The long summer break for rally in America is over. It had been two months since STPR and teams were more than ready to get back into the action at the New England Forest Rally, the 5th round of the Rally America Championship.
As a quick recap, back at STPR Ken Block and co-driver Alex Gelsomino finally got the win they had been waiting for all season. Their win came rather easy as his closest rivals weren’t a factor. Antoine L’Estage didn’t have a car to compete in after wrecking the MML WRC Lancer back at Oregon Trail and skipped STPR. David Higgins started out close to Ken, but had a steering arm failure during the morning loop of stages and had to use “Super Rally” rules to continue the next day. It was an impressive effort nonetheless by Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew as they pushed their Subaru from as far back as 21st and made it all the way to the third spot on the podium. In Super Production, David Sterckx and Karen Jankowski continued their domination with their 2nd win in a row and took 2nd overall ahead of Higgins and Drew. Young Mason Moyle claimed another 2nd in SP with Tim Penasack rounding out the podium. Finally in the hotly contested 2wd class, the Aussies of Brendan Reeves and Rhianon Smyth once again showed how it was done grabbing their 2nd win and an amazing 4th overall in their R2 Fiesta. Andrew Comrie-Picard overcame earlier transmission issues to claim a distant 2nd and Dillon Van Way 3rd.
With the two month gap it gave time for teams to fix up their battle scarred machines and make improvements. The Subaru Rally Team USA had some interesting new air-scoops on the front of the car to help add downforce in the front on high speed corners. Block’s Fiesta had to be converted into rally mode after his HFHV competed in the last 4 rounds of the GRC. And then there were two new cars entering into the fray. Antoine L’Estage was going to be driving a 2003 Hyundai Tiburon that he had used to win the Canadian Championship back in 2006 and 2007. Although lacking modern hardware like a sequential gearbox and electronic differentials, the turbocharged 4wd Tiburon was no slouch and would be competing for a podium. The other new car on the block was the brand new Nameless Performance Toyota GT86 (a.k.a. Subaru BRZ a.k.a. Scion FRS) driven by returning Aussies Will Orders and Toni Feaver. Will and Toni actually won the 2wd class at NEFR last year in the older Nissan Silvia, but would they be able to challenge Brendo and Rhianon in the Fiesta R2? Will stated that the car was still in development and getting a podium would just be a bonus, however a lot had been learned and many upgrades made since I saw it on their first outing in the GT86 outside Olympia, WA.
So the stage was set for some close battles. The weather was warm, but a rain storm had come through and wet down the gravel roads just enough to remove dust concerns and make the traction extra grippy. After the first two stages Block was leading Higgins by a scant 0.4 seconds and L’Estage was holding his own just 11.8 seconds farther in 3rd. At the end of the short Day 1 Block/Gelsomino extended their lead to 16.1 seconds over Higgins/Drew. Unfortunately for L’Estage and Richard the Tiburon’s transfer box broke on stage 3 and they dropped 1:43 but still held on to 3rd place. In Super Production David Sterckx lead from the start pulling over a minute ahead of second place Nick Roberts with Mason Moyle holding onto 3rd just 17 seconds further back. And the hotly contested 2wd saw the new GT86 start to come into its own as Will Orders took the lead at the end of Day 1, 26.7 seconds ahead of fellow countryman Brendan Reeves. Andrew Comrie-Picard moved into 3rd after gearbox problems in the first loop of stages. Dillon Van Way had to DNF with engine problems, and Chris Greenhouse had drive shaft issues…again…breaking not one but both drive shafts having to continue Day 2 under Super Rally regulations.
