22 Feb: Armstrong Wins Snowman

… Jock the Snowman …

It’s five years since Jock Armstrong last won the Arnold Clark Thistle Snowman Rally, but he did it again, this time with Paula Swinscoe alongside. Coincidentally, it was Mike Faulkner and Peter Foy who were third overall five years ago, and they were third again this time. Alick Kerr separated them way back then, but on this occasion it was Bruce McCombie and Michael Coutts. Oddly enough, and just for the record, they were ninth five years back. Well, I thought it was odd.

Anyway, all five stages were virtually snow-free in the run up to this year’s event, and then it snowed overnight on Friday! Fortunately the ground didn’t resemble the permafrost of past years, but the first stage to the south of the Highland capital was pretty frozen underfoot. And when the snow fell, the frozen stretches and icy bits were all covered up. Hidden from view. Not ideal for first car on the road. In fact, not ideal for the first few.

The only other snowy stage was the final one, and that was confined to a few white stretches in the middle of the test, otherwise it was just slippy, and sometimes glaury, all day. One other thing, it was cold, and when the sun dropped behind the grey clouds, it was awfy cold. Dingwall market is pretty exposed and folk without gloves had to count their fingers before departing in case they left any behind.

Fortunately, the competition provided a warm, satisfying glow for the thousands who braved the elements to watch. Such was their numbers that there were delays, especially at the start of the first two stages as the thousands thronged the forests – far exceeding the crowd at the nearby Inverness CT/Kilmarnock football match!

SS1, Ronaldson Mechanical Services/Chalmers Garage Meall Mor, 6.61 mls
1, Steven Clark/Phil Sandham, 6m 48s
2, Bruce McCombie/Michael Coutts, 6m 56s
3= Jock Armstrong/Paula Swinscoe, 7m 05s
3= Chris Collie/Mark Fisher, 7m 05s
3= Fraser Wilson/Craig Wallace, 7m 05s
6, Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry, 7m 11s

First into the snow covered six mile Meall Mor opening test was David Bogie in the Fiesta R5+, but he was running tyres left from his Rally Wales GB curtailed outing. They were a bit too wide for the prevailing conditions. He slipped and slithered all the way through, and was off twice, but not seriously although he dropped nearly a minute to the rest.

It was still slippery for the number two seed, but he’s a wily old dog is Mike Faulkner: “We could see gravel on top of the snow on the stretches where David had spun up his wheels and dug through, so that gave us a rough idea of where the ice was, and where there was gravel for grip.”

It wasn’t enough for a quick time though, and fastest over that opening test was the number 15 seed Steven Clark from the number 11 seed Bruce McCombie. Chris Collie and Fraser Wilson posted times which were matched by the number 3 seed, Armstrong, with Mark McCulloch scoring a sixth fastest first time out in the ex Dougal Brown car.

Speaking of Dougal, sad to say, but he was the first retirement of the day. Running directly in front of McCulloch he slid off where Bogie had earlier experienced a slithery moment: “I was just carrying a bit too much speed going into the corner at the bridge near the start and slid off,” said Dougal. Fortunately, it was only pride that was dented, nothing metallic.

The ever smiling Barry Groundwater (must be thinking of someone else, Ed.) explained the problems: “Some of the straights in there were flat, and then when you hit the brakes and the car just wants to stall every time, you know you’re in trouble.” Not just Barry of course, but most folks experienced the sensation of spinning up wheels with sensors sending all the wrong messages to the ECMs.

SS2, ROM Mechanical Specialists/Topp Car Millbuie, 6.78 mls
1, David Bogie/Kevin Rae, 6m 42s
2, Armstrong/Swinscoe, 6m 46s
3, Clark/Sandham, 6m 48s
4, Mike Faulkner/Peter Foy, 6m 53s
5, Shaun Sinclair/Chris Hamill, 6m 54s
6, McCombie/Coutts, 6m 55s

Conditions were slightly more favourable across the Firth at Millbuie where this time it was Bogie who set the pace. The Fiesta was 4 seconds quicker than the Subaru of Armstrong, but half way through the test, Bogie realised he was in trouble: “The clutch was slipping and the mismatch between the engine speed and wheel speed sensors was causing the sequential gearshift to crunch.”

