Gropers 2018 Review

For 2018, Stonehaven & District Motor Club’s Gropers Rally returned to its traditional mid-March date, forming the second round of the Scottish Navigational Rally Championship, and the last before the “summer break”. From 5pm on Saturday 17th, competitors and marshals began to descend upon the “rally hub” of North East Scotland, Brian Watson’s Coneyhatch Farm, just north of Stonehaven, ahead of a night of 100 miles of the tortuous lanes of South Aberdeenshire. The event’s traditional test of epic lanes and challenging navigation, would this year be made even tougher by the arrival of the “Mini Beast From The East” snowstorm – just in time to provide the lanes with a 1-2″ dusting of powder, to make the going extra slippery! Clerk of the Course Duncan Cameron’s attestation at the competitor briefing that the route was “clear of snow”, though perhaps accurate on the morning of final route survey, would prove to be somewhat inaccurate during the night that lay ahead…

SDMC had done well to assemble one of their stronger fields for a number of years, with 14 crews taking the start, representative of the recent upswing in night entry events across Scotland, which looks set to continue. With defending winning driver Charlie Brown absent, and his navigator Gordon Reid on marshalling duties, it fell to ’15/’16 winners Michael Cruickshank/Richard Crozier to lead the field away at 19.01, using their third vehicle in three attempts – a Suzuki Ignis replacing their previous BMW 1 Series and Mazda MX-5. At 2 were Craig Wallace/Niall Thomson, keen to continue their recent form after a strong showing and 2nd place – behind Gropers organisers Dave MacKintosh & Duncan Cameron – on the opening round of the Aquarius. The Fiesta of Central Scotland based crew Harry Merry/Graham Couser, and the more northernly Colin Christie/Dan Forsyth in another Ignis, completed the four Expert crews who would contest overall victory. The Skoda Fabia of Alan Patterson/Bob Shearer led away the three Non-Expert crews – Bob returning to the “silly seat” despite previous protestations that he had competed on his last night rally! – while the seven-strong Novice section was headed by the largest vehicle in the field, the Mercedes ML of Dave McLoughlin/Emma Steeley.

Straight out of the start, a short 2 miler got the action underway with a bang. Mercifully straightforward navigation, simply heading west across three gridlines, took competitors along the Glithno-Newbigging road to the control, with all of the Experts and Non-Experts clean, but claiming 1 or 2 minutes from the later Novice runners.

Section 2 was a longer afair, a 7.5 miler, with the Expert navigation consisting of map feature navigation. The previously advised “all competitive” route helped make it fairly self evident to turn T-junction right onto the A957 “Slug Road”, rather than turn left towards Stonehaven and run through the outskirts of the town, as had been the case in ’16. However, the route then bypassed the highly tempting and “nadgery” Swanley Road section, to run further northwest up the Slug, past the entrance to the Durris special stage of Granite City and latterly Grampian Rally fame, to the control at Funach, manned by Grampian Rally Manager Andrew Ritchie. This is where we would see the first signs of time being claimed from the more experienced crews, with Experts Merry/Couser dropping 1 minute, Non-Ex’s Patterson/Shearer 2, and the Toyota Celica of Novices Angie Adams/Rod Manson 3. Meanwhile experienced stage rallyists – but newcomers to road rallying – Ewan Stanhope/Greg Inglis in their Vauxhall Corsa, would be the first of many through the evening to accrue a “fail”, missing the route check past Durris Forest.

Section 3 would see the first real sting of the event – a 12.5 miler, with a “coloured roads only” 20-bone circular herringbone for the Experts. The route wound its way around roads little used by the event in recent years, around Durris and to the south-east of Banchory, with two double-use crossroads to provide maximum road utilisation, and also extra challenge to the herringbone. Of the Experts, Wallace/Thomson were first to seize the initiative, turning left at the first crossroads, with Merry/Couser and Cruickshank/Crozier setting off in pursuit. However, hesitation from Merry/Couser would see their competitors sweep past as the crews rejoined the Slug Road, and then their event begin to unravel shortly after – struggling with the handout, they were forced to cut-and-run to the next given reference of TC4, missing two route checks and TC3, incurring an hour of penalties. Meanwhile, having encountered the first snow of the evening and resulting in a few “moments” on their summer Bridgestone tyres, Cruickshank/Crozier surged past a nervously waiting Wallace/Thomson and into the control – manned by BRC co-driver Tom Hynd, situated all of a few hundred metres round the corner from the section start control, after 12.5 miles! – on their minute, just clean. Christie/Forsyth dropped 7 here, while behind, the Non-Experts all stayed clean. Greater damage was done in the Novices, with 4 of the 7 crews fail free and only 2 of those clean, enabling the BMW 318ti of Ayrshire crew Andrew & Sam Hunter to establish a 1 minute lead over the Ford Fiesta of Duncan Menzies/Bob Stubbs, with McLoughlin/Steeley in 3rd having dropped 9 here.

