Leading Manx co-driver Rob Fagg has had some testing times lately, experiencing back to back retirements for the first time this season, but he was able to put that behind him as he had the opportunity to experience a Ford Fiesta WRC for the first time.
Back in July, Robert Graham & Co Chartered Quantity Surveyors backed Rob and Welshman Hugh Hunter looked to get their BTRDA campaign back on track as they contested the Nicky Grist Stages in Wales. Using the Dom Buckley RSC-prepared R.S. Hunter Tarmac-backed Ford Fiesta R5 they lay in fourth spot within striking distance of the top three after the opening three stages.
However, a problem with the powering steering during the next stage cost 20 seconds to title contender Callum Black in a similar Fiesta, dropping them to fifth. Further drama struck when the car developed a misfire from the start of stage five and despite reaching the end they would retire the car with the fault incurable.
Their first retirement of the season seriously dented any aspirations of championship success for Hunter and Organic Construction Solutions supported Fagg, leaving it a two horse race between Black and Stephen Petch (Fiesta WRC) unless both should retire from the final two rounds.
“The retirement really put an end to our championship challenge, our fate is now in the hands of others. Stephen (Petch) and Callum (Black) only need a strong score from the final two events, so it’s going to be a long shot.”
August bought a change of surface and driver as Fagg, with the backing of MC Locksmiths, travelled to Northern Ireland to tackle the tarmac roads the Ulster Rally had to offer alongside Motorcycle Road Racing star Michael Dunlop.
Dunlop and Fagg enjoyed success on the event in 2016 notching up a class win and third overall in the National category, a result they were hopeful of repeating in the same DEN Motorsport-prepared and run MD Racing Ford Escort MkII
Drama was not far away though, an issue with the intercom as the crew entered the very first stage just as heavy rain hit. The issue meant that Michael was unable to hear the pace notes Rob was calling to him, making it very tricky in the conditions, posting a 21st quickest time.
After that disappointing start, they emerged from the next stage having moved up to 16th, and then 14th as they headed for the first service halt, although they had now developed a misfire and sticking throttle which was hampering progress.
As they tackled a repeat of the three stages they continued to pick of the places, and as the car was placed into Parc Ferme for the night they had broken into the top ten, lying 9th aided by two fifth quickest times It showed the pace was there when the issues weren’t!
Dunlop and Burger Man Catering sponsored-Fagg knew as they started the second day the aim was to continue the recovery form the early time loss, and what better way than by setting second fastest time on Saturday’s opening stage, lifting them up to 6th overall with the gap to 5th closed further as they reached the end of stage eight.
That would be the last time Michael and Rob would post however. Mid-way through stage nine the Escort left the road as Michael fought to slow down the car when he experienced a loss of breaks as they headed to a tight right hander after a quick downhill run. With the car firmly stuck off the road in a ditch it was the end of their charge, the pair left very disappointed.
“After the performance on the Donegal Rally back in June we were confident of continuing the pace on the Ulster. We knew though we had to get off to a strong start and not give up too much time early on” commented a despondent Rob, “The problems we experienced early on put us on the back foot, but with everything fixed the confidence came and that showed as we climbed the leaderboard. We are both gutted, but there will be another chance.”
The start of September saw a return to the loose as Rob re-joined Welshman Hunter in Shropshire and on to the Woodpecker Rally the seventh round of the BTRDA Championship. After using a Focus WRC and Fiesta R5 already in the series, the pair would use their third different car of the campaign, a Melvyn Evan Motorsport Fiesta WRC.
With only limited mileage from a short test ahead of the event, Hugh and Rob looked to build their confidence and pace, whilst hoping to be competitive at the same time. After two stages they held onto fourth spot, which would become third and then second as they reached the second service of the event, despite feeling that the tyres had gone off on the fourth stage.
Stage five though would see a drop back down the order to fourth; Hugh and Rob left wondering just where they had dropped time to their rivals. It would be this position they retained as they reached the finish, following home Petch, who’s result crowned him the 2017 champion, and Black who secured second in the series by taking top points.
While the top two places are resolved, the final podium spot is up for grabs and something that Hugh and Rob are keen to achieve.
“It’s been great today to sample the Fiesta WRC, I certainly think it suits Hugh as a driver over the R5 and hopefully we can secure the use of it for the Trackrod Rally” explained Rob, “It’s been a mixed year in the series for us and while the potential has been there we have just failed to turn that in the result we both know we were capable of. Stephen and Callum have driven excellently this year, and congrats to Stephen and Michael (Wilkinson) on the title”.
Ahead of the Trackrod Rally at the end of September is Rally Isle of Man, an event which Hugh and Rob have entered returning to the Fiesta R5 and wanting to gauge themselves against the British Rally Championship crews.
Rob is supported in 2017 by Robert Graham & Co Chartered Quantity Surveyors, JR Hinchliffe Plumbing and Heating, Burger Man Catering, MC Locksmiths and Organic Construction Solutions.
Photo - Hugh and Rob kick up the dust on their way to fourth. Courtesy of chasingthecars.com.