Out on the public road he and Kevin had a look and pondered the 14 mile run to Service. Should they risk it? David decided not to and the trailer was called.

Clark was still on the pace setting third fastest time, 2 seconds quicker than Faulkner, and although he was fifth fastest, Shaun Sinclair was concerned: “It goes into gear OK, but it won’t come out of gear,” he said referring to the Lancer’s manual shift. Wayne Sisson was quickly on the case and buried up to his shoulders in the engine bay ferreting about the greasy bits. But the problem was soon rectified – they used an elastic ‘luggage bungey’ wound round the sequential shift lever and anchored front and back to provide the necessary ‘return spring’ each time Shaun changed gear. Simple, but effective.

McCombie was only sixth quickest: “I was in too many ditches in there. Trying too hard. Too erratic,” he said, and I left him giving himself a good talking-to.

Andrew Gallacher emerged from the second test with the front bumper looking a wee bit bedraggled: “It was the last corner of the stage, a Right 7, the rear just stepped out and dragged us into a ditch.” Mind you, it was partly his own fault, he was another who was using up leftover Rally GB tyres!

Fraser Wilson also admitted to a woopsie: “We overshot a junction and stalled in there. It’s very difficult to judge where the grip is, that’s the secret.”

SS3, HOE Capital Solutions Strath Rory, 13.68 mls
1, Faulkner/Foy, 12m 25s
2, Andrew Gallacher/Jane Nicol, 12m 44s
3, Armstrong/Swinscoe, 12m 49s
4, Donnie MacDonald/Andrew Falconer, 12m 53s
5, Quintin Milne/Stephen O’Hanlon, 12m 58s
6, McCombie/Coutts, 12m 59s

After service it all went wrong for the rally leader in Strath Rory where Clark’s Evo5 was spotted stopped in the stage. He was not alone, the top ten lost two more drivers with Fraser Wilson also falling victim to the conditions and Chris Collie out with an engine problem.

Armstrong was now in the lead, but Faulkner was flying. The Evo9 pilot took 24 seconds out of the Subaru driver in 13 miles of stage to reduce Armstrong’s lead to 6 seconds with two stages to go.

Second quickest through there was Gallacher, 5 seconds up on Armstrong. Donnie MacDonald was on the case too, now having woken up: “After last year, all I wanted was a finish today. I’ve been too cautious,” he said. Another subdued driver was Quintin Milne in the ex Alistair Inglis Evo4: “It’s a new car. The power is fine and the handling is good, but I’m having trouble trying to balance the brakes. It keeps wanting to swap ends.” He still managed fifth quickest but the new car will have to be considered ‘work in progress’ for the moment. Bruce McCombie managed to stall it on the start line, but was still sixth quickest, and still holding third place, only 4 seconds behind Faulkner.

SS4, Highland Appliance Services Scotsburn, 6.04 mls
1, Gallacher/Nicol, 6m 03s
2, McCombie/Coutts, 6m 08s
3= Armstrong/Swinscoe, 6m 09s
3= MacDonald/Falconer, 6m 09s
5, Faulkner/Foy, 6m 11s
6, Barry Groundwater/Sean Donnelly, 6m 12s

McCombie then put more pressure on the top two in his Lancer Evo9. He set a faster time in Scotsburn by a second from Armstrong who tied with Donnie MacDonald after a run which promoted Donnie to fourth and into possible contention for a podium finish. Faulkner was fifth quickest: “We had a trip across the heather in fifth gear in that one, and we lost a wee bit of confidence after that,” but lost out to Armstrong by only 2 seconds, so he was still within reach of the top step and the champagne.

