Elliot Payne and Patrick Walsh came out on top as the continuing close battle in the MRF Tyres BTRDA Gold Star Series continued on the Kielder Forest Rally where there was another photo finish with Payne / Walsh finishing just 18 seconds ahead of Tom Llewellin / Ross Whittock with Stephen Petch/ Michael Wilkinson another 7 seconds behind and just 14 seconds up on Perry Gardener / Jack Bowen, it was as close as that on a day when the scorching pace was matched by the scorching heat which left many drivers exhausted.
The wide expanse of the Hexham Auction Mat provided an excellent base for the event, new to the BTRDA Series, with the format featuring two loops of 3 stages in the Kielder Forest complex with some new variations on the regular routes due to several roads still blocked following last December’s Storm Arwen. From Hexham, the rally headed to Chipchase Castle for a ceremonial start before the opening stage, The Bower which started at Chirdon and ran over Roughside Moor to finish on the C200 at Yarrowmoor. Payne / Walsh showed their intent, quickest on this one with Llewellin / Whittock in hot pursuit and Gardiner / Bowen and Petch / Wilkinson on identical times just behind them. A narrow bridge over the Smales Burn caused several crews problems while others found the many Kielder ditches waiting for them, Terry Pankhurst was an early casualty and Charlie Wright / Ashley Ramsay also went off, parking their Peugeot 106 in one of the many ditches while the spectacular Yaniv Bar who had flown in from Europe especially to do the event went off big style.
The second stage featured 8 miles in Bewshaugh and again it was Payne / Walsh who set the pace, with Llewellin / Whittock again close behind, Petch and Gardener again couldn’t be separated and Bob Morgan / Ade Williams in their Skoda Fabia were close behind. This stage claimed Charlie Payne/ Carl Williamson who went off and Russ Thompson / Stephen Link whose Mitsubishi Evo stopped. Gardener reported a soft brake pedal, Dave Crosson / Aileen Kelly stopped briefly to check on Payne and were caught by the Mitsubishi of Naylor / Lawrence who had to chew dust to the stage finish. Wilson / Crozier reported hitting a gate which had somehow swung across the track but continued unabated, Belbin / Burns put their Escort off near the stage finish, Beecroft / Gillespie managed to roll one of the big Bowler Defenders, Sneddon / Tomley also put one in a ditch and Paddy & Tom Horman ( Puma ) and Pitkanen / Hockly ( BMW Mini ) also ended up off the road.
Stage 3 crossed over the Kielder Dam for a stage in Falstone and Payne continued to lead the pack with Gardener, Petch and Hill in hot pursuit while Llewelin lost ground with a brief off which was to prove costly come the finish! Young Carl Robson, on his first-ever gravel rally, stopped briefly with fuel pressure problems, Naylor / Lawrence had a full 360-degree spin, bouncing in and out of a ditch, Gardener / Bowen had a brief off, the Escort of Lepley / Jenkins stopped in the stage, Beecroft / Parish hit a rock and damaged the steering and there were several crews reporting punctures.
A long run back to Hexham for service gave crews some time to catch their breath before a return to Kielder and a re-run of the same 3 stages which saw Llewellin / Whittock start a fight back, heading Payne. Petch, Hill and Joel through The Bower. Crossan / Kelly reported their Escort suffering low oil pressure, Bannister / Atkinson (Escort) had an electrical problem and leading BTRDA Silver Star crew, Wright / Fisher retired their Escort with a holed gearbox. Dobasu / Edwards stopped at the end of the stage and retired as did the Impreza of Gaskell / Dodds.
The second run through Bewshaugh saw another quick time from Llewellin / Whittock, 7 seconds up on Gardener with Payne close behind then Petch and Wilson / Crozier. Hill / Cooper reckoned there was a chicane not marked in the road book but as no one else mentioned it is highly unlikely. The Weaver / Morton Corsa suffered a chronic misfire which they couldn’t trace, Allen Dobasu / Jamie Edwards suffered a flat tyre causing suspension damage to their Fiesta, and Melling / West reported a front disc issue while the Dobson / Pugh Escort must have made contact with the local wildlife, arriving at the finish with blood on the windscreen.
At the start of the final stage, Llewellin said he was going to have a “Big Push” and he certainly did, once again quickest ahead of Petch, Gardener, Payne and Joel but his efforts weren’t quite sufficient and Payne had enough of a lead in hand, coming home victorious, albeit by the slenderest of margins, with Llewellin / Whittock having to settle for 2nd place although on this performance it won’t be long until the young Welshman takes an overall victory. Behind the front runners, Renshaw / Spence struggle through their Subaru proving a handful with a burst brake pipe. The Bayliss / Godden Mitsubishi lost power with a throttle sensor problem, Adrian & Matt Walk’s little ford KA struggled through the ruts with a puncture, they were caught by the Garnett / Arndt Nissan Micra, Carl Robson nursed his Toyota Yaris to the finish despite the continuing fuel pressure problems and Caroline / Philimore managed to spin a giant Bowler Defender in the width of a forest track.
So ended a hard-fought and closely competitive Kielder Forest Rally which ran without delays or any complications and gave the 90 competitors a great day’s competition over the ever-challenging Kielder gravel tracks which were as demanding as ever and certainly tested the drivers to the limit.