08 Mar: Binnie Wins Snowman

… Coogie Urquhart Snowman Rally, 07 Mar, 2020 …

On his 32nd rally start, Michael Binnie scored a long overdue first outright rally victory on the weekend’s Coogie Urquhart Snowman Rally. Emotional? He could have driven the car past faither Binnie’s eyes and it would have been pressure washed cleaner with tears than any foam rinse and lather job.

And he wasn’t the only one. It was emotional too for co-driver Claire Mole. Despite having co-driven for rally stars such as Gwyndaf Evans, Mats Andersson and Mark Higgins right across the globe on four different continents, this was only her 5th outright rally victory in a career spanning umpteen years – which means she must have started when she was still at school! Gallant as ever me, eh?

At the finish, the opposition was left to ponder what might have been. Did they miscalculate or did they underestimate? Whatever, the signs were there right from the start.

Weather conditions can often play a pivotal part in Scottish rallying, and despite running a month later than usual, the Snowman lived up to its name. There wasn’t a lot of snow, but the first two stages had patches which ranged ranged from ice, to slush, to hard packed snow, to stretches which stayed white throughout the day. Every corner hid a new danger. Bill Sturrock’s pre-rally Driver’s Briefing was pretty accurate, which helped, otherwise even fewer than 60 of the 93 starting crews might have finished the rally.

The first test south west of Inverness at Lochletter 1 was the most treacherous of the day with the first few cars clearing the way, the next lot turning it to slush or polished hard packed snow, and the later runners churning it into muddy slushy glaur, and yet between those stretches there was grip and speed to be had. Guaranteed to throw up a few timing surprises.

And so it proved. Jock Armstrong was first into the stage but not before he had a last minute panic. A tyre went soft as he left the start and with no spare on board he had to rush back to service to get it changed. His rivals saw him heading the wrong way and thought he was playing a hide and seek game so they queued up at the stage start reluctant to go in first. By that time the orange Subaru had returned with four fully inflated tyres and in it went, followed by the number 2 seed Donnie MacDonald.

“The organisers were good enough to give me the number two,” said Donnie, “so it would have been churlish not to go in second regardless of what conditions would be like.”

Armstrong was first to find out. “There was a clean line most of the way through,” said Jock, “but the Course Cars were not taking the ‘rally line’ so I just had to chance cutting the corners and carrying the speed. It didn’t work all the time. Hitting the snow and slush caused the car to understeer and push on and you could just feel time slipping away.” He was 4th fastest while Donnie was 6th fastest and the number 3 seed, Milne was 5th fastest.

It was the number 6 seed who set the fastest time. Bruce McCombie beat the number 8 seed Scott Beattie by one second with Michael Binnie a further 2 second back, although 4 seconds quicker than Armstrong. John Wink was 7th quickest in the Hyundai ahead of the number 27 seed, the Subaru of Ian Forgan and the number 23 seed, Alasdair Graham in the Lancer. Keith Morris rounded of the top ten in his new Lancer, but the 2 litre rear wheel drive Fiesta of Steven Wood was a stunning 11th quickest. Equally impressive was the Mk2 of Keir Beaton and the Fiesta ST of Bobby Mitchell who were all inside the top 15 fastest times. Mark McCulloch wasn’t. He limped out with a puncture on his Mk2.

Worse befell Bob Adamson whose Fiesta R5 encountered a large rock on the inside of a long left hander which took out the front n/s wheel and broke a steering arm.

There was little time to lick wounds and polish up personal pride as the crews headed towards the second test at Boblainy. It was still slippery and treacherous in places but some sort of expected order was restored. Armstrong was quickest 2 seconds from MacDonald with McCombie third quickest, some 3 seconds adrift, but Binnie equalled his time!

The top six was completed by Wink and Milne but Scott Beattie was going no further. His impressive run was abruptly curtailed when the Lancer swapped ends on the ice and smacked the rear n/s quarter. Chris Collie also departed the fray when his Lancer developed a fault stranding him mid stage. Iain Wilson retired his Mk2 here as well: “It was my own fault,” he said, “I punctured a wheel and should have stopped to change it, but I tried to drive out on it and by the time I got to the finish, the brake disc had broken and the brake lines were burst.”

Service at Dingwall Mart followed and Milne’s rally almost ended here. After routine service the car was lowered off the stands and fired up. Only it didn’t. The engine churned and didn’t fire. A faulty fuel pump was diagnosed, and quickly replaced with Freddie just making the Out Control with seconds to spare.

Armstrong seized the rally lead in the third stage at Rogie, pulling 7 seconds clear of Binnie who had MacDonald, Milne, Wink and Morris behind. This time it was McCombie who lost out, the green Focus spinning and dropped over half a minute to the leaders. Simon Hay started badly with a slight off on the first stage but it was this third test that really did for his hopes: “I turned into a Left 8 on to a bridge, the car just cut-out and stopped dead in its tracks. Seven cars went past before it finally fired up and I could get back on the move.” Rogie also accounted for Paddy Munro when the alternator failed and left the Mk2 stuck in the stage.

A re-run of the first two tests took the crews back to the Ardendrain test, a slightly shorter version of the morning’s Boblainy where Armstrong responded to the Binnie threat by taking fastest time by 9 seconds from his Mitsubishi rival. Milne’s fightback was on course too, only a second down, but more crucially ahead of MacDonald Wink and a recovering McCombie.

As the crews headed towards the final test, a re-run of the first stage at Lochletter 2, Armstrong was leading by 17 seconds from Binnie, with MacDonald third and 10 seconds clear of Milne. Job done, eh?

