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Written by Robin BradfordMotor sport fans across the Caribbean will turn their attention to Rally Trinidad 2014 this weekend, as the Trinidad & Tobago Rally Club’s (TTRC) premier event celebrates its 10th Anniversary, and kicks off regional and international competition for the new season.
Since being re-launched in its current format in 2004, Rally Trinidad, with its fast and flowing gravel stages, has traditionally been the first of the region’s annual ‘Big Three’; Rally Barbados follows in late May/early June, the tarmac interloper in the trio, before gravel suspension is re-fitted for Rally Jamaica in December.
Only one driver has won all three - Jamaica’s Jeff Panton has eight home wins since 1994, was the first winner from the wider Caribbean in Barbados in 1998, and ticked the final box in Trinidad in 2011
. After adding a second RT win last year, he set a new target, the top step of the podium in ‘Big Three’ in one year, something he narrowly missed by finishing second in Barbados in 2013 . . . but it is not to be; the engine of his Ford Focus WRC06 remains in the UK, extra work on the refresh pushing its return past a workable shipping date.
Jeffery Panton FOrd Focus WRC06
Four-time winner John Powell is another on the sidelines, with a broken collar bone, dislocated shoulder and bruised ribs suffered in a mountain bike accident, which will mean the first new winner since Ainsley Lochan in 2009 . . . and, assuming said winner would come from the WRC class, then the Barbados flag will fly for the first time since Paul Bourne won in 2008.
John Powell Ford Fiesta WRC will NOT be making it to T&T for RT14
Bourne, who also won back in 2004, returns this year, his Focus WRC07 shipped directly to Trinidad from its winter refresh in the UK; with a new preparation team and increased focus – pun intended – Bourne will be a man to watch, although make sure you have dark glasses to cope with his new livery.
Paul Bourne WRC Focus (Photo compliments: Chefette Speed Team)
Second last year, in his first competitive drive in the Suzuki SX4 WRC, was Neil Armstrong, a beacon among the rising stars of Bajan motor sport. Impressive on both gravel and tarmac, he will be revisiting an event for the first time in his short career in the unique SX4, so expect a real battle of wits between these two.
Neil Armstrong Suzuki SX-4 WRC
With less experience than the others, but with a great deal of commitment, Dean Serrao brings his Subaru Impreza WRC S9 to an event which has not been kind to him in the past; while the learning curve has been steep, a clean run should certainly see him fighting for a podium finish.
Among those he will be grappling with are fellow Bajan James Betts, winner of the TTRC’s Championship last year in his sturdy Mitsubishi Lancer Evo V, who leads a solid Group A entry. Locals David Coelho – he won last year’s final TTRC round in his Evo IX – Group N graduate Cristian Bourne (Evo VIII) and Colin Khan (Impreza) are likely to be at the sharp end battling for Group honours.
James Betts Evo VI
Of the Group N entry, Craig Sumair (Evo VI) drew first blood in ‘The Beginning’, opening round of this year’s TTRC Championship, but will face a larger and more competitive entry this weekend. Regular visitor from Barbados, former British Road Rally Champion Harold Morley, brings his Impreza N14, while last year’s TTRC Group N Champion Stuart Johnson (Impreza N12) and Suriname’s Radj Pershad (Impreza N12), who finished second to Sumair last month, may also be in the reckoning.
Craig Sumair Group N Evo VI
Sadly for Jamaican fans, lost from the provisional entry list is the ex-John Powell NACAM Series Evo IX, now owned by the Gregg family; father Gary or son Kyle would have run this weekend, but the damage at the rear of the car from the fire which put them out of Rally Jamaica proved too difficult to repair.
While roughly half the entry falls into the four-wheel-drive classes, there is no excuse to rush for your cooler once they have passed . . . and for one particularly good reason, one of Northern Ireland’s most flamboyant – and successful – rear-wheel-drive exponents, Frank Kelly! Having arrived last weekend, he will experience both gravel and tarmac events in the region, returning for Rally Barbados in May.
Kelly has won a string of titles in Ireland, Scotland and across the UK on both surfaces, including the BTRDA Silver Star Championship, the UK’s most prestigious title for two-wheel-drive cars, and was named BMMC Driver of the Year at last year’s Association of Northern Ireland Car Club’s Prizegiving, an award presented by the marshals to the driver who has entertained them most. And you will be entertained – his Group 4 Ford Escort MkII, nicknamed ‘Baby Blue’, has a 2.5-litre 310bhp engine, so getting power from engine to road surface smoothly is often a challenge!
(Photo credit: rallyforums.com) Frank Kelly Ford Escort
There’s a lot more interest in the two-wheel-drive classes, though: reigning TTRC 2wd Champion Donald Gopaul (Lancer) leads the home team, backed up by Ryan Peyrau (Suzuki Swift Sport) and Reyaz Mohammed, who was top 2wd in The Beginning last month in his Mitsubishi Colt, but they may have to contend with Jamaica’s Bobby Marshall (Colt), a veteran of touring the region.
Donald Gopaul 2WD Mitsubishi Lancer
Final entry details will emerge after Scrutineering on Wednesday, as a number of co-driver seats were still unconfirmed as this was written, but this is a weekend not to be missed!