Durham rally driver Stephen Petch took a well-deserved victory at the Minehead-based Somerset Stages Rally on Saturday 8 April, but had to fight hard on all 14 stages to bring his Ford Fiesta WRC home in the top spot.
On paper, Petch looked to have dominated the dusty Exmoor forest stages but he didn’t have it all his own way during the event. Despite opening up an early event lead, Petch and co-driver Michael Wilkinson were challenged all day long by Callum Black and Elliott Edmondson in their Fiesta R5. Petch finally took the win after Black lost time in the closing loop of the day with power steering failure. 2013 rally winners Connor McCloskey and John Rowan made the worthwhile trip over from Ireland to round off the top three in their Fiesta WRC.
The seaside resort welcomed the 100 crews who started the Burnham-on-Sea Motor Club and Minehead Motor Club organised event, bolstered by crews from the Ravenol BTRDA Rally Series, MAXXIS MSA English Rally Championship, REIS ASWMC Loose Surface Rally Championship and FMP Rally Challenge.
The thousands of spectators that headed to Kennisham Forest to watch the action were in for a treat and number one seeds Luke Francis and John Roberts would be hoping to repeat their 2016 event win. Sadly they got off to a slow start, finding themselves languishing down in fifth place on the opening test of the day.
Ironically, the top three stage times on the opening stage would be the same order they finished, with Petch opening out a slender two-second lead over Black with McCloskey one second down. Not only that, but the top three positioned remained that way throughout the morning loop and, despite the efforts of others, no one could unseat the Fiesta trio on the gravel.
It would, however, change on the Porlock Hill stage when McCloskey lost time thanks to an ineffective handbrake and it gave others a chance to step into the frame. Hugh Hunter and Rob Fagg made a brief appearance in third sport with yet another Fiesta R5 but were edged out on the second run by Francis who was attempting a comeback.
Sadly Francis retired on the very next stage, leaving the door open for McCloskey to re-join the podium positions for the remainder of the day. But up front the battle had become intense and, with Black on a charge, he and Petch were now tied on times. They remained neck and neck through stages eight and nine, with Black only losing out by one second in the tenth.
But Black’s impressive run would be undone with power steering failure in stage 13, losing over 20 seconds in the process, leaving Petch to take the event win by 11 seconds and spray the winners champagne on Minehead Seafront.
“This win could have gone in anyone’s favour today and it’s been a really close fought battle with Callum,” said Petch at the finish. “It’s great to finally win here and at one point I thought Callum and I would be equal coming back to the finish. He was really unlucky this afternoon. I’m no stranger to tie-breaks on the Somerset Stages though, losing out to Steve Perez on the countback rule in 2013 so it’s fantastic to finally get the win. It’s actually been a really tough rally so I’m glad we have come out on top.”
Hugh Hunter began to pick up the pace after the asphalt tests at Porlock and brought his Fiesta R5 home in a worthy fourth spot as the Ruthin driver continues to get to grips with the new car.
Taunton’s Martyn and Dawn England had the honour of being first local home on the event, finishing in fifth spot in their Fiesta R5+. England was happy with his progress through the day and, despite a “scrappy” opening few stages, settled down in the afternoon to climb the leader board from 16th spot after stage three.
The Production Cup battle for “showroom specification” models has always been impressive and this year’s Somerset Stages was no exception. Patrick Naylor and Ian Lawrence took the spoils in sixth overall, leading the trio of Mitsubishi E9’s of Russ Thompson / Andy Murphy and Richard Hill / Steffan Evans in eighth.
Tom Preston and Andrew Roughead took ninth overall in their Skoda Fabia R5 with Sacha Kakad and James Aldridge rounding out the top ten in their Mitsubishi E10.
In a rally of attrition, only 60 of the 100 starters made it back to Minehead and the tough Exmoor forests proved to be hard on cars and crews during the event.
More information on the event and full results will be available at www.somersetstagesrally.com
PHOTO: 2017 Somerset Stages winners in action – Stephen Petch and Michael Wilkinson in their Fiesta WRC. Courtesy of Gasmark Media.