Nope, not by a long chalk. Mindful of the day’s earlier start some folk opted for a cautious run through this unpredictable and treacherous 11 miler while others aimed for what they hoped was a sensible pace and a consolidating result.

Not so Binnie. He hit the after-burner and blasted off the start line. He rocketed through the test and nearly paid the price for his bold rashness: “I hit a huge bump in there which sent the car flying, and I thought to myself ‘don’t chuck it all away now’ – but I still didn’t lift!”

The result was a sensational 37 second quicker time than the rally leader. Binnie had beaten the Snowman. He wasn’t fastest through that last stage though. Freddie Milne was a second quicker, but: “I caught Bruce McCombie’s misfiring Focus and couldn’t get past. He was struggling. I thought that’s it, I’ve blown it, I’m tenth, and then when I get to the finish I find I’m third!”

Wink was third quickest through the final test ahead of MacDonald with Armstrong 5th ahead of Alan Dickson but Keith Morris failed to make the finish when the Lancer got its nose buried in a snowbank. The car had been misbehaving all day, needing high revs to get off the line and then not getting off cleanly with Keith suspecting a faulty ECU.

But what a turn around on the final stage of the day. Binnie won from Armstrong and Milne with MacDonald 4th, Wink 5th and McCombie just managing to hang on to 6th.

Alan Dickson had a smile on his face at the finish with 7th overall ahead of Ian Forgan and top 2WD runner Mark McCulloch getting back into the top ten, after his puncture, with John Morrison rounding off the top ten. Just outside the top ten was Keir Beaton in a superb 11th place in his Escort Mk2. He had been giving McCulloch a hard time all day and the pair were actually tied on identical times as they entered the final stage. Bobby Mitchell also posted a most satisfying finish with a superb 14th overall in his Fiesta ST, while an eye will need to be kept in future on Hugh Brunton who finished 18th overall on his third rally.

At the rally finish confusion and puzzlement were evident aplenty. Michael Binnie’s first words when the car rolled to a halt were: “I thought I drove sh*t* in there. I’m surprised to win, but I felt I was on it all day. When we saw the times at the end of the final stage neither Claire nor I could believe it. Claire’s husband John came over and double-checked them and said ‘You’ve f’n won it!”

Armstrong was philosophical: “If that’s the time, then that’s the time. I drove what I thought was real sensible” said Jock, “no risks, but it was there to be had.”

There were a few folk out there in wider rallying world who had written off the Scottish Championship before it started but the Coogie Urquhart Snowman had a strong entry and a very competitive field. It also produced a brand new rally winner and confounded the pundits.

And here’s a final thought. The joint opening round last month of the UK’s top two series also counted towards two other regional championship and 11 or so ‘cup’ competitions and mustered 101 entries, whereas the opening round of the KNC Groundworks Scottish Rally Championship also counted towards Highland CC’s own championship and generated an entry list of 93. Perhaps the Scottish championship isn’t quite so bad as others predicted. Speyside is next – bring it on, eh?

 1, Michael Binnie/Claire Mole (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo9) 45:33
 2, Jock Armstrong/Cameron Fair (Subaru Impreza) 45:53
 3, Freddie Milne/Patrick Walsh (Ford Fiesta R5) 45:56
 4, Donnie MacDonald/Andrew Falconer (Ford Fiesta R5) 46:07
 5, John Wink/Neil Shanks (Hyundai I20 R5) 46:21
 6, Bruce McCombie/Michael Coutts (Ford Focus WRC) 47:16
 7, Alan Dickson/Martin Forrest (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo9) 48:36
 8, Ian Forgan/Chris Lees (Subaru Impreza) 49:02
 9, Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry (Ford Escort Mk2) 49:55
 10, John Morrison/Peter Carstairs (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo9) 49:59
 11, Keir Beaton/Iain Thorburn (Ford Escort Mk2) 50:35
 12, Andy Horne/Daniel Forsyth (Subaru Impreza) 50:44
 13, John Rintoul/Ross Hynd (Ford Fiesta R5) 51:06
 14, Bobby Mitchell/Ewan Lees (Ford Fiesta ST) 51:17
 15, David Ross/Donnie Ross (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo5) 51:21
 16, Matthew Calderwood/Phil Sandham (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7) 51:21
 17, Steven Wood/Mary Wood (Ford Fiesta RWD) 51:30
 18, Hugh Brunton/Harry Marchbank (Ford Fiesta R5) 51:31
 19, Duncan Campbell/Michael Cruickshank (Subaru Impreza) 51:32
 20, Kevin Crawford/Andrew Stevenson (Mitsubishi Lancer EVO9) 52:10
Class winners:
 2, Donald John MacLeay/Ross MacRae (Ford Escort Mk1 Mexico)
 3, Keith Riddick/Mairi Riddick (MG ZR)
 5, Tom Coughtrie (Mitsubishi Galant VR4)
 6, Bobby Mitchell/ Ewan Lees (Ford Fiesta ST)
 7, Mark McCulloch/Michael Hendry (Ford Escort MK2)
 8, Keir Beaton/Iain Thorburn (Ford Escort Mk2)
 9, Michael Binnie/Claire Mole (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo9)
 10, Jock Armstrong/Cameron Fair (Subaru Impreza)
 11, Freddie Milne/Patrick Walsh (Ford Fiesta R5) 

Snowman - [Fastest Stage Times]
Snowman Classes - [2 - 8]
Snowman Classes - [9 - 11] 
Snow-balls - [Gossip]