Having regained their composure, an 8 miler took crews east via Kirkton of Durris and the twisty lanes of Ashentilly and Bogfond, to the next control given to all competitors, TC4 at Standingstones near Maryculter. A number addition handout for the Experts, consisting of mostly spotheights but also the B”9077″, threw Wallace/Thomson, forcing them to guess the route, but miraculously correctly, dropping only 1 minute! Cruickshank/Crozier were clean here and so established a slim lead, but it was soon to be undone – the opening car of Andy Tong was seen parked up at the control, having blown a turbo, leading to a 15 minute “regroup” to allow the hastily borrowed opener of the marshals’ car to get ahead of the chasing pack, and all time penalties at the control being scrubbed. This leading Crozier to remark to Tong “perhaps your 205 [usually pressed into action to Gropers opening car duties] would have been more reliable” – perhaps the only time this sentence has ever been said! With time penalties scrubbed, the route itself posed no issues to the Experts and Non-Ex’s, but in the Novices the 4 crews to miss route checks on the preceding section also did likewise here, dropping the check on the Ashentilly road, further extending the advantage of the top 3.

Regroup complete, Section 5 was a 7 miler which took crews south east, via the maze of lanes between the B979 “Netherley Road” and the A90 dual carriageway west of Portlethen & Newtonhill, and including a decidedly “not as map” crossing of the infamous Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR). According to the current February 2016 edition of the map, this was “Due to open Late 2017”, but now supposedly delayed until this summer – the people of North East Scotland have been waiting 25+ years for this road, so a few more months likely won’t make much odds! For the Experts, a non-explicit “via” cycle path green dots, and “avoid” various spotheights, failed to cause the carnage it had on this section in ’15 – when Cruickshank/Crozier ended up 8 miles west of where they were meant to be! – with all Experts and Non-Experts cleaning the section, and just two dropped route checks and a single minute dropped among the Novices. Significantly, with the skies having been relatively calm up to this point, just prior to arrival of the first competitors at TC5 to the west of Newtonhill, the heavens began to open and a healthy dose of snow dumped upon the lanes – a sign of things to come…

Section 6 was an 11 miler, joining the A90 at Newtownhill down the A90, before nipping off to perform a lap of the lanes around around Muchalls Castle and perhaps the bumpiest/”potholiest” road of the night past Meadowfield, rejoing the A90 at the the “Muchalls Bends”, before proceeding south around Stonehaven, frustratingly via AWPR-induced 50mph average cameras and contraflow aplenty, to the control at Dunnottar Castle, where “Granite 1” former Granite City Rally clerk Gerry Potter lay in wait to collect the first of two timecards. The Expert navigation consisted of tricky drawing and crossing lines between numerous electronic masts, this section claiming 5 minutes from Merry/Couser and 13 from Christie/Forsyth, but all 4 crews being fail free. Again all the Non-Ex’s were all clean, while among the Novices there were 3 crews dropped the route check on the Muchalls loop, and 2 minutes dropped for the Fiesta Van of Cameron & Connor Black.

So at the halfway stage, the top 3 in each class was:-

=1st – Michael Cruickshank & Richard Crozier, Suzuki Ignis Sport – 0:00.00
=1st – Craig Wallace & Niall Thomson, Toyota Corolla G6R – 0:00.00
3rd – Colin Christie & Dan Forsyth, Suzuki Ignis Sport – 0:20.00

=1st – Gary Ross & Alan Ross, Citroen C2 – 0:00.00
=1st – Fraser Hughes & Peter MacInnes, Mazda MX-5 – 0:00.00
3rd – Alan Patterson & Bob Shearer, Skoda Fabia VRS – 0:02.00

1st – Andrew Hunter & Sam Hunter, BMW 318ti – 0:00.00
2nd – Duncan Menzies & Bob Stubbs, Ford Fiesta – 0:01.00
3rd – Dave McLoughlin & Emma Steeley, Mercedes ML – 0:09.00

