The curtain raiser to the rally reason, once again took place on the shores of Blackpool in February of 2011, and the 103 entrants were greeted by less than pleasant weather conditions.
The event started on Friday night, with scrutineering taking place earlier in the day, something i always like to attend to, but other commitments and the dreaded M60 dictated otherwise. Even when i arrived, later than planned, the camera stayed tucked away firmly in it's bag.
Wind speeds gusting up to 70mph made standing nearly impossible on the Blackpool promenade, and the sand storm created by it was enough to keep my lens tucked away thankyou very much. It was a spectacle for the (sandy) eyes though. Seeing rally cars fighting against the weather conditions and swirls of sand lit up by the headlights.
The North West Stages had already laid down the law, and it was going to run according to it's own drum beat.
Once the cars had completed the opening 4 stages around Weeton and North Promenade, they entered Par Ferme over night, in the grounds of Norbreck Castle. The tinsel chandeliers made an interesting backdrop for the cars now covered in sand and dirt.
As well as the competitors there were also demonstration runs by ex-Group B spec rally cars, including this Ferrari 308 GTS (above) as well as the ex-Hannu Mikkola Audi Quattro (below) Both made pleasant noises, and the Ferrari in particular was exciting to control on cut slicks in the wet conditions Saturday morning had thrown at them.
Saturday morning. The wind had died down, but had been replaced by rain. The first spectator stages were in Fleetwood, on the Marina, so that's where i headed. The weather wasn't stopping me today.
It's not often you see a 1000cc Nissan Micra with number 1 slapped on the door, but that's waht reigning North West Stages winner Darren Doherty turned up in to defend his crown. Needless to say he didn't retain it. His new Impreza was still being built in preparation for the ANCC Tarmac Championship. It was still a great sight though, watching Doherty hustle the little car round the stages. He retired shortly after this shot due to water in the engine, a problem that would strike down many cars be the end of the event.
That left last years long time leader (before crashing into retirement) Kevin Procter as favourite. He wasn't going to have it easy though. Only only the 3rd stage he half spun and stalled, loosing vital seconds, but managed to maintain an over night lead. Now all he had to do was keep it.
2009 winner Tony Bardy returned to reclaim his crown from 2 years ago, once again in the now even more powerful and even bigger flame throwing Sunny GTiR. As ever Bardy started cautiously, taking time to feel the conditions and the balance of the car. He started Saturday in 3rd place over 40 seconds down.
Rob dick was also back in his nimble Darrian, and was once again out to beat the "big boys".
Steve Simpson, five times winner of the event, was also waiting on the completion of his new Impreza, an ex-Prodrive car, so he turned up in his trusty Accent WRC, now featuring a paint scheme not too dissimilar to Ken Blocks Gymkhana car. He seemed to struggle for the whole event. I think a mixture of the now outdated car, and the weather conditions may have had an effect.
Doherty may have turned up in a new car, but his old car, turned up with a new driver at the wheel. James Ford piloted the car extremely well and constantly improved throughout the rally, and earning himself a final standing of 5th overall. Proving the car is still quick and he himself has the talent to drive it.
A personal favourite of mine, making a return, is the bold as ever, flame throwing rotary powered Mk2 Escort. Old school looks and design combined with a Japanese classic power house makes for a great sight, and sounds incredible. Hopewell and Smith came home a credible 12th, third on the two wheel drive cars.
Rob Dick continued to push on throughout the day, challenging for the podium but constantly on the edge. The rain wasn't helping at all, and unfortunately had to retire after stating it "too dangerous to continue." (Not sure if that was the conditions, or more likely damage to the car)
In recognisable Tony Bardy style, he was going quicker and quicker, piling the pressure on Procter, until eventually Bardy's pace forced Procter in to a small mistake, and Bardy gained 24 seconds in one stage and with it the lead in the rally. Rain or not, this rally was just as fierce as ever.
Conor Corkill's immaculate Mk2 RS1800 was a giant killer, in and around the top 10 for the whole rally, quite impressive considering the conditions. He would eventually finish 7th overall and 1st in class.
More used to Evo power and 4 wheel drive Duncan Taylor turned up in a Mk2 Escort this year, and finished a well earned 13th.
Looking the wrong way mate! Mark Rowland gets his Escort Mk2 extremely sideways whilst the Motors TV camera man (who's getting paid for this) films in totally the wrong direction.
Some of the stages are looped, so the spectators get to see every car twice in one running of the stage. What it also means is that some of the quicker cars on their second loop catch the cars on their first. It makes for some exciting action and in some cases looks more like circuit racing or rally cross.
Tony Bardy had taken the lead with only 8 stages remaining and immediately stretched the gap to 8 seconds. With 3 stages to go, Bardy continued to extend the lead to just over 10 but with 2 stages left, Procter emerged as leader by only 1 second and with one stage remaining had the lead up to 17 seconds. He had to have victory now. And he did... just. Bardy had a storming last stage, but it wasn't enough. The final gap was just 1 second, the closest finish Blackpool's North West Stages has seen, as far as i know.
1. Kevin Procter Subaru Impreza WRC 1h, 40m, 48s
2. Tony Bardy Nissan Sunny GTiR 1h, 40m, 49s
3. Steve Simpson Hyundai Accent WRC 1h, 43m, 56s.
Roll on next year. And I hope to try and get to some more events this year too.
(And hopefully have my colour balancing eyes in... Just noticed some weird colour edits in there. Apologies)