Jamaica’s Jeff Panton has won the 2023 R5 Rally Championship presented by First Citizens in his debut season driving a Skoda Fabia Rally2 evo, his first non-Ford rally car for more than a decade. With the title chase in mind, he paced himself in last Sunday’s (October 22) final round, the BRC Winter Rally, finishing third as Mark Maloney claimed his first R5 win after a ding-dong battle with Britain’s Rob Swann.
Thanks to Panton’s success, his nominated charity Food for the Poor/The HUB People-Helping-People will benefit from $5,000 donated by title sponsors First Citizens, while the Barbados Motoring Federation (BMF), which administers the championship, will donate $1,000 and $500 to the charities nominated by the runners-up.
Although he withdrew from driving last month, Reigning Champion Stuart Maloney finished second in the standings, again supporting the Because of Jenna Trust, while third-placed Kyle Gregg of Jamaica nominated the Autism Association of Barbados.
With regular co-driver Mike Fennell Jnr, Panton won three of the points-scoring rounds, which were reduced to six after Tropical Storm Tammy caused the cancellation of rounds eight and nine, last Saturday’s double-header MCBI Hammertime Sprint. Maloney won four rounds in his Fabia Rally2 evo, including the two non-scoring events in March, and was co-driver for brother Mark in last Sunday’s victory in a similar car.
Panton said: “We were leading the R5 championship needing eighth or higher to secure it. So, we made a decision to pace ourselves and not go for the win in the event but to focus on the overall championship we were leading. We didn’t drive ten-tenths but drove to maintain our spot in the middle of the pack and it worked out in the end.”
That decision did not reduce the drama and tension, however, as nine R5s tackled two stage venues in St John and St Joseph. Gregg and Bajan co-driver Orry Hunte set the early pace in their Ford Fiesta Rally2, winning the first run through the four-kilometre Society to Cherry Grove stage by half a second from Swann (Fabia R5), who was accompanied by his fifth different co-driver of the season, Geoff Goddard. Panton was third, with Paul Horton of the Turks & Caicos Rally team fourth, making a strong start in his Citroen C3 Rally2 with triple British Rally Champion Matt Edwards alongside.
Josh Read and Calem Maloney (Fiesta R5) won the first alternating Blackmans to Tappy Pond (4km), but Gregg maintained the lead from Swann, albeit cut to 0.4sec, with Panton still third and Mark Maloney now fourth, around 7secs off the lead. With three more stage wins before lunch, Gregg extended his advantage to nearly 6secs, while Maloney had passed Panton for third after the second Society to Cherry Grove and was just over 3secs behind Swann.
While the others chopped and changed, Roger Hill and Graham Gittens (Fabia R5) were fifth all morning, with Read up to sixth by lunch. Horton had slipped to seventh with the Fiesta R5s of his fellow Turks & Caicos entries Ben and Stan Hartling completing the field, son Ben with Kreigg Yearwood on the notes ahead of his father, co-driven by Jeremy Croney, both in need of seat time in their first outing of the season.
The wheels came off Gregg’s wagon – almost literally – straight after lunch when he clipped the chicane close to the beginning of the first Blackmans stage, collecting a puncture, which cost him dear. He dropped to fourth, more than 7secs off the new leader Maloney, who won the stage and snatched the lead from Swann, the Brit mystified why he lost a couple of seconds to the local driver on every run through Blackmans. Swann fought back the first time through the reversed Cherry Grove to Society to become the third different leader of the event, by just 0.8secs, but a swing of nearly 3secs on the final Blackmans gave Maloney an advantage he was not to lose.
Maloney has benefitted from brother Stuart’s coaching over the final events and said: “It was a fun day and I’m finally getting into the R5 now”. Keen to have a good event after earlier disappointments, Swann said: “I dropped time to Mark through Blackmans but struggled to see where. I felt we attacked every corner, but I lost a couple of seconds each pass, which ultimately cost us the win.”
Panton finished third to claim the title, with Read fourth after winning both Cherry Grove to Society stages after lunch. While Read’s progress up the leader board had temporarily nudged Hill down to sixth, a spin for Gregg and more time lost on the second afternoon Blackmans saw him slip behind Hill.
Gregg said: “It was a promising start, leading after the first five stages. Then we clipped a chicane in SS6, got a puncture and it went downhill from there as we lost 16 seconds. These are the highs and lows. I know my pace is there but I just need to keep it clean. Overall, I’m happy . . . but not happy at the same time; I finished the year strong with good times and good stage wins.”
Horton finished seventh, with Ben and Stan Hartling completing the field. Horton said: “It was a nice end to the year, especially after the incident in Sol Rally Barbados. To get back to where I am now with that confidence and feeling in the car, I’m really happy.”