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Mobil 1/RAC British Rally Championship

Stephanie Simmonite Vauxhall Rally of Wales1998 was to be a totally different year. The previous three years had seen hard fought battles for the top places, title challenges and an outright British championship. Sadly, 1998 was to be a much more low-key affair. Gwyndaf Evans had moved to Seat, and a lack of commitment from Ford had seen the challenge drop considerably from previous years. There were still positive aspects though; Stephanie Simmonite remained with Ford, still backed by Chris Birkbeck, looking for her fourth Ladies Cup title, and now driving an Escort kit car. Philip Young was also still with Ford, and would contest the championship. A new arrival was Lars-Goran Andersson, and future world rally driver Toni Gardemeister would also appear. Some of the big names were gone, but the Escorts would still prove a worthy competitor, with the ability to match the times of the newer, more developed cars from the big teams.

Silverstone Rally Sprint

A new event for the 1998 calendar; the Silverstone Rally Sprint used a specially constructed special stage in the grounds of the world-famous Grand Prix circuit. Although there were no points to be scored in the driver’s championships, manufacturer points were up for grabs, as well as the pride of taking the first victory of the new season. Cars would take part in special sprints, with each car completing two loops of the stage, the fastest time being the winner. Heats would lead to semi-finals, and then finals, with each leg being worth points for the manufacturer championship.

It was going to be difficult for Ford to score well here, with so many big names amongst the VW, Seat and Renault teams. The Simmonite sisters were determined to make a bigger impact than before though; Stephanie said before the event “This year is going to be a little bit different, a bit more of an attack in Gethin Jones 1998us this year...We’re actually going to attack more for the top ten position, especially on the gravel.”

The morning heats saw new face, Lars-Goran Andersson of Sweden face Tapio Laukkanen, who had now joined the Renault team, alongside Martin Rowe. Andersson got a good start, leading for the whole of the first lap, but going into the first right hander of lap two, clipped a tyre wall. This resulted in a broken steering arm, and a chance missed for Andersson. Laukkanen went on to face McRae’s Golf in the semi-final, but McRae got the upper hand, and faced a final against Gwyndaf Evans, who was settling well into the Ibiza Kit Car. Evans got the best of McRae in the final, taking the Leg 1 points.

Leg 2 was a similar story, with Evans again in the final, this time against Laukkanen. A mistake from Laukkanen gave Evans victory again, meaning a clean sweep for Seat in the first round of the year. Ford were languishing down in fourth place, 4.5 points behind Renault.

Vauxhall Rally of Wales

With the Silverstone event out of the way, it was time to get into the season proper. This would mark the first battle for points in the Ladies Cup between Stephanie Simmonite and her main rival, Barbara Armstrong, in a Seat Ibiza Kit Car. Simmonite was in a brand new Escort Kit Car, sporting a new livery too. This was her first full championship event in the kit car and, to help retain her title, Stephanie had been coached by ex-world ladies champion, Louise Aitken-Walker. Armstrong started well however, and was sitting 10th overall, with Simmonite chasing hard. By the end of the day though, despite some gear linkage issues, the Bradford sisters had caught and passed Armstrong, and held a two second lead by the overnight stop. Young had also been going well in an ex-Simmonite Group A Escort, and had been in 10th spot, but crashed out on the fourth stage; a bad start to the season for the experienced Irishman. Things weren’t going well elsewhere either; Lars-Goran Andersson had failed to make the start, meaning another missed opportunity for a Ford driver.

Tony Gardemeister Vauxhall Rally of WalesAt the front, the usual suspects were fighting hard, with McRae finishing the day in first place, Tapio Laukkanen in second, and Gwyndaf Evans in third spot. Day two didn’t start well for Laukkanen though; a minor incident resulted in a broken radiator and an early exit. Evans was also suffering, with steering problems causing him to lose 10 minutes in Sweetlamb, the second stage, when a steering arm became completely detached. Evans was able to repair it and continue, but was left well down the order.

Armstrong also ran into trouble in Sweetlamb, with a spin at a hairpin losing vital time whilst she found her way again. It was an embarrassing moment for the Scot that saw her back behind the Simmonite sisters, where she was to stay to the end of the rally.

