Sol Rally Barbados 2018 was all that it was billed to be and then some. Once again Jamaica’s Jeffrey Panton and co-driver Michael Fennell Jr. stole the show over the past weekend, while Barbados’ Roger Hill showed his consistency in the showpiece event by registering his 20th top 10 finish.
Panton paid tribute Fennell after they claimed their fourth consecutive win on Sunday. After sharing a champagne podium celebration at Bushy Park with British crews Rob Swann and Darren Garrod, Paul Bird and Jack Morton, Panton said: “Mike really does all the groundwork, I only drive, and his efforts play a big role in the success.”
Panton’s fifth victory on the Barbados Rally Club’s (BRC) blue riband event comes two decades after he became the first regional winner, in a Toyota Celica GT4, in 1998. Since 2012, when he bought the Ford Focus WRC06 in which two-time World Champion Marcus Gronholm won the 2007 Galway International, he has regularly rewritten the region’s record books, having also added a hat-trick of Flow King of the Hill victories this year.
As he did last year, Swann (Subaru Impreza WRC S12B) equalled his best result of second, while 2012 & 2013 winner Bird (Focus WRC08), back after a two-year hiatus, further enhanced his strong record on the event, with his eighth top-three finish in nine visits. Completing only the fourth overseas clean sweep of the top four in the event’s 29-year history were England’s Kevin Procter and Andrew Roughead (Ford Fiesta).
For the first time in 10 years (Sean Gill/Michael Cummins, Suzuki Swift, 2008), the highest-placed local crew was also the top two-wheel drive finisher. Barry Mayers and Ben Norris (Ford Fiesta) repeated their two-wheel drive success of 2017, although two further places up the order. Sixth, with Graham Gittens co-driving, was Roger Hill (Toyota Corolla WRC) who celebrated his 20th top 10 finish, equalling Roger Skeete’s record.
After the results were made final yesterday, general manager of Sol (Barbados) Ltd Ezra Prescod presented Panton and Fennell with their awards at a packed prize-giving at The Boatyard beach bar. They received the trophies for first place, victory in WRC-1 and highest-placed non-national four-wheel drive. They were the most successful of the 23 overseas crews heading home with trophies.
Before the evening got underway, Rally director Barry Gale updated attendees on the condition of Daryl Clarke and his co-driver Russell Brancker, who were seriously injured in an accident on Saturday. Part of the BRC statement said: “In light of the incident, the Club is working towards streamlining the framework applicable when the severity of injuries requires persons to seek medical attention outside of Barbados.” During the evening, club members and friends showed their support for Clarke and Brancker by signing ‘Get Well Soon’ wishes on shirts for both drivers.
Panton signalled his intent from the start, fastest of the 91 starters over two laps of the Vaucluse Raceway, which hosted Friday’s ceremonial start. Bird was just 0.26secs adrift, with Procter third, 6secs back, ahead of the Impreza S12Bs of Roger Skeete and Swann, with England’s Ryan Champion (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX) leading Group A in sixth and Barry Mayers top 2wd in eighth, one tenth up on Dane Skeete (Peugeot 306 Maxi).
As the two morning-loops of Spring Vale, Automotive Art Hangman’s Hill and Sailor Gully unfolded on Saturday, a string of stage wins – only Swann interrupted him, fastest on the first Sailor Gully – saw Panton extend the gap to Bird, albeit slowly. By lunch, he was 8secs ahead, with Swann another 18secs behind and Procter next up, after Roger Skeete had rolled out of fourth place on the second Sailor Gully. A puncture on stage two of the third loop, however, cost Bird around a minute: “It was frustrating to pick up the puncture as I don’t know how it happened, but it took all the pressure off Jeffrey and left us to play catch up.” Swann was now second, 37secs behind Panton.
As the night stages played out – the fourth was cancelled following earlier delays – Panton eased further ahead, 48secs ahead of Swann by the Sunday restart, with Bird another 36secs back and 28secs ahead of Procter. Sunday’s three loops of Toyo Tires Padmore, Kendal and Malvern on the faster roads in the south-east of the island, saw Panton steadily increase his lead to 70secs, while Bird was faster than Swann on all six morning stages – he also beat Panton on the second Kendal – closing to within 17secs of Swann at lunchtime. Further incidents caused delays, resulting in the cancellation of the day’s third Malvern, so the whole field could reassemble for the finale at Bushy Park.
While ‘Birdy’ was quickest over the final two kilometres, in front of a huge and energetic crowd, it would not affect Panton’s winning margin over Swann of 1min 18.58secs, with Bird ending the weekend 19secs further back and 2mins ahead of Procter. Panton said: “In the beginning, it was very competitive between myself and Paul as the times were very close until he unfortunately got a flat. Driving here throughout the year really helps with acclimatising, so we kept a quick pace throughout the weekend.” Swann said: “I’m happy with that. It was fun but tough. Fair play to Jeffrey, he was faultless.”
