Fastest on all six stages, Frank Bird and Jack Morton repeated their Donington Park victory from back in March 2020, with another dominant performance on the Rainworth SKODA Dukeries Rally, the opening round of the 2020/21 Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship. The event, which attracted a full 100 car entry, had to be run without spectators due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

Bird’s Focus WRC didn’t have it all his own way initially, as on the opening stage his time was matched by Mark Kelly / Neil Colman’s Ford Fiesta R5. “I just kept my head down, but there was a lot of traffic,” said Bird.  Ollie Mellors / Max Freeman were 11 seconds in arrears, but only after an off at the Old Hairpin. “I was finding the track limits, as I came in fourth gear, I lifted slightly and the rear end went, then the front. You know you are in trouble when you see a tyre wall approached rapidly through the side window,” Mellors explained.  With light rain falling adding to an already greasy track, Richard Wells / Calvin Houldsworth’s Fiesta R5 explored the limits to. “We had a big drift at the Old Hairpin, so lost time there,” Wells admitted.

Paul Smith / Ellie Williams’ Fiesta R5 and John Griffiths / Nigel Wetton’s Peugeot 208 R5 completed the early top six. “We seemed OK for grip, but I have never rallied here before,” said Smith. “I had good grip too, but it is the first time I had driven the car in anger,” Griffiths added.  In seventh Kevin Procter / Patrick Walsh admitted to being “a bit cautious,” while just behind him Charlie Payne / Carl Williamson’s Fiesta WRC had a half spin. “I can’t get used to how wide the track is compared with the forest tracks I am used too,” Payne added.  Completing the top 10 were John Stone / Ian Davis’ Fiesta WRC and Chris West / Keith Hounslow’s Porsche 997 GT3. “I was a bit too cautious too, but hadn’t been here before,” said Stone. For West however it was all over, “I hadn’t driven this car in the wet before, but then we were in fourth gear on the rev limiter and it wouldn’t change up, and as we couldn’t fix the gearbox we had to retire,” West explained.

Bird managed to take a one second lead over Kelly on the second run. “That was nice and clear, but so slippery,” he said. With his battered front end repaired, Mellors “drove more sensibly” but continued to struggle for grip as he managed to consolidate third.  Wells managed to slide off into a tyre wall which cost him dearly, dropping him to seventh, as Smith, Griffiths and Procter all moved ahead. “I had a spin and stalled too,” Procter admitted.  Still in eighth, Payne confirmed that he had “more commitment, while Stone was happier too. “It just seemed to flow more,” he said. Following West’s retirement, Rob Hughes / Sion Cunniff moved up to 10th in their Fiesta R5.

Bird’s lead suddenly leapt to 13 seconds on stage three, after Kelly was delayed. “Wells had gone off at the Old Hairpin and re-joined straight in front of me. I couldn’t go by as I didn’t know where he was coming back on,” Kelly explained.  While Mellors, Smith and Griffiths continued to consolidate the rest of the lead quintet, Wells was still sixth despite his excursion, partially aided by Procter spinning at the Melbourne Hairpin.  With the top four continuing to hold station, Bird added another two seconds to his lead on stage four, but in fifth Griffiths advantage had been reduced to only one second over Procter, who had repassed Wells. Mellors had been lucky to escape a gravel trap on SS4, “I wasn’t in it, I skirted it,” he reckoned.

Over the final two stages Bird managed to increase his advantage to a dominant 35 seconds over Kelly, with Mellors a further 28 seconds down in third.  While Smith stayed safe in fourth, the battle for fifth went down to the wire. Procter had got ahead of Griffiths on SS5 by one second, only for the Peugeot driver to recover his position on the final run by the same margin.  Wells also lost out to Payne again from the penultimate stage for seventh, despite the latter escaping from a trip through the gravel. Stone was less lucky, when he visited the same gravel as Payne on SS5 and stayed there.  Hughes therefore moved up to ninth place, with Barry Groundwater / Neil Shanks’ Subaru Impreza WRC rounding off the top 10.