Alister McRae wasn’t to make it to the end of the event, another victim of a broken radiator, and gifting victory to Martin Rowe in the Renault. Neil Weardon was second of the F2 runners, after a pair of 4WD Group N cars, with Evans recovering to third. Toni Gardemeister had been running well in another Escort, setting good stage times, but was later excluded under technical regulations. Stephanie Simmonite finished eighth overall, fourth in F2, two minutes clear of Barbara Armstrong, taking the first win in the Ladies Cup. Simmonite was clearly pleased with the result: “Yeah absolutely thrilled to bits, at last we’ve got into the top ten.” This left her fourth overall in the championship, two points clear of Barbara Armstrong. Ford were sitting third, 11.5 points behind Renault.

Pirelli International Rally

Again a double-header event, the Pirelli International Rally was another opportunity for the Simmonite sisters to do battle with Barbara Armstrong’s Ibiza. It didn’t start well for the Simmonites though, as they were struggling with handling problems, with the car being too stiff and not riding the bumps well, leaving them over Liam OCallaghan Donegal International Rally 1998a minute behind Armstrong. The Escort had been proving tail happy, and the sisters struggled for all of the first day, but were ready to attack on the second and try to recover some points. Lars-Goran Andersson was back in the GSE-backed Escort, with a better run than in Wales (having started this time!), but would not make it to the end; suspension damage meaning retirement after just nine stages. Andreas Eriksson was also back in the championship, with a good performance, going on to finish ninth overall; the highest placed Escort. Philip Young had a better outing than in Wales, but could only manage 23rd place in Cumbria.

The fight at the front was as strong as ever though. McRae had been having issues, and was outside the top ten. Tapio Laukkanen was also struggling after a puncture. By the end of the first day, Jarmo Kytolehto was sitting in third spot, Gwyndaf Evans was second, with Martin Rowe in first, taking maximum points for the first day.

Day two saw the Simmonite attack much improved. Suspension changes and a softer compound tyre on the rear had improved the Escorts handling, and they were on the attack. However, they were trailing by almost two minutes and were unable to make up the time by the end of the event. Evans attacked hard on day two also, taking the first placehonours, with Laukkanen fighting back to second, and Rowe finishing third. The championship chase was as close as ever, with Evans second to Martin Rowe, and Vauxhall’s Neil Weardon in third. Armstrong’s victory here had left her on equal footing with Stephanie Simmonite, both on 45 points, with Simmonite sixth and Armstrong seventh in the championship. Ford were now third in the constructors championship, with Vauxhall gaining fast.

RSAC Scottish Rally

Stephanie Simmonite Vauxhall Rally of WalesJune’s Scottish Rally marked the middle point of the driver’s championship, and a chance for Stephanie Simmonite to take the lead in the Ladies Cup. There were only three Ford runners here; Simmonite, Andersson and Young. The ladies battle started with drama. After the first stage, Armstrong held a 15 second lead over Simmonite, but it wasn’t to last. Armstrong went out on the second stage and lost time, and then again on the third stage, which ended in retirement. Stephanie Simmonite was also having a bad day. On the very next stage she hit a rock and plummeted down the order after breaking a wheel and steering arm. They managed to limp out of the stage and continue, but they had lost a lot of time. With Armstrong out, however, they need only to finish to take the ladies win in Scotland.

Day two saw wet conditions and a fresh start for Armstrong under the “Super Rally” rules. Unfortunately, her bad luck continued, with a puncture on the first stage and wiper failure on the second. Simmonite was recovering however, almost back into the top 20. The frontrunners were fighting as hard as always, with McRae taking an eventual win, Rowe second and Evans third. Philip Young had a good performance, finishing 14th overall, sixth in class. Lars-Goran Andersson also had his first finish of the season, in 18th overall and seventh in class. When the dust had settled, Simmonite had edged a slight lead in the Ladies Cup, and was sitting seventh overall in the championship, a single point ahead of Armstrong. Ford had dropped down to fourth in the constructors chase, behind a resurgent Volkswagen.

The Stena Line Ulster Rally

Ulster meant the start of the tarmac season and a few more faces in the Ford camp. The Simmonite sisters were back in a new car for the ladies fight, and Lars-Goran Andersson was now in an Escort Maxi. Philip Young was appearing on his home territory, and there were two more faces from the Irish scene to mix things up. Kenny McKinstry appeared in his Group AJulian Porter Manx International Rally 1998 RS2000 that he had driven in the 1996 Ulster, and Liam O’Callaghan was in Gwyndaf Evans’ 1997 Maxi, battling for Irish Tarmac F2 honours.

