Jeff Panton is the man . . . again!
With victory in yesterday’s Flow King of the Hill, the Jamaican ace driver has joined Barbadian legend Roger Skeete as a three-time winner of the Barbados Rally Club’s (BRC) annual Sol Rally Barbados shakedown.
Adding back-to-back King of the Hill wins to last year’s Sol Rally Barbados hat-trick, Panton and co-driver Mike Fennell (Ford Focus WRC06) have re-written the record books once again.
Returning after a two-year absence, England’s Paul Bird – he won King of the Hill in 2012 & 2014 – pushed Panton hard, falling short by only six-tenths, on a day of close battles throughout the near-record field. Afterwards Panton said: “I was a bit shaky in the beginning and had a spin early on. On the third and fourth runs we pushed really hard, because Bird was going very good and it feels like I have a target on my back. There’s a lot of pressure, but we will rise to the challenge and do our best; win, lose or draw, we enjoy the competition.”
England’s Rob Swann and Kevin Procter were third and fifth respectively, with Skeete the highest-placed local driver in fourth and Roger Hill sixth, winning WRC-2. After a battle that lasted all day, fellow-Brit Tom Preston finished seventh, beating Trinidad & Tobago’s David Coelho (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX) to the Group A title by just a quarter of a second. Preston said: “We are familiar with the pace of guys like Kevin Procter in the UK, so wanted to see how we compared to them here, where they have years of experience; we are satisfied with how we did today.”
Until the final run of the day, with such a strong four-wheel drive (4wd) entry, it seemed there might be no two-wheel drive (2wd) cars in the top 10 since the first King of the Hill in 2008. On the final run, however, Barry Mayers and Dane Skeete broke the barrier, finishing ninth and 10th. Mayers said afterwards: “After fighting over a year-and-a-half with the car’s handling, we are getting much closer.” Nearly a quarter of the 88 crews who started failed to finish at least one run, leaving many with work to do ahead of Sol Rally Barbados 2018 next weekend.
After last year’s rain-affected event, there was only a brief shower an hour before the field started the first run through the 4.3kms course. Huge crowds gathered inside the Vaucluse Raceway (VRW) in St Thomas, with hundreds more lining other popular spots on Hangman’s Hill, at Dukes and Lion Castle. Ryan Wood (BMW 318ti Compact) and Trevor Manning (Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo) warmed the crowd up in Zero Car mode ahead of the field, which ran in reverse order of seeding, from Clubman up to WRC-1.
With new co-driver Jack Morton, Bird (Ford Focus WRC08) was quickest on the first run, clocking 2m 48.64s, eight-tenths faster than Kevin Procter and Andrew Roughead (Ford Fiesta), followed by the Subaru Impreza WRC S12Bs of Swann and Darren Garrod (Subaru Impreza WRC S12B) and Skeete and Louis Venezia (Subaru Impreza WRC S12B).
Roger Mayers and Jason Parkinson (Toyota WR Starlet) were fifth and top 2wd, around 5secs off the Subarus, but were not seen again, after mechanical issues intervened. Preston and Karl Williamson were sixth in the Skoda Fabia R5, with Panton and Fennell 10th, more than 10secs adrift of Bird after an overshoot and spin as they exited VRW.
A determined Panton set a new target of 2:45.13 on run two, more than 1sec faster than last year’s winning time, with Swann finding another 3secs or so for second (2:46.79), as Procter slipped to third, despite also improving (2:48.14). This time ‘Birdy’ tripped up, clipping a rock, 13th overall, his best time now 3.5secs down on Panton’s.
Both Focus drivers pushed hard on the third run and, although Bird improved his time by an impressive 4.3secs, Panton found another 1.4sec to remain ahead, albeit by only six-tenths. There were solid improvements also for Swann and Skeete, while Procter slipped to fifth and Hill (Toyota Corolla WRC) and Graham Gittens improved to sixth. And that is how it ended, despite a further six-tenths chopped off Swann’s time.
Roger Mayers was not the only potential 2wd front-runner in trouble early. Daryl Clarke (Honda Civic) ran off the road on Hangman’s Hill on the first run, when he lost steering after a front suspension collapse. With help from spectators and a wrecker unit, the car was returned to service for repairs. And Barry Mayers missed one run sorting a fuel leak on the Ford Fiesta, then finished nearly last on run three, when a piece of grass pulled the external kill switch.
So, 2wd honours looked set to be settled between Dane Skeete (Peugeot 306 Maxi) and last year’s winner Rhett Watson (BMW M3) . . . but the story wasn’t over yet! Skeete led 2wd after the second run, Watson after the third, with just four-tenths between the two. Barry Mayers was another couple of seconds adrift, ahead of Andrew Jones and Clarke, who had made it back out for the third run, all three within a second of each other.
While Skeete found another 2.4secs on his final run, a big push by Mayers leap-frogged the rear-drive Fiesta over the front-drive Peugeot for his first King of the Hill 2wd title and the SuperModified 2 win by the smallest margin of the day . . . just nine-hundredths. Clarke improved as well, to finish third, but the Civic’s second suspension failure, just after the stage finish, resulted in damage to the timing equipment, a delay while it was sorted out, then an extra run for a handful of drivers who had not received a time.
Among those was Watson: “On our fourth run, which our hand timing says would have made us fastest 2wd, there was no official time. On the re-run, we broke a back left arm just after exiting Vaucluse and had to back off.” Not only did Watson lose out on a possible 2wd victory, but also saw his five straight years of class wins come to an end, as Andrew Jones (Ford Escort MkII) claimed his first King of the Hill title since Group B in 2012.
While the smallest margin of victory had once again been in SM2 (last year Skeete was beaten by Roger Mayers by just 0.39sec), there were also narrow victories in Modified 2, where Jamal Brathwaite (Honda Civic Type-R) beat Paul Horton of the Turks & Caicos Islands (Citroen DS 3 R3 MAX), by 01.49s; and GpN, where the English all-girl crew of Shelly Taunt and Julie Murphy (Impreza N10) finished 01.51s ahead of American father and son George and Anthony Sherman (Evo IX).
Top Ten: 1st Jeffrey Panton – JAM/Michael Fennell Jnr – JAM (WRC-1 Ford Focus WRC06), 2m 43.75s
2nd Paul Bird – ENG/Jack Morton – ENG (WRC-1 Ford Focus WRC08), + 00.61s
3rd Rob Swann – ENG/Darren Garrod –
WAL (WRC-1 Subaru Impreza WRC S12B), + 02.28s
4th Roger Skeete/Louis Venezia (WRC-1 Subaru Impreza WRC S12B), + 03.00s
5th Kevin Procter – ENG/Andrew Roughead – ENG (WRC-1 Ford Fiesta), + 04.39s
6th Roger Hill/Graham Gittens (WRC-2 Toyota Corolla WRC), + 06.68s
7th Tom Preston – ENG/Carl Williamson – WAL (GpA Skoda Fabia R5), + 07.79s
8th David Coelho – T&T/James Harris – ENG (GpA Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX), + 08.05s
9th Barry Mayers/Ben Norris (SM2 Ford Fiesta), + 08.62s
10th Dane Skeete/Tyler Mayhew (SM2 Peugeot 306 Maxi), + 08.71s.