In Class 1 (up to 1400cc) Christopher and Anthony Newton’s Nova managed to pull out a 26 seconds lead over Mark and Matt Blackmore’s Corsa on the opening stage. By the end Newton’s winning margin had grown to 2mins 27secs, with Blackmore an equally comfortable. Stephen Brown / Paul Stringer’s Micra were third, after demoting Matt and Ade Walk’s Fiesta from the second stage.
Chris Ruck & Steve Harris were never headed in Class 2,(up to 1600cc) but had a niggling problem with their Corsa. “After the first couple of stages we had difficulty starting it, so couldn’t afford to stall,” he said. Fastest on all six stages Ruck took the spoils by exactly two minutes over Ed Fossey / Zak Hughes’ Peugeot 208 R2, which was well clear of the Citroen’s of Mark Peterson / Jim Bowie’s and Chris Woodhouse / Alan Gilbert.

Not only did Josh Payton / Jamie Vaughan’s Mk2 Escort win Class 3, (up to 2000cc) they also made it home in 17th overall. But it was Anthony Allery / Daniel Tribe’s Escort that led after the opening stage, before Elliot Payne / Cameron Fair’s Fiesta R2 took charge. Payton was a massive 16 secs quicker than his nearest class challenger on stage two and after going into SS3 eight seconds down on Payne, he emerged with a one second lead, which increased to 16 by the end. Allery still held onto a clear third, with Pete Gunson / Jonathan Haynes’ Astra completing the top four.

Martin Hodgson & Tony Jones just had the edge over fellow Escort crew Dane Walker / Dave Boyes over the first three stages in Class 4 (over 2000cc 2 wheel drive). “We had been struggling with warped brakes all day and then spun on the Craner Curves,” said Hodgson, who was also nursing broken toe. Walker emerged with a one second lead and 12th overall, before adding a further two seconds on SS5. But Hodgson clawed back the time loss on the last stage, but it was still Walker’s win by a solitary second. Mike Taylor / Martin Haggett’s Talbot Sunbeam Lotus had been second quickest on stage one, but after dropping to fifth, they clawed their way to third, only to retire a stage from home. Ciro Carannante / Simon Coates were up to third after Taylor early slide, but their Porsche Cayman ended up in the barriers on SS4, which promoted Paul Murro / Callum Cross’ Escort. But with both Taylor and Carannante gone, Murro couldn’t hold off Nick & Sally Whale’s Escort, as they took the final class podium.
Scott Renshaw & Chris Bullock’s Impreza won Class 5 (4 wheel drive with H pattern gearbox) over Lee & Ben Allen’s Mitsubishi E6 and Paul Gorge / Daniel Hurst won the Mazda MX5 class. In the Historic Class there was a win for Ben & Steve Smith’s Escort Mk1, over Lorraine Gathercole / Martyn Donn’s similar car.

There were 13 Dukeries MC crews amongst the 100 starters and the very slippy conditions led to many slides and unplanned excursions for them during the day. In addition to those crews already mentioned, Paul Rees / Emma Morrison (Astra) had a difficult start in the wet conditions but improved during the day to finish 40th overall and 5th in class whilst Craig Stevens / Stephen Moyes (Escort Mk2) finished 50th overall and 7th in class. Jonathan Lightbody / Matt Sample (Subaru Impreza) finished 56th overall, whilst John Stevens / Paddy Holman (Escort Mk2) were 63rd overall and Ian and John Dove in the 1400cc Corsa finished 73rd.  Not so lucky were Dave Wood / Val Thompson (Mitsubishi Evo) who spun on SS3 and hit a wall damaging the radiator. Chris Skill / Simon Jones in the beautiful Mk 1 Historic Escort had trouble with the ignition right from the start in the wet conditions and were unable to complete SS1. Also sadly retiring on stage 1 were Stuart Ranby / Ian Bass (Escort Mk 2) who broke a half-shaft.

Make no mistake, the 2020 Rainworth SKODA Dukeries Rally (the 61st consecutive Dukeries Rally) was a huge achievement to put on in such difficult circumstances and with the implementation of all the new Covid-19 mitigation procedures. Thanks to all the organising team led once again by Clerk of the Course Bob Draper and to all the officials, marshals, safety crews and competitors for playing their part.

Report courtesy of Peter Scherer with later additions.