The final day was a long one with 9 stages covering more than 75 miles of racing. In the Open class, Ken Block won the first stage of the day only 1 second ahead of David Higgins. Higgins came back and won the next two stages only by 2 seconds and then 3 seconds. Block led by 12.1 seconds after SS7. Block and Gelsomino pushed hard on SS8 and somehow increased their lead by an impressive 30 seconds more over the factory Subaru team. L’Estage and Richard hung on to third, but were a distant 4:27 behind with the Tiburon having overheating issues and again problems with the transfer box. I’m sure L’Estage wished he was in the EVO X at this point. Rifat Sungkar who is leasing the EVO X form L’Estage moved into 4th place after Joseph Burke went off on SS8.
It turned out that Block needed the extra gap he pulled on Higgins as his Fiesta’s alternator stopped working on SS11. Amazingly Block and Gelsomino drove 13 of the stages 16 miles with no intercom. They were towed into the final service by Rifat Sungkar and the team was able to fix the problem. Meanwhile Higgins and Drew gained back a bunch of time and now trailed by only 10.4 seconds with just two stages remaining. Unfortunately for Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard, they pushed the Tiburon just a little bit too hard sheering off the wheel studs and had to DNF. With only 7 miles left over two stages, Subaru’s David Higgins pushed as hard as he felt he safely could and won them both, but it wasn’t quite enough and took second behind Ken Block by a scant 6.5 seconds!
In Super Production, it was all David Sterckx leading by a large margin once again. However the battle for 2nd place was close with young Mason Moyle trying to take back the position he lost at the end of Day 1 from Nick Roberts. Moyle pushed, but kept it under control. He stayed in close contact with Roberts and reclaimed 2nd place when Roberts had suspension issues. Mason Moyle held on and claimed 2nd place on the podium for the third time this season with Nick Roberts finishing 3rd. I’ve been extremely impressed with Mason’s improvement this year, and I’m sure some credit must go to his very experienced co-driver John Hall. It is great to see such a young driver steadily improve as he has over the last few years and a championship could be his in just a couple more seasons.
The closest stage action however was in 2wd. Will Orders in the turbo GT86, Brendan Reeves in the Fiesta R2, and ACP in the Scion xD kept trading stage wins. Orders held on to his lead until fellow compatriot Brendan Reeves overtook him on Stage 11. That’s an amazing hat-trick of 3 events with 3 wins in a row for Brendan Reeves and co-driver Rhianon Smyth. Andrew Comrie-Picard and co-driver Jeremy Wimpy drove hard, but couldn’t overcome their deficit from the gearbox problem on Day 1 and took 3rd place. If ACP didn’t have gearbox issues, he would have been right up there with the Australians battling for the lead.
In the points standings David Higgins still leads Ken Block by 22 points. However, Block still can win the championship by a single point if he wins the next two events. This is because the points is based on 6 rounds of the 7 round season and teams can drop their worst score. In Super Production David Sterckx is 16 points ahead of Mason Moyle. Sterckx has the pace and the experience to win the championship, provided he doesn’t have any mechanical failures like he had at Sno*Drift. Andrew Comrie-Picard and Jeremy Wimpy still lead 2wd but like Block, if Brendan Reeves and Rhianon Smyth continue their dominant charge and win the remaining rounds they could end up on top. To do this however, the Australians need a little help. This is because Reeves was absent the first 2 rounds of the season and will only get 5 possible scoring rounds and not 6. If ACP get’s 2nd place at both Ojibwe and Lake Superior with Reeves winning, ACP wins the championship by a scant 2 points. If ACP gets a single 3rd place finish and Reeves wins both rounds, ACP loses the championship by a single point. The wildcard is how much Will Orders and the Nameless Performance GT86 will change the championship totals.
|1||David Higgins||92||1||David Sterckx||81||1||Andrew Comrie-Picard||89|
|2||Ken Block||70||2||Mason Moyle||69||2||Brendan Reeves||66|
|3||David Sterckx||52||3||Evan Cline||51||3||Chris Greenhouse||56|
The New England Forest Rally had some of the closest racing we’ve seen all year. With only two rounds left expect the championship fight to heat up even more at the next round, Ojibwe Forests Rally August 23 – 24, 2013.