With fairly low penalties among the more experienced competitors so far, no sooner had the second half of the event got underway, than this was all to change. Section 7 was a 12.5 miler of some of the most snow-bound lanes of the event so far, featuring a descent down the infamous and fabulous switchback hairpins of Tewel Ford, along the “Auchenblae Road”, and back south-east via the “Long Cairn” (though not using the white this year) to the control at Temple of Fiddes. For the Experts, the handout consisted of a 0-9 decode making use of a Duncan Cameron favourite “Corsebauld”, and broken-up spotheights. But with all four Expert crews failing to successfully translate “5CS” to the “A92” required to establish the sequence, they remained sat at Dunnottar, stumped. Thus this section was to see the deployment of the first “tow” of the evening – the Experts following in the tracks of the Non-Ex’s and Novices and their simpler navigation. Hughes/MacInnes would lead the way, before some hesitation from them at Goosecruives saw the Ross twins seize the initiative, to lead the chasing pack – 4 or 5 cars arriving at the control in quick succession, making for a busy time for marshals Andrew Ritchie & co! Every single crew dropped time here, with Hughes/MacInnes and Adams/Manson joint best on 2 minutes, while crucially at the front Wallace/Thomson dropped 6 to Cruickshank/Crozier’s 9, to establish a 3 minute lead in the overall standings. Impressively despite the dropped time, all the Non-Ex’s and Novices found all four route checks on this section, but in the Experts Christie/Forsyth dropped one check, while Merry/Couser endured a nighmare section, having to cut and run and missing all four checks and the control, accruing 90 minutes of penalties in the process.

Allowing crews no time to rest or recover, the hot pace continued, with a 5 miler around the Lumgair area to the south of Stonehaven, and an “all roads” disjointed herringbone for the Experts keeping the pressure on. Cruickshank/Crozier began to make amends here, seizing the initiative and setting off first onto the A90 northbound to reclaim first on the road. They, Wallace/Thomson and the Hunters were the only 3 crews to clean the section, with most dropping 1 to 7 minutes, and crucially in the Non-Ex’s Hughes/MacInnes accruing a wrong approach – the first fail in the class of night, in what was an impressive showing for all three crews.

Again with no time to rest, a short 2 miler to TC9 followed, taking crews across the staggered crossroads at Mill of Uras to the control north of Catterline, with a “verbose” handout (a long list of 31 grid line crossings just to reach a “terminus”) for the Experts designed to cost them time. Cruickshank/Crozier found a short way of doing it, plotting just the final 3 grid line crossings, while Wallace/Thomson painstakingly plotted the instruction in its entirety, dropping 2 minutes while their rivals cleaned, thus closing the gap at the head of the standings back to just 1 minute. Hughes/MacInnes started to make amends for their previous indiscretion, cleaning the section while the Ross’s dropped 1 and Patterson/Shearer 2, while a simpler handout for the Novices saw all but two crews clean the section.

Section 10 would prove to be a decisive one – a 9 miler around the fabulous maze of lanes around Catterline and Kinneff. For the Experts, an “ignore gated roads” map features handout would see them aim to plot a route including triangulation points, the sample grid ref, green dots and unfenced roads. Again the Semi-Experts would lead the way, with the Hunters and Ross’s leading the charge.
Wallace/Thomson would commit to the tow, with Cruickshank/Crozier initially doing likewise, before having second thoughts – exploring the Kinneff School loop in what would turn out to be the wrong direction, hesitating at the rejoin of the A92, and also unnecessarily exploring the layby at Roadside of Catterline (having been lulled into doing so by the IGR “white” nature of the handout) – all of which saw them drop 6 minutes to Wallace/Thomson’s 3, which would prove crucial come the finish. Again all the Non-Ex’s cleaned the section, with the Hunters and Menzies/Stobbs the only crews to do so among the Novices, while newcomers Stanhope/Inglis began to adopt a strategy of cutting route to secure a finish, dropping just over an hour in penalties here.

The final two sections would see the crews on a final push south west towards the finish in Fordoun. Section 11, an 8 miler, for the Experts saw a three-part handout – a grid square “maze” which required rotating by 180 degrees to take crews west through Barras, a single “road colours” instruction upon rejoining the A90 southbound, and a “nonsense”/”noise” list via map features of a pub and the “om” of Broombank taking crews in a loop into Drumlithie, before the push to the control at Fordoun Airfield. Again Cruickshank/Crozier made amends for their poor performance on the previous section, being first to suss the “maze”, to reclaim first on the road. Crucially, there was also an instruction to avoid passing within 150m of a graticule intersection, thus forcing crews to slot into the layby at Fiddes Bridge, just after the service station – Wallace/Thomson had failed to suss this, and it was only through closely following Cruickshank/Crozier – who themselves were busy having a bit of a “moment” in hauling on the anchors to make the slot in time! – that both crews successfully picked up the route check. Cruickshank/Crozier hesitated just before the control, waiting at the entrance of the white just off the B966, checking if there was an instruction in amongst the “nonsense”/”noise” to take it (there wasn’t), allowing Wallace/Thomson and the Hunters ahead into the control, but with all three still cleaning the section. Elsewhere, Merry/Couser and the majority of the Novices had begun to follow Stanhope/Inglis’ approach of cutting to the finish, while Christie/Forsyth dropped the route check in the layby. The Non-Ex’s were all fail
free, but with all three crews dropping time – Patterson/Shearer on 2, the Ross’s on 3, and Hughes/MacInnes on 6 – this narrowing the gap for the class to 3 minutes, with the Ross’s on a total of 8 and Patterson/Shearer on 11, setting up a tense final section shootout.

