MGJ Engineering Winter Stages, Brands Hatch, January 12: probably about time they brought back rallycross, too…
For the most part, the southbound A20 could be negotiated with only one hand on the wheel: the other was needed as a shield against the fierce, low sun. Welcome to the crispy cool of Brands Hatch at its most inspiring, dappled by frost and awash with cars (a few of which weren’t Ford Escorts).
This was the third time the circuit had hosted the Chelmsford Motor Club’s MGJ Winter Stages – and the event’s popularity is growing. The capacity entry offered a partial clue, but packed car parks provided equally compelling evidence. It took one colleague half an hour to gain admission. Within the circuit, access has been improved since 2012 – although that is one of the more complex hurdles as the stages bisect what might normally be regarded as public rights of way.
The event reverses a few Brands Hatch customs. Both regular paddocks form part of the route, and are thus out of bounds to the ordinary spectator, although the cars are easily accessible between stages: a packed, sprawling service area lines both sides of the road leading all the way from the main entrance to the Kentagon.
By 8.30am, 90 minutes before the scheduled start, the air was ripe with the sound of hammers and generators while drivers wondered what lay ahead.
If access roads were this icy, the stages were unlikely to be anything else – especially in areas that had yet to be given a solar blessing. Conditions didn’t quite require a stud, but they certainly wouldn’t be easy.
The eight stages – four either side of lunch – incorporated a combination of the aforementioned paddocks, pitlane, club circuit and the Brands Hatch RallyMaster course, an area of relatively tough terrain between the M20 and Druids (most commonly used for corporate events and driver training). The whole was a slickly run blend of the familiar circuit sweeps and improbably tight hairpin turns around tyre barriers that were certain to take a hammering. Directional variations were applied, to amplify variety.
There was no loose-surface mileage in the purest sense, although it would require only a little lateral thought for that to change. Parts of the old Brands Hatch rallycross track (hugely popular during the 1980s and ’90s) survive still and would make the event even better than it has already become. Perhaps, indeed, the moment is nigh to reinstate the full rallycross circuit, given the size of the waves that branch of the sport presently surfs.
The day might have started brightly, but sunlight had been switched off by noon and the fortunes of Subaru Impreza crew Johnnie Ellis/Dave Green tracked those of the weather. They held a comfortable but catchable lead after stage six… after which a punctured front right then cost them more than three minutes. They eventually retired and the advantage passed to 2013 winners Dean Thomas/Mark Burt (Davrian), who went on to beat Royston/Bridge Carey (Renault Clio) by 12sec, with Pete Rayner/Stanley Graham another 20sec adrift in the fleetest of the many Escorts, a 2.5-litre Mk2.
His 2013 success notwithstanding, winner Thomas seemed a touch surprised by his success. It was the first event he had finished for 12 months, never mind won…