Bird added: “I have to be happy with third given my two years away and lack of time on tarmac recently. Congratulations to Jeffrey on his fourth straight win and thanks to the masses of spectators around the island for their support.”
There were two other battles in the top 10 keeping spectators engaged, as overall two-wheel drive and Group A were hard-fought. Dane Skeete moved ahead in two-wheel drive after Saturday’s first Hangman’s Hill, with both Mayers brothers having their problems. Overnight leader Barry nearly went OTL with a faulty fuel pump, while Roger (who had already lost time with a spin on Friday night) then had a puncture shortly after lunch. Barry was back in the lead by bedtime, with Skeete second and the BMW M3s of Rhett and Logan Watson third and fifth, sandwiching Andrew Jones (Ford Escort MkII). Roger Mayers was sixth.
On Sunday morning, Skeete was taking it cautiously, hoping for a first overall finish at the sixth attempt in the Peugeot, with some suspension problems and a down-on-power engine, so Barry Mayers extended his advantage. On home ground, Rhett Watson was making up time and would pass Skeete for second two-wheel drive, while Roger Mayers had moved ahead of Logan Watson and Jones by the end of the second Padmore. On the second Kendal, however, as Mayers explained: “I carried too much speed into a corner and found a rock embankment, which damaged the wheel and caused the car to flip right over.”
Brother Barry’s two-wheel drive win was some consolation for the M & M Racing outfit after what Barry describes as “one of the most challenging Sol Rally Barbados events to date. I’m happy with the result for the team, especially with the difficulties faced, but it is all dampened by having Russell and Daryl in our thoughts, as they try to pull through their injuries.”
Skeete’s perspective was much the same. “I was happy to finish, as it was a tough weekend. The team really deserved a finish after so many previous failures.”
With 13 entries making Group A the biggest class, it was always going to be a tough weekend. Overnight leader Champion’s Evo IX and fellow Brit Tom Preston’s Skoda Fabia R5 swapped times stage after stage throughout the weekend, Champion losing a lot of time in Saturday’s third Sailor Gully with a puncture, which left him playing catch-up. Preston returned the favour with a spin on Sunday, which gave Champion 10secs back, but it was Preston who prevailed by 9secs at the finish, the pair finishing ninth and 10th.
Scotland’s Andy Scott (Ford Fiesta R5) finished third in GpA, 11th overall, while fellow-Brit Nigel Worswick finished second to Roger Hill in WRC-2 after an exhausting week, which involved rebuilding the engine of his Ford Escort WRC, then changing the gearbox overnight on Saturday. GpN attracted only two entries, both from overseas, American George Sherman (Evo IX) prevailing after the Impreza of the only all-girl crew, the UK’s Shelly Taunt and Julie Murphy, blew its engine. That left England’s Cheryl Spencer as highest-placed female driver.
After a broken driveshaft ruled him out of the overall running on Saturday’s final night stage, last year’s GpN winner Mark Thompson led the Sunday Cup throughout in his Evo IX, now in GpA spec, winning all but two stages. Having finished 12th overall and SM1 winner last year, Neil Corbin (Toyota Starlet) lost a wheel on Saturday morning, missing a couple of stages. He was second in the Sunday Cup, winning the other two stages, while ex-pat Bajan Chris Ullyett, reunited with his Ford Escort RS2000, took the trophies for third place home to Canada for the second year in a row.
Overseas crews claimed nine more class wins or podiums. The sole winner was Edinburgh’s Robin Hamilton (MG Metro 6R4) in Group B3, while New Zealand’s David Proud (Peugeot 206 GTi 180) and first-timer, England’s John Carroll (Honda Civic V-Tec), finished second and third in Modified 2. Class third-place trophies were also carried home by Welsh crew Gary and Linda Thomas (SuperModified 2 Ford Escort MkII), mixed English/Welsh crew Dave Jenkins and Ross Weir (Historic Escort MkII), plus England’s Marcel Freling and Karen Robinson (SM1 MG ZR) – they were also top Non-National fwd – newcomer Russell Smith (Clubman 2 BMW 318ti Compact), Howard and Ruth Paterson (C1 Skoda Fabia) and Andrew Costin-Hurley (GpB2 Ford Puma Evo). Finally, on his 18th consecutive trip, Martin Stockdale (BMW 1M Coupe) added to his previous stash of trophies as top non-national rear-wheel drive for the second year in a row.