking the victory, and consolidating his championship lead. Evans remained third, completing the final stage five seconds slower than Laukkanen. It was another good result for the Escort and for Ford, but they were no match for the VW duo on this occasion. With the forest rounds completed, McRae led the title race, with Evans second, eight points behind. Robbie Head was in third place, only three points behind Evans. The constructors race was equally close, with VW leading, Ford second, and Renault in third place. However, with the championship now moving onto Tarmac, would this favour the more powerful kit cars, and leave VW and Nissan struggling? Would the well-proven Megane sweep to victory? It was all to play for!

The Stena Line Ulster Rally

Ulster saw big changes for the Ford team, with another new car making its first British Rally Championship outing. Gwyndaf Evans would be piloting the new car, and was obviously excited for its first run; “We’re running the brand new Escort Kit Car, which looks absolutely stunning. I just hope it will go as well as it looks.”

Stephanie Simmonite Manx International Rally 1997The new car was certainly stunning to look at, with even wider wheel arches than the earlier kit car, giving it huge presence, much more like that of the Renault Maxi Megane. Indeed, the Escort was soon to share the Renaults “Maxi” tag. The changes weren’t just skin deep though, with the car now boasting a more powerful engine, as well as further revised suspension.

Evans was keen to show what the new car could do, and stormed into the Ulster lanes, giving best only to the Scot, Robbie Head, in the Megane. The new car was performing well but, like the Megane, wasn’t perfectly suited to some of the narrow roads of Northern Ireland. The wide track was making it difficult to navigate, with the car brushing the hedgerows at times. Evans noted after the first few stages “For the debut of the car, I think it’s showing a lot of promise. We have a bit more work to do on it, but it’s ok so far.”

By now, Head was having trouble, with an electrical fault losing him time on stage five. He had dropped down to eighth position, but was still setting fastest stage times for the remainder of the day. Mark Higgins was also going well, the Group A Nissan Sunny was well suited to the narrow roads, and he had moved in to the Formula 2 lead, over Evans; a lead which he would take into the overnight halt. McRae was in touch in third position, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Robbie Head. The Megane had been fastest on every single stage except where he’d had the electrical glitch.

Day two saw the top of the leader board remain the same. Higgins was in a comfortable lead, with Evans happy to settle for second place and take points again. The new car had performed well and clearly had potential to do very well in the future, but a good result and a strong points finish was essential to keep the championship within reach. Head managed to recover to third position, proving just how capable the Megane was on tarmac. The Simmonite sisters had another successful run, taking their fourth Ladies Cup victory of the year, and securing the title for the third year in a row. This meant, with one round to go, McRae still held the title lead, but only by two points over Evans, with Head six points further back. The final round on the Isle of Man wasn’t far off, with no less than five drivers able to win the championship, it was going to be a thrilling end to the year.

Manx International Rally

The Manx International Rally of 1997 would probably go down as one of the most eventful season climaxes ever seen. The top five drivers were all in with a chance of the title and, with two previous winners amongst them, as well as two Manx drivers in the mix. It was set to be a fantastic end to the season, but could Ford do the double and take the title for the second year running?

They certainly started well, with Evans’ Escort Maxi again battling with Robbie Head in the Renault Megane. The pair set joint fastest time on the first stage, proving how closely matched the cars were, but local boy Mark Higgins held the F2 lead after the first three stages. Suspension trouble saw him drop down to fourth however. The rally hadn’t started well for VW, with both McRae and Laukkanen suffering with handbrake and power steering problems, meaning McRae was unable to challenge for the lead in the early stages. By the end of the sixth stage, the weather had changed and it was raining hard. Evans and Head hadn’t let up however, sharing another two fastest times, and meaning a dead heat between the championship contenders. Julian Reynolds was also running well in his Group A Escort, pushing hard to break into the top ten. Towards the end of day one, Evans and Head scored another dead heat through Castletown, and a second fastest time on the final stage of the day saw Evans go into the overnight break with an 11 second lead. McRae was, by now, recovering, and had set the fastest time on the Cringle stage, showing it wasn’t over for the Scot just yet.

Cesar Baroni Rallye Antibes-AzurLeg 2 started well for Gwyndaf Evans, stretching his lead by four seconds in the now dry conditions, but it was all about to change, and there were to be big consequences for the title. Stage two saw the results turned upside down. McRae flipped his Golf at speed when the car was unsettled by the bumpy lanes, putting him out of the rally, and ending his hopes for a second British title. This should have been great news for Gwyndaf Evans, but sadly the second title was also to elude the Welshman in similar circumstances. A bumpy section unsettled the car; and a high speed spin resulted in a broken radiator and retirement. The car was undamaged otherwise, but with an overheating engine, there was nothing Evans could do, and the Escort wasn’t to get its second British title this year. With the top two championship runners out, the drama kept coming. Special Stage 17 saw Robbie Head also out of luck, as an early downshift killed his engine, leaving Mark Higgins to charge into the lead. The retirements had helped other Ford drivers, however. Julian Reynolds was up to fourth place, Philip Young was now in eighth, and ladies champion, Stephanie Simmonite was in 11th.

The final day saw the title race down to just two; Mark Higgins and Martin Rowe. Both drivers hail from the island, and both were keen to prove they had what it takes to wear the championship crown. It was a hard battle, with both drivers suffering problems. However, despite losing a wheel late on, Higgins was able to hold on and take the championship, though Rowe was to take the rally win, his first British Rally Championship victory. Reynolds remained in fourth place, the top RS2000, with Young up to sixth and Simmonite eighth.

All this drama sadly left Evans only fourth in the championship, with Ford also Daniel Alonso 1997fourth in the constructors battle. It had been a close fought season, and Ford should perhaps have done better, but it certainly hadn’t been short of drama. Further disappointment was to follow for Escort fans however. With big changes on the horizon, the Escort was due to be replaced by the Focus, and Ford had little appetite for funding the expensive Escort Formula 2 program. This led to them losing their star driver; Gwyndaf Evans, and facing a very tough campaign in 1998.

Spanish Asphalt Championship

The Formula 2 kit cars had proven very popular, with numerous versions appearing from Citroen, Renault and Peugeot. Ford were also present, with Daniel Alonso driving an Escort kit car in the Spanish Asphalt Championship. Sadly, information is lacking on Alonso’s exploits, but it is known that he took victory on the Rallye San Froilan Lugo in 1997. This is an area which will be updated as more information becomes available.