23 AUGUST 2017 09:37
Four fastest stage times and holding a top three position for nine of the John Mulholland Motors Ulster Rally's 14 stages was the true measure of performance for Spencer Sport's Osian Pryce and co-driver Dale Furness at the weekend. Their fifth podium position of the season beckoned until a fuel-pump related issue brought their event to a premature end for the second time in as many events.
For teammates James Williams and Dai Roberts, who were chasing Junior Championship honours, the outcome was the same albeit for a different reason. A promising performance was cut short on the fourth stage when they were caught out by the treacherous conditions and rolled out of the rally.
The sixth round of this year's Prestone MSA British Rally Championship represented the series' annual visit to Northern Ireland. Starting and finishing in Derry/Londonderry, the event featured six stages on Friday afternoon and evening, followed by another eight on Saturday, all of them held south of the host town on closed public roads.
Last week's torrential rain in the region meant that mud and debris from the verges was washed into the asphalt Ulster lanes, making grip levels extremely unpredictable and consequently, tyre choice was a veritable lottery. For Osian and Dale they played it safe and found themselves in sixth place following the first stage. From then on they went on a mission and set four fastest stage times during the following five stages to end the day in second place and just 0.9 seconds behind Irish driver Keith Cronin.
With such a small margin between first and second, Osian and Dale started day two with it all to play for, but even though the weather looked brighter, grip levels were still difficult to predict and in the slippery conditions they clipped a wall with the back of the Hills Ford, Alphera Financial Services supported Fiesta. As well as losing time, they also lost the rear windscreen. Fortunately, the stage was followed by a service halt, where the Spencer Sport crew put the car back to 100%.
With the margin between the Welshmen and the leader now 17 seconds, Osian and Dale mounted another fight-back and, after stage eight had reduced the gap to four seconds. But now the battle for the podium positions had became even fiercer as they were being chased-down by championship leader Fredik Ählin.
Osian found a good rhythm over the next two stages and pulled away from Ählin, putting him and Dale into a great position to take the lead if anything was to happen to Cronin. But then in stage 11, just like it had done three-quarters of the way through the previous round and when they were leading the Nicky Grist Stages, the car lost power and coasted to a halt.
Realising it may be the same problem as before, Osian tried tapping the fuel pump to get it going again. It worked momentarily, but as soon as any power was applied the problem returned. Having lost too much time to continue, there was no other option but to head back to the service area.
"We came here to do a job and that was to keep our title hopes alive. While this result has made that more difficult, I'm pleased with our performance up until the point we retired. Keith (Cronin) is far more familiar with the Irish roads and the conditions, so I'm well happy we were on the pace and again, battling for a podium position.
"We now have to look at what the permutations are for the Isle of Man. Although it will need Keith and Fredrik to have a problem, because you can drop two scores and the event counts for two rounds, I think we can still mathematically take the title."
With three podium finishes in the Junior category under their belts, James and Dai were hoping to continue the trend. At the start of the event they were another crew who had played it a little too safe with their choice of tyres.
They gathered pace as the rally went on but running a little further down the field, they were finding the conditions even more unpredictable and, having encountered a stretch of mud mid-way through stage five, the car understeered and then snapped into oversteer. Whilst this is usually not an issue for James to contend with, the HT Installations, West Wales Rally Spares supported Fiesta R2 connected with a wall at the side of the road, the impact flipping it over onto its roof. Thankfully James and Dai emerged unscathed, but their car would go no further.
"We have been on the pace of the front-running juniors this past few events, so we were hoping to be able to do that again. I didn't feel we were pushing that hard as I didn't want to take any risks, so it was a real surprise when we had the accident. It was just a series of unfortunate circumstances, so I won't let it get me down though and I really can't wait to get back into the car - hopefully for the Isle of Man."
The final round of the Prestone MSA British Rally Championship will take place on the Isle of Man on 14th - 16th September and Spencer Sport is planning to be there with both it's cars.
The team would to thank its partners for their support: Spencer ECA, Motul Oils, Hills Ford, Alphera Financial Services, Oil4Wales, Nicky Grist Motorsports, PIAA UK, Speedline Corse UK, HT Installations and West Wales Rally Spares.