The M-Sport Return to Rally Stages saw 45 competitors back enjoying the sport they love last weekend as an array of Ford Focus and Fiesta rally cars powered through the gravel tracks of Cumbria’s Greystoke forest.
Organised in conjunction with West Cumbria and Eden Valley Motor Clubs, the event was designed to showcase new protocols set out by Motorsport UK and reassure organisers and competitors that the UK can return to rallying safely and responsibly.
Following latest guidelines to combat the threat of Covid-19, the event operated an electronic sign-on system and socially distanced time controls as well as promoting the electronic management of documentation, contact-free scrutineering and the safe recovery of vehicles and crews.
Limited to any Ford Focus or Fiesta rally car designed and developed by M-Sport, the event also acted as a celebration of everything the Cumbrian firm has achieved over the past 20 years with a competitive Ford across all levels of competition.
Top of the time sheets was the current-specification EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta WRC driven by M-Sport’s chief test driver and Race Team Manager, Matthew Wilson.
The former FIA World Rally Championship driver was followed by a pair of EcoBoost-powered Ford Fiesta Rally2s piloted by WRC 2 team drivers Rhys Yates and Adrien Fourmaux, but the M-Sport crews sportingly withdrew from the event after the final stage which promoted fellow Cumbrian Frank Bird to the top spot.
The event was only the youngster’s second outing on gravel, but he and co-driver Jack Morton quickly found their feet and set a number of impressive times to secure a 24-second victory behind the wheel of their Ford Focus RS WRC.
Second overall and first in Class 2 was Hugh Hunter and Dale Bowen’s Ford Fiesta R5, closely followed by Sam Moffett and James Fulton in their Fiesta R5. The two crews had battled furiously throughout the event’s six stages, but it was the Brit who came out on top – bettering the Irishman by just two seconds.
Finlay Retson and Rhys Stoneman took the spoils in Class 3 with their Ford Fiesta R2T19, and in Class 4 it was Robert Wilson and Martin Haggett who secured the top spot with their Ford Fiesta R2 – M‑Sport Ford Team Principal Richard Millener holding his own in a Castrol-branded Fiesta R2 in a commendable joint-third in class.
All victors and runners-up received prizes generously donated by M-Sport’s valued partners. Bird claimed the top-prize of a coveted Sparco desk chair, but there were many other prizes on offer including a generous collection of Sparco racewear, an SWP nut gun, Michelin tyres, Castrol oil, VP Racing fuel, Endless brake pads, Permashine cleaning products, WRC All Live passes, Audes team clothing, a free set of pacenotes from onthepace.com and generous incentives on products at both Lazer Lamps and Rallycover.com.
M-Sport Managing Director, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“It was fantastic to hear the sound of rally cars echoing through the forest again, and I think everyone involved really enjoyed their day. Whether it be competitors, technicians, or marshals, everyone pulled together to ensure the safe running of the event and it was great to see so many happy faces back doing what they love.
“I must also say a massive thank you to the West Cumbria and Eden Valley Motor Clubs for doing such a fantastic job in getting everything organised so quickly and professionally. Following the guidelines outlined at the weekend, I hope we’ve shown that we can still go rallying responsibly and given other organisers the confidence and reassurance to move forward with their own events.
“Everything has had to adapt and rallying is no different. The industry has to acclimatise if we are to recover from the impact of this global pandemic, and I think we have shown that it is possible to return to rally safely and responsibly.”
Roger Fisher from West Cumbria Motor Club, said:
“The event ran extremely well and I think all of the teams and marshals went away happy which is what we always aim to achieve. Following new guidelines and protocols, we all had to get used to a new way of working and I’m pleased to say that everything ran to schedule. Everyone in attendance had to sign-on electronically in advance, and we had self-certification at scrutineering as well as socially distanced time controls and limited numbers in attendance. I would personally like to say thank you to all of the marshals and volunteers who adapted to these new ways of working, and to everyone involved in delivering another successful event.”
Iain Campbell from Motorsport UK, said:
“It was fantastic to see rally cars back out on the stages after a lengthy period away. We were delighted to see the response from the rallying community, not just the competitors, but the marshals and volunteers for getting behind the rally and the new way of working. As it was the first event it was great to see the guidance and protocols in action. The contactless timecards and paperwork worked well and was universally received and praised by all involved. On behalf of Motorsport UK we would like to thank Malcolm [Wilson] and M-Sport for the idea and to the Eden Valley and West Cumbria Motor Clubs for a successful event.”
Frank Bird, said:
“What a fantastic day overall on the M-Sport Stages. I was a bit nervous going into the event having not driven on gravel for over a year and not been on pacenotes for a while. We took it stage by stage and got back into it quickly setting some really competitive times straight away and I was comfortable in the car. The afternoon was very strong for us, setting top three stage times against factory drivers and top machinery. We managed to get fourth overall and first non-M-Sport entry, but it was a great gesture for the guys in front to allow me the win.”