Jamaica’s Jeffrey Panton has become the first overseas driver to win the Barbados Rally Club’s (BRC) coveted Champion Driver title, following victory on the weekend’s BRC Winter Rally (November 24/25). Only half the field was on the overall finishers’ list, after competitors and organisers alike battled with the challenges presented by Saturday’s torrential rainstorms in the north of the island where the event was centred.

(FILE IMAGE) With co-driver Michael Fennell Jr at his side, Panton (Ford Focus WRC06) completed the seven-round season with a perfect record of class wins, adding the WRC and 4wd Championships to his tally.

Third and highest 2wd, heading outgoing Champion Driver Daryl Clarke and Russell Brancker (Honda Civic) home by 22 seconds, Barry Mayers and Ben Norris (Ford Fiesta) clinched the SuperModified 2 and 2wd Championship titles.

(FILE IMAGE) On Sunday morning, Rally Director Neil Barnard said: “That was one of the toughest rallies I have ever been involved in as an organiser. The rain Saturday afternoon could best be described asbiblicaland caught competitors on SS4 when it was live. I can’t say enough about the marshals, the RRT crews and all the support personnel for their performance and commitment in the most difficult conditions. I also must commend the competitors for their endurance and perseverance in what really was a tough event.”

Pre-weekend, the outcome of the final round of the BRC’s 2017 Driver’s and Class Championships was hard to call, with British visitors Rob Swann (Subaru Impreza WRC S12B), who finished second in Sol Rally Barbados 2017, and double Sol RB winner Paul Bird (Focus WRC07) seeded behind Panton. Then, in Friday night’s two runs of the Vaucluse Raceway RallySprint track, a first-run spin for Swann and a second-run puncture for Bird left it finely poised ahead of Saturday’s 12 stages, Bird 2.5 secs up on Panton, while Swann had work to do, sixth overall and more than 20 secs behind.

Bird increased his lead on the first run through the five-kilometre Dark Hole to Spring Vale stage, but the skies opened as the field was passing through SS4 (Hangmans Hill to Lion Castle, 5kms), after which rain fell relentlessly. Bird’s clutch failed mid-way through the stage, which ended his rally and handed the lead to Panton; he would not lose it, winning all but one of the remaining stages, Swann quickest on SS4.

The heavy rainfall made the already notorious Dark Hole stage even more tricky than usual and two cars from the Barbados Historic Rally, which was running ahead of the main field, aquaplaned off into the same bridge wall; while Wayne Archer’s BMW 325 suffered only steering damage, English visitor Graham Samuel’s Ford Escort MkII became jammed between the wall and a power pole; the driver was slightly injured and the stage halted while emergency services dealt with the incident.

Other early casualties had been Andrew Mallalieu (Subaru Impreza N10), who led Group N after three stages, only to smack the tunnel wall at VRW on SS4, one stage before his sparring partner Mark Thompson (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX) also retired. SS5 also claimed Rhett Watson (BMW M3), who had been swapping top 2wd times with Mayers, despite having had little sleep on Friday night while welding back a suspension mounting point damaged when he clipped a tyre. When water invaded the cockpit and affected the electrics, he retired when running third overall and top 2wd.

With rain continuing to fall and many areas of standing water, the organisers elected to regroup. Barnard said: “We had to cancel the two subsequent runs of Hangman’s Hill to Lion Castle because of safety concerns as a result of the conditions and, although we had the opportunity to return to Dark Hole for SS7, we opted not to, because of overall timing concerns; all this we explained at a Drivers Briefing Meeting. We restarted on schedule after the dinner halt and, with the rain and water having subsided, the night section ran smoothly, with no further cancellations, although we did have to shorten the start of Four Hills to Orange Hill because of conditions.”

By the time the remaining 21 cars in the main event followed the historics out of the Hopewell yard for the final six stages, the weather had abated. While there was less drama in the dark, Roger Hill, the only local runner in WRC in his Toyota Corolla, retired from third overall two stages from home, while perhaps the cruellest fate of all befell Logan Watson (M3): having survived all else to lie seventh overall and second in SM3 to Andrew Jones (Escort MkII), a power steering line burst on the final stage.

Only a non-finish could have cost Panton the Champion Driver title and, while the WRC class was under-subscribed at the weekend, a total of 124 points (of a potential 133) was enough. SM3 Champion Jones finishes second on 119, with Stuart Garcia (BMW 318ti Compact) crowning an impressive debut season in Clubman 2 with the class title and third overall with 118.

Also worthy of note was the C1 tussle between eventual winner (by 15.70s, the smallest margin of the event) Jermin Pope (Honda Civic) and Trevor Mapp (Mitsubishi Colt Mivec RS), who swapped times back and forth throughout.

(FILE IMAGE) Fastest on every stage, Greg Cozier and Natasha Farnum (Ford Escort MkII RS) won the Barbados Historic Rally, also claiming victory in the Classic class. The German crew of Stefan Oberdorster and Olaf Heupel finished second overall in their Porsche 911, winning the Post-Historic class, while England’s Neil and Natalie Revington (Triumph TR5) picked up the Historic class win, fourth overall.

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