Croft has always been a good venue for the PG Motorsport Ford Puma. It was the location where the car first made it to the end of a stage rally, back on the Christmas Stages in 2015, and a few weeks later in January 2016 we managed to finish 45th overall from a field of 90 starters.
For the most part we’ve been quite fortunate with the weather we’ve experienced on events, quite a large majority of events we’ve done have been dry, if a little chilly. In the run up to this years Christmas Stages we knew there was quite a high chance that things would be different, with heavy snow forecast for the region the day preceding the rally.
Phil made the call to purchase some winter tyres on the Wednesday before the event, and when we turned up to scrutineering on Friday we quickly established that this had been a wise call. Approximately 5cm of snow had fallen on to frozen ground and had compacted down in to a hard layer of ice. When we unloaded the car off the trailer it was still on moulded slicks from the previous event, the trip to and from scrutineering was comical, with the majority of cars needing pushed out of noise test.
Lining up for the start of stage 1 we were advised that the organisers were setting cars off at minute intervals, rather than the usual 30 seconds, due to the slippery conditions. It was safer at this point to have less cars on the stage at any one time. Up until now we hadn’t seen much of the stage conditions, and wondered what impact the previous 60 cars would have had.
Leading up to the rally we’d discussed how snowy conditions are a good leveller, it doesn’t matter how much power your car has as you simply can’t transfer that power to the ground. We’d also discussed our lack of experience in snowy conditions, and had agreed to just take each corner as it came, slowly building the pace to a level we felt comfortable with and trying to keep the driving smooth and the car on the stage.
As we set off in to stage 1 it was immediately evident that conditions were still extremely slippery, but we quickly got in to a rhythm and seemed to have the measure of the conditions, especially under braking where we felt we were pushing as hard as was possible. There were a couple of little moments where the slush almost got the better of us, and we found ourselves stuck behind another car for the last couple of miles, but on the whole it was an incident free run.
Coming in to service we could immediately see our service crew looking quite excited, waving their fingers in the air. We were unsure what was causing such jubilation until we were told that they had been keeping an eye on the online results and we were currently leading the rally, in front of world rally cars and powerful Escorts which we usually have no chance of keeping up with! At first we thought it was a wind up, but a quick look at the results and we’d set a time on stage 1 that was 5 seconds quicker than anyone that had gone before us.
We set off in to stage 2 with high confidence, conditions were still very similar and we aimed to set another good time. Unfortunately, we ended up stuck in traffic for almost the whole stage as the start interval was now back to 30 seconds, meaning there were twice as many cars on the stage and no way to pass on the snow that surrounded the single car width line that was appearing. We lost an estimated 30 seconds on this stage, but there was nothing we could do about it.
As we went in to stage 3 we were informed that the rally would now finish after 6 stages, rather than the original plan of 8, due to losing time to the slippery conditions. We were disappointed to lose the extra mileage, but also realised that this could help our overall result as the snow was quickly melting and the more powerful cars would start to pull back time on us during the afternoon. Stage 3 was a nice clear run, encountering very little traffic and setting another good time.
With the snow quickly turning to water a lot of crews were now switching to wet pattern tyres which would give additional grip over the winter tyres a lot of cars started on. Unfortunately, we hadn’t had the budget to purchase a set of dedicated wet tyres so opted to remain on the winter tyres for 1 more stage, before switching to a set of cut slicks for stages 5 and 6. Realistically it was the wet tyres which were providing the quickest stages times in the afternoon and so it became a game of damage limitation, trying to lose as few places as possible during the afternoon stages.
Coming out of stage 4 we sat 8th overall and 1st in class, after stage 5 this fell to 10th overall but still 1st in class. The world rally cars were now taking over 80 seconds per stage out of us, and going in to stage 6 only 25 seconds separated 10th place and 20th place, so we knew this could result in a big drop of places.
Luckily the damage was limited, we dropped 8 places on stage 6 to come home in 18th overall and 2nd in class 2! This is by far our best result to date and we couldn’t have been happier. Looking back at the results, if we were to discard stage 2 we could have finished 14th overall and 1st in class.
No matter, a good start to our attempt at the North of England Tarmacadam Championship with Gary sitting as 2nd placed driver in class 2, and Phil is currently the leading co-driver in class 2. The next round is the Jack Frost stages on 21st January, back at Croft, lets hope for more snow!
A big thanks to Northallerton MC for a superbly organised event in very difficult conditions, and to all of the marshals, set up crews, photographers and spectators who came out to make it all possible.