There was a wet start to further complicate things, not that this phased the ex-Irish Tarmac champion, Kenny McKinstry, who stormed into an F2 lead, beating even the times of the works kit cars of the leading British runners. Sadly, despite his blistering start, gearbox troubles meant McKinstry was forced to stop in stage eight. He had proved, however, that the Escort still had the pace to upset the frontrunners.

Barbara Armstrong had taken an early lead in the ladies battle, with the Simmonite sisters struggling with the suspension set up on their new car over the bumpy Irish roads, even having a minor off, over-shooting into a field. However, things were to get much worse for the northern duo, with a huge accident on stage four, blocking the stage and forcing them into retirement, gifting the ladies win to Armstrong this time out.

Young was also struggling, having clipped a wall, damaging the front left suspension and losing time. He would continue however, fighting into the second day. Andersson was getting used to the Maxi too, and was running well in the top ten. Irish Tarmac contender, Liam O’Callaghan was making the most of his ex-Gwyndaf Evans Escort, and sitting sixth overall by the end of day one.

The second day saw the fight continue. At the front, Evans had held an overnight lead in the Ibiza, with Laukkanen and Rowe chasing hard in the Renaults. Laukkanen would slip back however, leaving Evans to take victory, with Rowe second, Stephanie Simmonite Vauxhall Rally of Walesand Alister McRae in third place in the ageing VW Golf. This left Rowe and Evans tied at the top of the leader board, with McRae third.

Philip Young had a difficult second day in the Escort, with a puncture and broken driveshaft both holding him up, meaning he could only manage 17th overall on his home event. Lars-Goran Andersson continued his improved form, and eventually finished 11th overall in the new Escort Maxi. The star of the Ford runners was Liam O’Callaghan, with a good day two performance resulting in fifth spot overall, first of the Irish F2 runners, doing his Irish Tarmac chances no harm at all.

Sony Manx International Rally

The final round of the 1998 season saw another trip across the water to the tough, bumpy, lanes of the Isle of Man. It had been another close-fought championship that was to go down to the wire though, sadly, it wouldn’t feature any Fords in the thick of the action this year. Martin Rowe took an early lead after the first few stages, though Gwyndaf Evans was fastest on the final stage of the short first leg. 1997 champion Mark Higgins was in third sport in a Nissan Almera Kit Car, making a guest appearance on the event.

Day two saw an improvement in the weather, with Rowe having driveshaft problems and Evans suffering handling issues, meaning he was unable to capitalize. In the Ford camp, Liam O’Callaghan was back in his Escort Maxi, sitting in eighthGethin Jones 1998 spot, attacking the Group N cars of David Mann and David Higgins.

In the ladies contest, Armstrong was in the lead over Stephanie Simmonite, with the pair in 10th and 11th places respectively. It was going to go all the way, just like the overall championship. Rowe was still leading there, with Evans still struggling. He’d been battling mechanical problems all season, but now his clutch had gone, and eventually a misfire killed the engine, signifying a disappointing end to Evan’s title hopes. This meant Martin Rowe was left to win the rally and take the driver’s title, with Tapio Laukkanen finishing second, giving Renault the constructors title too.

Simmonite was now up to eighth place overall, but nearly 40 seconds behind Armstrong’s Seat, in seventh, by the end of the second day. Liam O’Callaghan was still fighting for his Irish honours, and sitting in sixth overall, still behind Mann and Higgins’ Group N machines.

Day three saw David Mann crash out early on, and Armstrong move up to sixth. The Simmonite sisters championship charge was to come to an end however, hitting a tree on the Baldoon stage, and dropping back to ninth spot. O’Callaghan continued without issues though, finishing fifth overall. Julian Porter also finished well in his first event in Lars-Goran Andersson’s old Maxi, finishing 16th overall.

All this meant that Martin Rowe took his first British title, with Evans in second, and McRae third. Barbara Armstrong was to steal her first Ladies Cup from the reigning Simmonite Sisters, who finished eighth, just one place behind Armstrong in the overall championship standings. With a lack of championship runners, Ford could only manage fourth in the constructors Liam OCallaghanchampionship for the second year in a row, and their last British championship campaign as a constructor.

Irish F2 Tarmac Championship

Another series in which the Escort was still able to shine was the Irish Tarmac Championship. Unfortunately, information on this is limited currently, and this section will be updated in time, but Liam O’Callaghan won the Irish F2 championship in an Escort Maxi, indeed, the same Escort Maxi that Gwyndaf Evans had used on the Ulster and Manx International rallies of 1997. More information will be added to this section as it becomes available.