Aquarius 2014 Review

Glenrothes MSCGlenrothes Motor Sport Club played host to the opening round of the 2014 Scottish Navigational Rally Championship on Saturday 1st Feb, with 100 miles of Perth & Kinross lanes on Map 58 to kick off the season. Unfortunately it would be a quieter start to the year than expected, with a disappointing entry of just 5 crews lining up for scrutineering at Kinross Services. Some consideration was given to calling off the event, but the organisers pressed on regardless, aiming to put on a good show for those that had given the event their support, and to build on momentum and attract a larger entry for 2015.

As was the case with Neil Jones on this event last year, the reigning Scottish Champion Expert Driver would take a step down in class for this event – 2nd on this event (and her rally debut) last year, Sally Skinner had exchanged Ewan Leeming for current Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club Captain Stephen Walls, who would be aiming to build on his experience. Gone also was her trusty Nissan Micra, replaced by a Peugeot 106 – resplendent with paw-print stickers (very apt for a student vet!) – receiving its maiden outing, albeit very much a shakedown.

The Car 1 slot that Skinner had occupied 12 months prior would this year be taken up by the Vauxhall Corsa of Drew Barker and Stuart Waite – Barker looking “to get his eye in” ahead of the North West Stages in Blackpool the following weekend, and Waite making a return to the hot seat for the first time in 12 years!

They would be joined in the lanes by 2013 Hairst winner Harry Merry in his Ford Fiesta, partnered for the first time by local prodigy Craig Horsburgh, the Skoda Fabia of Richard Stewart – an experienced stage campaigner making his debut in the lanes – alongside Niall Thomson, and a last-minute entry from Jonathan Stepney’s Vauxhall Corsa, with Junior 1000 driver Brodie Balfour making his debut on the maps, looking to get a feel for what things are like in the “other seat”!

Heavy rain during signing on proved ominous, but mercifully – bar a few slippy miles up the Dunning Glen – the forecasted snow and/or freezing conditions failed to materialise. Even the rain would ease after the opening few miles, giving way a surprisingly dry and pleasant evening.

After a short 2-mile run-out down the A977, the competition opened in earnest, with a regularity section around Coldrain and Drum. The recent implementation of 40mph “cyclist and pedestrian friendly roads” in this area stymies more “spirited” motoring, but still provides a good canvas for regularity, with competitors reaching for their speed tables, and with it a useful tie-break dropper. Most accurate over this section were Skinner & Walls – with Walls putting in an excellent performance on his first ever regularity section – dropping just 7 seconds.

Free of the only regularity section of the evening, the pace could begin in earnest – beginning with a blast north up the B934 through Dunning Glen. Barker/Waite would drop 2 minutes on the first part, with Waite later admitting to being a bit a rusty during the early going… clearly at this stage just settling in and blowing the cobwebs away! A simple 4-mile section without junctions wouldn’t prove overly taxing on the navigators, but the twisty nature of the road, combined with a +120-metre descent and some snow underfoot, meant that it was anything but an easy task for the drivers, with both Clubman crews dropping a minute apiece.

After the only neutral section of the evening to guide the crews through the narrow confines of Dunning village – though not without its perils, as Balfour’s inexperience showed… collecting 30 minutes penalty for early arrival at the neutral control! – the route turned North-West into relatively unfamiliar territory for Glenrothes MSC… Under the A9, over the River Earn, and into the land of 55 Car Club (Perth). With 55 having been somewhat inactive, this would be the first appearance of rally cars in this area for many a year.

It started somewhat with a stutter, with a marshal getting lost en route to his post at TC7 resulting in a 15-minute delay, and then an unmanned control at TC8. However, Skinner & Walls would sadly get to sample little of these cracking roads, as Walls, suffering from a bout of “mal de nav”, failed to spot they had taken a wrong slot just after Kinkell Bridge, eventually travelling 3 miles and stumbling across TC11, at which point they decided to call it a night.

The route reached its North-Westernmost extremity at TC9, where Stewart/Thomson and Stepney/Balfour would drop a minute apiece. There then followed provided one of the biggest droppers of the night – numerous junctions around St David’s & Madderty, the fabulously twisty road from Dubheads to Trinity Gask, and time-consuming map reference navigation (avoid map refs for the Experts and Non-Experts), would provide a stern challenge for all the crews. Stewart/Thomson would impress to go fastest over this section, dropping just a single minute, ahead of Stepney/Balfour on 2, Merry/Horsburgh on 3, and the sole Experts Barker/Waite on 4. At the card collect at TC11, sole Experts Barker/Waite held the lead, with 1:10 separating the Non-Experts of Stewart/Thomson and Merry/Horsburgh.

A fast blast through along the roman road yellow to Findo Gask, tricky downhill esses through Lawrencefield, staggered crossroads over the A9, and under the railway bridge, and crews were again faced with another dropper. The “adding map references” navigation wasn’t overly taxing, but combined with the twisty roads and numerous junctions near Forteviot and Forgadenny (including a tasty slot hairpin right just west of Forgadenny), meant Stepney/Balfour impressed to be the only crew clean, with Barker/Waite and Stewart/Thomson both emerging on 3 minutes, Merry/Horsburgh on 4.

There then followed one of the classic sections on this map, and one of the favourites from last year’s event – the Path of Condie, a stretch of twisting tarmac draped over the Ochil Hills. This year the route would split straight on after the hairpins at Pathstruie, heading South-East past the Perthshire Off Road Driving Centre. Not a special test this year… maybe some other time! The Path added to its fearsome reputation, sadly adding Merry/Horsburgh to its list of victims down the years, as an unlucky hit on some potholes resulted in two buckled wheels, the resulting pair of slow punctures resulting in a DNF a few miles further down the road. Others were far from having it their own way either – after a quick jink through the easy-to-miss slot at Hilton of Duncrievie, and staggered crossroads through Duncrievie village itself, even a fast run down the B996 could not prevent Barker/Waite and Stewart/Thomson from dropping 2 and 5 minutes apiece, nor Stepney/Balfour from missing the control entirely. Indeed it would be here that the latter’s impressive Novice performance began to unravel so close to the finish, deciding to cut two controls en route to the finish, but nonetheless a very stout showing from the pair. A quick transport section down the M90 would allow the remaining crews to catch back some lateness and alleviate any concerns about going OTL, before tackling the final three sections. Barker/Waite and Stewart/Thomson both finished on a flourish, remaining clean through the lanes around Tillochie, Carnbo, Dalqueich and to the north of Milnathort, before a final blast down the side of Loch Level to the finish control.

A short journey through Kinross to a well-earned coffee and biscuits courtesy of Costa Coffee back at the Services, and after a short results period, Barker/Waite were declared the overall winners, with Stewart/Thomson and Stepney/Balfour claiming the Non-Expert and Clubman class wins respectively, both proving that “to finish first, first you must finish”.

Thanks go to the marshals for braving the weather, particularly for such a small entry, and to the competitors themselves for supporting the event. The Aquarius will return in 2015, likely around the same time of year, but provisionally with reduced mileage in Perth & Kinross, instead venturing back onto Glenrothes’ home territory of Fife on Map 59. Before then, the next round of the 2014 Scottish Navigational Rally Championship will be the Nuit Blanche on the 1st of March, where Edinburgh University Motor Sport Club promise to provide a thrilling route around the epic maze of lanes in East Lothian on Map 66. Don’t miss it!

Richard Crozier – Clarke of the Course