That final section would be very much a sting in the tail – a 16 mile monster of Duncan’s local lanes around Fordoun and the Howe of the Mearns, with time consuming navigation, which for the Experts meant a long list of map features and avoids, with a spot height total for confirmation. Cruickshank/Crozier were first to commit to the route, but it would start with some ambiguity – committing to the exceptionally difficult-to-see white under the railway bridge at Balfeith, with Wallace/Thomson following them, but when no route check was found, the latter would double back to check the route via the lower end of Fordon village, to no avail. This allowed Cruickshank/Crozier to break free, being the only crew to complete the section both fail free and clean, on a route that looped around clockwise to include the white as-map triangle at Bridge of Kair, Jack’s Corse, Erskine’s Knap, crossing the A90 and railway bridge before tackling the “Belgian-style” flat, ditch-lined farming lanes around Westerton, Pittarow and Auchenzeoch en route to the final control at the entrance to Fordoun village. Drops of between 1 and 12 minutes were accrued here, with most of the Novices continuing to cut-and-run, but fate was to be cruellest to Colin Wallace/Neil Campbell in their Toyota Starlet – their night ending in a ditch, less than a mile from the final control! Mercifully they would manage to get dug out shortly after, with little damaged other than pride.

Cruickshank/Crozier had clawed 2 minutes out of Wallace/Thomson’s lead, but it wasn’t enough – the “Team Toyota Saltire” crew claiming an emphatic first win on the event by just 2 minutes, with both crews happy to make it home fail free after a challenging event. Christie/Forsyth came home two hours in arrears after a fraught night, and will be already be looking forward to the next event of the Autumn, where they will look to repeat their 2017 victory, while Merry/Couser were relieved to record a finish after a tough night where Graham admitted at the finish he “just couldn’t get into Duncan’s head” with the navigation.

Meanwhile, the final section shootout had dramatically turned the Non-Expert class on its head – with Hughes/MacInnes the only crew of the three to get the route check on the Bridge of Kair triangle, and also taking 1 minute out of the Ross’s come the end of the section, they had miraculously managed to overturn their early wrong approach indiscretion, to claim the class win by just a single minute from the Ross twins, with just 3 minutes separating the three crews after an epic duel.

The Novices had seen a dominant performance from the Hunters – debuting their beautifully-prepared BMW 318ti after an impressive 4th overall on the Aquarius in a SEAT Ibiza, they had taken the class by over an hour, and with the lowest overall penalties of the night on just 5 minutes dropped. Menzies/Stubbs recorded a performance much-improved on their recent outings to net 2nd, with reigning Scottish Novice Champion Steeley bagging some solid points to aid her title defence, guiding McLoughlin to 3rd.

Crews rounded the corner and descended into the welcome warmth of the Fordoun’s Redhall Arm, and the sight of a full spread of soup and sandwiches, allowing navigators’ frazzled brains to cool down, and drivers’ jangling nerves to settle, after an epic night of threading the needle over challenging snowbound lanes. During the wait for totting up of results, the 2017 Scottish Navigational Rally Championship awards were presented, with new trophies kindly procured by Dave MacKintosh and the Scottish Association of Car Clubs, replacing the outdated ESACC East of Scotland awards. And so it was revealled that Wallace/Thomson had claimed the Gropers Shield, which will be presented at the SDMC Awards in early 2019. A massive thanks to the marshals – who stood out for several hours in 0 degree temperatures and occasional blowing snow, to enable what was a fantastic night’s sport.

And so begins the Scottish Navigational Rally Championship’s “summer break” – somewhat lengthy this year, but this just means that crews will be all the more champing at the bit upon release of regs and entries for Highland Car Club’s Autumn Rally, due to take place on 25th/26th August. If what played out in the lanes of South Aberdeenshire on Saturday night is anything to go by, the second.

Richard Crozier, Navigator – Car 1 – Suzuki Ignis Sport – 2nd Overall