British ace throws down the gauntlet
Paul Bird won yesterday’s Scotiabank King Of The Hill and sent an instant warning to all-comers seeking glory in next weekend’s Sol Rally Barbados where he is an undoubted favourite to take top honours.
The former British national rally champion came out tops despite slamming into a road sign on his final run in a dramatic spin watched by thousands who turned up at Vaucluse, St Thomas for the event. Of the spill, Bird later admitted he was just trying something different that didn’t quite work. However, spill or nay, his second-run time was good enough to win by 12/100ths of a second, the smallest margin of victory in the event’s history.
The final shakedown ahead of the May 31, June 1 rally, the Caribbean’s biggest annual motor sport international, provided plenty drama as local competitors fought feverishly for points in the Barbados Rally Club’s driver’s and class championships and overseas visitors gained vital experience of island tarmac at competition speed.
Roger Skeete (Subaru Impreza WRC S12) was fastest in the practice run, which started at 10 a.m. over the popular course between Hangman’s Hill and Lion Castle in St Thomas with a time of 1 minute, 59.23 seconds. He was one of only two drivers to dip below the two-minute mark, the other being Bird (Ford Focus WRC08), six-tenths behind.
Third-placed Paul Bourne (Focus WRC07) was three seconds adrift and downhearted not to be on the pace, with Jamaica’s Jeff Panton (Focus WRC06), Britain’s Rob Swann (Impreza S11) and the top two-wheel drive runner Roger Mayers (Starlet) completing the top six.
Bird asserted himself in the first official run with a time of 1:58.19, as Skeete was slower than in practice on 1:59.63; Swann moved up to third, quicker by nearly 4secs to clock 2:00.89, with Panton (2:01.17) and Bourne (2:01.63) close behind. Bird found another half-second on the next run (1:57.68), with Skeete improving by four-tenths, leaving the gap at 1.6secs ahead of the final run.
Skeete pushed hard on, improving
by 1.4secs, while Bird spun on the famous 90-right at Vaucluse, demolishing a Stop sign and removing the lower front bodywork of his car. While some of Skeete’s fans started an impromptu victory celebration, his time was not yet known – when confirmed, he had improved by 1.4secs to 1:57.80. Although it was not enough to beat Bird’s second run time, Skeete was content.
“We had no problems at all today, we never left the road or took enormous risks. I think we are in a good position to drive hard for 23 stages next weekend,” Skeete said.
Panton (1:59.42) and Swann (1:59.67) each improved to finish third and fourth. Swann was happy with his day: “I was desperate to go below two minutes, but I also had to keep it clean with no outrageous cuts. Based on today’s outcome, getting on the podium seems to be a possibility, but it will be hard work.”
Bourne improved steadily throughout the day to finish fifth, with Trinidad’s John Powell debuting his recently-acquired Focus WRC08 in sixth. Britain’s Roger Duckworth headed home the WRC-2 contenders, finishing seventh overall in his Intrinsys Impreza S6, with Roger Hill second and 11th overall in a Toyota Corolla WRC.
The three leading two-wheel-drive cars completed the top 10. Mayers was eighth overall (2:04.04), winning SuperModified 10, ahead of SM11 winner Dane Skeete (2:06.17) in a Peugeot 306 Maxi, and Josh Read (Starlet), who lost his second run to a couple of punctures on Hangman’s Hill.
Despite a trip across the island for a replacement alternator causing him to miss the first official run, Rhett Watson (BMW M3) prevailed in SM12, 13th overall, just ahead of Group N winner Geoff Noel (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX). Daryl Clarke was another to miss the first run, suffering problems with his flat shift, and a slight ‘off’, but returned to win Modified 7, 23rd overall.
Group A was won Rupert Lomax of Wales, who earned the biggest cheer of the day at Vaucluse. Having slid into the ditch, he kept his foot to the floor as his Evo VI powered along sideways before it leapt back on to the stage and continued. Fans at the Lion Castle cross-roads had their fair share of fun, too, Ireland’s Frank Kelly (Ford Escort MkII) and British visitors Allan Mackay (Ford Anglia WRC), Martin Stockdale (M3) and Nigel Worswick (Escort MkII) among those providing the entertainment.
James Betts (Renault Clio) won GpB2, finishing 31st overall, while M6 winner Jeremy Gonsalves (Opel Corsa) and Clubman winner Kenny Hall (Corsa) both also finished in the top 40, Hall delighted with his success after retiring on the start-line last year. Each with no competition in his class, Ulsterman John Hardman (SM9 Nissan Micra), Geoff Ullyett (GpB1 Nissan 200T) and England’s Chris Shooter (Int-Hist Escort MkII) finished 49th, 52nd and 56th overall respectively.
Of the 80 listed on the running order, there were eight non-starters, including last year’s King Of The Hill winner Neil Armstrong, his Suzuki SX4 WRC having engine problems, and the WRC-2 Impreza S9 of Dean Serrao. Casualties during the day included Ireland’s Brendan Brosnan (SM11 Peugeot 205) and Joe McQuillan (GpA Evo V), both with gearbox problems, the SM12 BMW M3s of Stan Hartling from the Turks & Caicos Islands (ABS causing an accident) and David St Hill (accident), while Stuart White still managed to win the Historic class, despite an accident in his BMW 325. (RB)