” I was nearly off too, where Mike had his moment,” said Armstrong, “we’ve cracked the exhaust but we don’t think it will be a problem.”

Barry Groundwater rounded off the top six fastest times, but the fastest driver in this test was Gallacher. Having put fresh tyres on the Fiesta, the wee car was able to show its potential: “It’s got a shorter wheelbase than the Lancer,” said Andrew, “which makes it a wee bit more twitchy.”

SS5, John M Munro Scotch Beef Raven Rock, 10.63 mls
1, Armstrong/Swinscoe, 11m 10s
2, McCombie/Coutts, 11m 17s
3= Faulkner/Foy, 11m 31s
3= MacDonald/Falconer, 11m 31s
5= Gallacher/Nicol, 11m 33s
5= McCulloch/Hendry, 11m 33s

Going into the final stage, 9 seconds covered the top three and ahead lay 10.6 miles of Raven Rock with a gravel start, snowy middle and more gravel at the end.

Mindful of Faulkner’s bonzer charge through Strath Rory, Armstrong wasn’t about to be caught napping again, with McCombie thinking: “I could benefit here if the other two take themselves out of it.”

That was not to be. Armstrong blitzed the test 7 seconds quicker than McCombie with Faulkner a further 14 seconds adrift: “A front tyre punctured with over a mile to go,” said Mike, “I’m not aware we hit anything, but the tyre went down,” and added grinning, “we were using all the road at the time though!”

MacDonald finished with a flourish equalling Faulkner’s time with Gallacher and McCulloch sharing fifth fastest times in the stage.

Needless to say McCombie was delighted with his best ever finish on a rally, and Faulkner was first to shake his hand at the finish, but MacDonald was equally delighted. After a disastrous season last year a fourth overall finish was just the start he needed to a new season.

Barry Groundwater finished fifth after losing too much ground on the first two ahead of Mark McCulloch who was grinning from ear to ear: “The Mitsubishi is much better than my Subaru,” and promised, “there’s more to come!”

Shaun Sinclair scored a fighting seventh and considering this was his first forest event for 17 months he will be a driver to watch as the season unfolds. In eighth place was Andrew Gallacher, but a two minute penalty booking into Service a minute early cost him fifth place overall, but still he can be encouraged by the pace and potential of his new car.

John Rintoul and Reay MacKay rounded off the top ten with Malcolm Buchanan claiming the top 2WD award in 14th place in his Mk2 despite doing the last 5 miles of the final test with a bent prop shaft.

Carl Tuer was top 1600 runner in his MG with the Corsa of Alex Curran second in class. Scott MacBeth crashed out in the first stage while both Greg McKnight and Angus Lawrie failed to finish. Thomas Gray was top 1400 runner in his Toyota Yaris when Ryan Weston’s Proton beached itself on a snow covered bank.

Naturally, Jock was delighted with his victory: “This is one of my favourite events,” he said, “The Snowman was the first Scottish Championship rally I did 25 years ago, and I just love coming here regardless of the weather”.

As for the 2015 title race, given the close competition on the Snowman, this could be a vintage year.

2015 ARR Craib Scottish Rally Championship
Round 1 (of 8) – Arnold Clark Thistle Snowman Rally, Saturday 21 February
1, Jock Armstrong/Paula Swinscoe (Subaru Impreza) 43m 59s
2, Bruce McCombie/Michael Coutts (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) +0:16
3, Mike Faulkner/Peter Foy (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) +0:29
4, Donnie MacDonald/Andrew Falconer (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) +0:52
5, Barry Groundwater/Sean Donnelly (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) +1:07
6, Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) +1:24
7, Shaun Sinclair/Chris Hamill (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8) +1:47
8, Andrew Gallacher/Jane Nicol (Ford Fiesta) +2:57
9, John Rintoul/Ross Hynd (Hyundai Accent WRC) +3:42
10, Reay MacKay/Robert Macdonald (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6) +3:51


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