After the little ‘mishap’ last time out on the Jim Clark Rally, I was keen to put on a good showing for the next event – the Christmas Stages at Croft on 15th December. If not for me, then definitely for the hard-working crew that spent their time to help me get the Escort race-ready again. Without top guys like Luke Saddington and Andy Harland Motor Services on hand to help, there’s no way the Escort would have made it to the Christmas Stages event at all.
But, with their help, and a few days of solid graft, the Mk2 was fighting fit once more. So, just a couple of weeks before Christmas, we headed to our local track, Croft. I actually drove the car to the event, which isn’t as daft as it sounds – it’s only a few miles away and it gives the transmission and engine the chance to get up to temperature before starting the rally. It did mean that I needed to get a new MoT on the Escort the day before the event though!
I’ve done a few events a Croft in the past – 12 in fact, including both as a driver and co-driver. And after competing with a few different co-drivers in recent years (including my dad, Russ, last year – which was entertaining!) I was pleased to have my regular co-driver back in the second seat for this event; Jessica, my wife! She’s incredibly competitive, and probably wants to win more than I do. Whereas most guys will say their wife tells them to slow down, mine tells me to go faster! And as any married man will tell you, when your wife shouts instructions, you listen!
But all joking aside, Jessica is a great co-driver to have alongside me for events like these, and the last time we were together on the Christmas Stages back in 2016, we finished 2nd overall! So, with her calling the pace notes I was really looking forward to setting some times on the eight different stages that made up the rally.
The event kicked off bright and early, with the first cars taking off from 9am. The first four stages all ran in the conventional direction of the track at Croft, but the overnight frost left the tarmac very slippery and challenging, especially for the first couple of stages until things started to warm up a little.
Thankfully, we avoided any dramas and made it through unscathed. More than that, we actually posted some pretty decent times which left us sitting 6th on the time sheets at the lunch break.
Then, after lunch, the stages were reversed, which gave us all the opportunity to attack the famous Croft circuit in the wrong direction. Again, this proved tricky as you needed to really strike the balance between grip and speed, which was constantly changing with every car that ran the stage.
The last two stages were run in the dark. This added another element to what really is a fantastic event – you might think you know the stage layout, but attacking it flat-out with just your own headlights to show you the way takes a lot of guts, not to mention faith and trust in the co-driver too.
With the last cars completing the final stages the results started to come through. Out of the 81 starters, 66 cars made it to the end of the rally – not as low as with some closed road events, but still shows just how challenging the conditions and courses were for both man and machine.
Topping the time sheets after all 8 stages were Frank Bird and Jack Morton in their Mk2 Focus WRC – a serious bit of kit. But not much further down the order came our names. We were very pleased with our 5th overall! Especially considering the level of competition, the talent of the drivers involved, and the sheer spec of some of the cars taking part – incidentally, the top 8 places were all Fords (see boxout)!
And with all the cars ahead of us having four-wheel-drive, that also meant that our 40-year old Escort was the fastest two-wheel drive car on the day too! As you’d expect, we weren’t the only Mk2 competing, and we did well to fight off challenges from the other Escort crews, including David Henderson and Ian Forgan (who finished just five seconds behind us in 6th overall), former MSN MSVR champions Ian Woodhouse and Paul Rowland (in 7th) and Martin Hodgson and Tony Jones (in 8th).
We were really chuffed to end the year with such a fantastic result! Now, we’ll be hoping to start 2020 in similar fashion next time out…