By Paul Evans
Two of Wales’ most successful national rally drivers, six time champion Damian Cole and reigning champion Jason Pritchard, go head-to-head in a winner takes all shootout on Sunday’s Ford Parts Cheviot Stages Rally, to decide who will be the 2019 Protyre Motorsport UK Asphalt Rally Champion.
And the final knockout round could not be closer. If series leader Cole wins and Pritchard finishes second – as they did last time out on the Old Forge Garage Mewla Rally – then both drivers would have recorded three wins and two second place finishes. That would see the title decided on a tiebreak, with whoever sets the better time on the opening stage of the Cheviot becoming champion.
Despite winning a record-equalling 23 rallies on Epynt, Cole admits that he prefers the more technical Otterburn military ranges in Northumberland, with its challenging network of twisty and bumpy single-track roads. He certainly has a very good record of success there, having won the Cheviot Rally – plus the Tyneside Stages, which is also held on Otterburn – four times each. The Abergavenny driver holds the advantage going into the event in his Get Connected/Energizer-backed Ford Fiesta WRC, but winning the title for a seventh time is by no means a forgone conclusion, thanks to the formidable challenge posed by Pritchard.
If Cole was to become Asphalt champion this year, he’ll have done it with five different co-drivers. Having had Shelley Rogerson, Max Freeman, Dale Bowen and Paul Spooner guide him, Andrew Roughead (last year’s Cheviot Rally winning co-driver) will partner him on the final round.
Having won the opening three rounds of the series in his North Road Garage Ford Focus WRC05, Pritchard looked the early odds-on favourite to retain his Asphalt title. But after retiring on Rally van Wervik, family commitments then prevented him from going to the Carryduff Folklift Down Rally, meaning that he had already registered his mandatory two dropped scores. Now needing to finish well on both the final rounds to keep his title hopes alive, new-dad Pritchard finished second on the Mewla Rally, after a day of time-consuming electrical issues with his car. Co-driven by Phil Clarke, the Builth Wells driver is currently fourth in the points’ table, but with others needing to drop points, he is Cole’s only rival for the overall title. If Pritchard wins the Cheviot he will be Asphalt champion and if he retires then Cole will be champion – and any other result will put the outcome of the title on a knife-edge.
Pritchard won the Asphalt title last year by taking maximum points (finishing second overall to local man Peter Taylor) on the Cheviot Rally. But atrocious weather and several key retirements played its part in that result, and it remains his only visit to Otterburn. With much less experience of the venue than Cole, and what appears to now be a power disadvantage over his rival as well, Pritchard is praying for a return of the rain, sleet and snow to shake things up again during the 60 stage mile event.
West Wales crew Rhidian Daniels and Tomos Whittle were runners-up in the B10 class last year, but with four wins under their belts they are favourites to go one better and lift the title this time. They won the class on their Otterburn debut last year, and just one more points finish in their rapid JJ Aggregates-backed Citroën C1 Max will be enough.