Jamaica’s Jeffrey Panton led an overseas lock-out of the Sol Rally Barbados podium at the weekend (May 29-31), as the Barbados Rally Club (BRC) celebrated the 25th Anniversary of its premier event with a record-breaking entry. In the Panton Motorsport and Pro Auto Works-supported Ford Focus WRC06, he beat double European Champion Simon Jean-Joseph by just 2.09 seconds, with former winner Paul Bird third, both in Focus WRC08s.
Panton, who last won the event in 1998, said: “It was by far the most difficult rally to win that I have ever competed in. The pace was absolutely on the limit from start to end with mere hundredths separating the top three on each stage. To win against such a quality field means a lot; to come out on top by such a small margin after three days of war was very rewarding. This has definitely gone down in my history book as the most accomplished result.”
After months of planning, the BRC had more than one reason to celebrate its landmark: records broken included the number of overseas entries (45), overseas participants (89), first-time overseas participants (43), cars in the 4wd classes (28) and female competitors (16). Thousands of island fans lined the route, particularly at the Friday evening Start and Sunday SuperSpecial at Bushy Park Barbados and Saturday’s LIME/Banks/Automotive Art party stage at the Vaucluse Raceway.
With his winning co-driver of 2013, Welshman Aled Davies, Bird won the opening stage on the 1.8-kilometre Race Of Champions parallel track at Bushy Park by 0.34s, but was beaten second time around by Jean-Joseph, from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, who was co-driven by Jack Boyere, with whom he shared his two ERC titles.
Jean-Joseph had a slender 0.19s lead overnight, extending it to 1.30s with fastest time on Saturday’s opening stage at Sailor Gully. Panton fought back, winning the first Spring Vale stage to lead by 1.91s, but trailed ‘Birdy’ and SJJ on Vaucluse – at 6.8kms, the event’s longest stage – allowing the Frenchman back into the lead.
The Jamaican made no mistake on the second loop, winning all three stages to lead SJJ at the lunch break, albeit by merely 0.69s, with Bird third. Behind this battling trio, former World Rally Championship contender Toni Gardemeister, with co-driver Timo Alanne, was a solid fourth, easing his way into the Suzuki SX4 WRC having not enjoyed a shakedown at LIME King of the Hill, as he was on WRC duty in Portugal. Last year’s runner-up Rob Swann (Subaru Impreza WRC S11) and 13-time winner Roger Skeete (Impreza S12) were scrapping over fifth place, as they would for the duration.
Panton won both after-lunch runs of Sailor Gully and the one run through Spring Vale, while Bird twice ruled at Vaucluse, to end the day 1.5s behind Panton, with SJJ third, 5.74s adrift. The gap to Gardemeister was around 38s, he in turn 54s ahead of the squabbling Subarus, Swann ending the day 5.03s up on Skeete.
Panton would not claim another stage win, as Bird fought to narrow the gap and SJJ fought back. Fastest in the east of the island on the first Drax Hall and the second Malvern (the first cancelled after a non rally-related accident), Bird was within 1.18s on Panton after 18 stages, with SJJ another 4.54s behind, having won the second Drax Hall and Jack in the Box (an shorter, uphill, version of Vaucluse).
By now, intermittent showers were playing their part in the event on the eastern stages, then Bird spun on the second Jack in the Box, handing second to SJJ, who won that and the final two stages to close within 2.09s of Panton. Bird’s spin cost him second place, but whether he would have caught Panton is less clear. He said: “There was very little in it all weekend and just one mistake would be crucial; so it proved. Well done to Jeffrey, the best man won and it was an honour to battle with a legend such as Simon.”
Skeete finally saw Swann off for fifth place, with the top two-wheel-drive car seventh, Rhett Watson (BMW M3) one place better than his 2014 overall result. As last year, the anticipated 2wd battle had rather petered out: top seed at eight, Josh Read (Toyota Starlet), was OTL by the end of Saturday; Neil Armstrong (Starlet) lasted only three stages before his clutch cylinder destroyed itself; Dane Skeete (Peugeot 306 Maxi), an impressive sixth overall overnight Friday, was out with a dropped valve after SS11; Roger Mayers (WR Starlet) disappeared at the same time with suspension damage.
Watson said: “We were having a great fight with Dane after Roger dropped out. Just as we passed Dane for the 2wd lead, in the night time Orange Hill, we passed him on the side of the road with an issue. From there it was smooth sailing.” Watson also won SuperModified 12, his fourth straight class win, with Justin Campbell (M3) finishing second and 15th overall, despite driving for most of Sunday with no windscreen, he and co-driver Juan Watts equipped with goggles to protect their eyes.
After Britain’s Roger Duckworth (Impreza S6) retired with gearbox failure, the fight for WRC-2 was between his fellow-countryman Kevin Procter (Impreza S7) and local Toyota dealer Roger Hill (Corolla WRC), who was in control after Procter’s car kept cutting out or refusing to start. Things improved for the Englishman on Sunday, however, and he chipped away, passing Hill two stages from home for the class win and eighth overall.
England’s Simon Mauger (Ford Escort MkII) completed the top 10 as highest-placed overseas rwd, with fiancee Melanie Holmes top female co-driver. They also won SM11 – after Dane Skeete retired, Mauger and island ace Andrew Jones fought for class and MkII supremacy, a thrilling battle which only ended when Jones’s engine let go in Vaucluse.
Group A and GpN were also incredibly hard-fought: in GpA, KotH class-winner Ireland’s Joe McQuillan (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX) ran strongly throughout, but Rupert Lomax (Evo VI), who had been delayed by ECU problems on day one worked relentlessly on Sunday, the Welshman cutting the 25-second deficit slowly but surely, passing McQuillan on the final stage for 11th overall and the class win.
Behind them, Trinidad’s John Powell (Evo IX) was hunting down Andrew Mallalieu (Impreza N10) in GpN; after Powell had issues on Saturday, the local man at one point led by 50secs, only to hit a tyre in Vaucluse, then have a puncture in Sailor Gully. That left them 7.5secs apart on Sunday morning: Powell chipped away, Mallalieu recovered a little in the rain, starting the final stage 0.25secs ahead. Despite Powell beating him by 1.97secs to claim GpN, Mallalieu described it as “the best rally of my life!”
Overseas visitors claimed three further class wins and 11 podiums: winners were returnees Scotland’s Allan Mackay (SM10 Ford Anglia WRC for the second year in a row) and England’s Andrew Costin-Hurley (GpB Ford Puma Evo) and newcomer Simon Tinsley (M5 Peugeot 205). Podium finishers included three newcomers – second was England’s Steve Finch (SM10 Escort MkII), while fellow-countryman Warren Philliskirk (Int-Hist Escort MkII) and New Zealand’s Nick Marshall (M7 Peugeot 206 GTI 180) were third. Cheryl Spencer (Vauxhall Astra) was the highest-placed female driver, after Shelly Taunt (Impreza N10) struck a bank on Saturday afternoon.
Repeat visitors finishing second were England’s Rob Smith (Int-Hist Triumph TR7 V8) and Nigel Worswick (SM11 Escort MkII), while Dick Mauger (SM10 Escort MkII), Martin Stockdale (SM12 BMW 1M Coupe) and Scotland’s Brian Watson (SM10 Escort MkII) claimed third-place finishes. Scotland’s Kenny Hall (M6 Ford Puma) finished third, also claiming the highest overseas fwd trophies, while fellow-countryman Peter Shaun Sinclair (SM11 Escort MkII) and Jamaica’s Kyle Gregg (GpN Evo IX) finished second and third in the reintroduced Sunday Cup behind Josh Read (Starlet).