Speyside Stages marks Scottish Rally Championship return
After an extended sabbatical due to a severe winter weather front, the 2018 ARR Craib MSA Scottish Rally Championship (2018) returns next weekend for round two of the series, the McDonald & Munro Speyside Stages in Elgin.
The season kicked off with a thrilling battle for supremacy on the Snowman Rally, with six drivers already gracing the top of the timesheets in what is already shaping up to be a hugely unpredictable season.
Andrew Gallacher took his first ever rally victory in the changeable conditions behind the wheel of his Ford Focus WRC, edging Quintin Milne by a mere six seconds with Donnie MacDonald rounding out the podium in third.
Gallacher and co-driver Jane Nicol therefore head to Elgin as the target, with a whole host of drivers capable of knocking them off their perch.
Perhaps favourite for victory is 2016 Speyside Stages winner Garry Pearson and co-driver Paula Swinscoe. The Ford Fiesta R5 were forced to miss the season opener due to an injury to Pearson’s leg, but their pedigree on the Morayshire stages and in this car are well documented.
The Speyside two years ago kick-started Pearson’s title bid, but he hasn’t rallied in 12 months so may be understandably rusty when he heads into the two tarmac tests of Cooper Park.
However his title rival from 2016 is also back in the frame on the Speyside. Jock Armstrong makes a welcome return to the SRC in his Subaru Impreza with Cameron Fair alongside him. Armstrong hasn’t competed since his Galloway Hills victory last September so the first couple of stages may be an eye-opener for the 2015 and ’16 champion.
Donnie MacDonald and Andrew Falconer is another Fiesta R5 crew who may fancy their chances. MacDonald’s R5 is running in R5+ spec meaning it is running extra power thanks to a more powerful turbo, and this is sure to help him in the Morayshire forests.
Also in the R5 corner for just the second ever time are Mark McCulloch and Michael Hendry, who completed a very late deal to drive a Fiesta on the Snowman Rally. An engine misfire and power-steering problems put paid to a good result, but the duo’s equal fastest stage time on the first stage in Inverness means they can’t be ruled out of the equation.
Also in a Fiesta R5 is Lawrence Whyte who struggled in the icy conditions on round one, while John Wink and John Forrest bring their Hyundai to the party as dark horses for a really strong result on their home event. The Huntly driver finished sixth on the Snowman and is visibly learning the car with every passing event.
Reay MacKay netted a very strong fourth place in Inverness at the wheel of his Ford Focus WRC, and re-joins the fray for the Speyside after a confidence boosting result. Freddie Milne is also back with a Subaru Impreza WRC S12B beneath his right foot, eager to bag a strong finish after a disappointing Snowman Rally.
Michael Binnie and Claire Mole head the Mitsubishi Evo contingent with ground to make up after missing the Snowman, while their rivals for the Challengers title last year – Simon Hay and Calum Jaffray – line up their Evo VI keen to get one over their rivals.
Bruce McCombie and Michael Coutts will also wade into battle in their Mitsubishi, looking to improve on their seventh overall on the Snowman.
Alan Dickson made an impressive return to Scottish Championship action in Mark McCulloch’s old Evo IX, with inaugural Speyside winner Martin Forrest once again joining him ahead of round two.
Greg McKnight and Harry Marchbank put in one of the performances of the rally last time out in their Ford Escort Mk2, grabbing eighth overall on a day where four-wheel-drive was a big advantage.
The pair are odds-on to make it two Scottish 2WD wins from two on the Speyside Stages, but won’t have it easy with fellow Mk2 drivers Paddy Munro, Fraser MacNicol, Duncan MacDonald and Paul McErlean – who will travel from Ireland to take advantage of the Overseas Support scheme – all keen to catch him.
The front-wheel-drive contingent will also be eager to prove a point or two in Morayshire. Scott MacBeth is the pick of the bunch in his Citroen C2 MAX, having seen off an incredibly competitive field on this rally 12 months ago. Keith Riddick’s MG ZR and Neil Coalter’s rare Ford Puma are others to watch out for.
John Wink is the strong favourite for further Challengers success next weekend in his Hyundai i20 R5, but will be challenged all the way by Alan Dickson, Lawrence Whyte and Keith Morris.
The SRC Juniors is also hotly contested in 2018, with a number of drivers eager to win with a day’s tuition with Tapio Laukkanen and an entry into the Wales Rally GB National at stake.
With Finlay Retson not entered, Tom Howie heads the runners in his Talbot Sunbeam, with Niall Cowan Jr (MG ZR) and Scott Burness (Ford Fiesta ST) hot on his heels. Ally Currie also enters a Fiesta ST with ground to make-up after an unfortunate slow-speed accident on the Snowman.
Local man Brett McKenzie heads the www.usedcarparts.co.uk Subaru Cup ahead of the Speyside, but faces a big battle to stay there with an incredibly strong entry. John McIlwraith is an obvious favourite, as is Matthew Thomson, but Donald Brooker, Geoff Goudie and indeed McKenzie are sure to push him all the way.
The McDonald & Munro Speyside Stages is unique to the SRC, with the event’s first two stages held on the tarmac of the spectator-friendly Cooper Park test.
From there, the action heads into the Morayshire forests where some of the best gravel roads in Scotland lie. The drivers will have to conquer over 40 competitive miles of rallying before heading back to the ceremonial finish in Elgin.
The 2018 ARR Craib MSA Scottish Rally Championship is partnered by Pirelli Motorsport, Reis Motorsport Insurance and KNC Groundworks Ltd.
The championship consists of seven forest events across Scotland, taking in over 300 competitive stage miles.