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Jim Clark Rally lessons as Armstrong chases asphalt experience

(July 02, 2013)

Jon Armstrong, the 18 year old rally talent form Fermanagh Northern Ireland tackled his second MSA British Rally Championship event of the season and also his second ever asphalt event over the June 1st weekend.

It was expected to be a challenge for the youngster, as the Jim Clark Rally is one to be respected, given its prestigious history and previous winners, not to mention the visible holes in hedges that show where it has caught out people on previous attempts. As the only closed road asphalt rally on the UK mainland it is a revered and celebrated event with a special atmosphere right from the town centre start in Duns.

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Armstrong in action

This was to be the first stage of the rally with a short blast around the narrow town streets and Jon in his Ford Fiesta took to it cautiously to end the stage 22nd overall. The plan at this point was just to settle into his Fiesta R2 now in asphalt trim for the first time and also gain confidence in the pace notes which he had prepared himself for the first time ever in his short rally career.

The confidence in the car was good heading to the second stage, which was the famous 16 mile Abbey St Bathans, a relentless attack over farm land hills, as it sinews its way over cattle grids and steep fast sections that wait to punish the unwary over exuberant driver.

This was surely to be the test of Armstrong and how comfortable he was with both his car and pace notes, which in no uncertain terms were untried for him on this surface and type of asphalt test. However Jon did not disappoint and took tenth fastest and second in class behind local driver Garry Pearson who was in an identical Ford Fiesta.

This left Jon in 14th overall on the leader board but second in the Fiesta battle slightly ahead of Irishman Daniel McKenna. Armstrong was to hold this position over the next two stages including the repeat of the town stage in front of the many fans now out to enjoy the rally.

However the return to the Abbey St Bathans hills was where it all began to unravel for Jon and co-driver Martin Brady, a fast start to the stage was going well and the rhythm over the crests, humps and cattle grids was all under animated control when a small sliver of an exposed rock at the edge of the road made contact with a rear wheel with a telling clink of metal meeting a solid object.

The Pirelli tyre predictably could not withstand such a hard blow and in less than a mile the tyre was off the rim and with about 10 miles of stage left to go, there was no option but to stop and change the wheel. The puncture change was exemplary and Jon and Martin were out of the car with wheel replaced and back on the move again in just under two minutes, making the best of a bad situation by minimising that time loss with the quick wheel change.

Regrettably fate had not finished with Armstrong & Brady and as the stage climbed to its foggy summit in the fading daylight another puncture was to lie in wait for the crew. With the front left wheel now deflating and stopping on a steep downhill section before a cattle grid junction, the car spun sideways towards the fence-lined field.

Codriver Martin freely admitting, “As the car approached the junction in completely the wrong direction I was packing my bag and waiting for the bang that would signal the end of our rally. But somehow Jon didn’t surrender so easily and he managed to pitch the car backwards and we travelled into the field to a thankfully soft stop with only a minor dent on the boot lid from a fence post. Knowing we had used about nine lives getting away with that moment we sombrely made our way over the final 1.9 miles of the stage to resume puncture changing duties again at the finish of the stage”.

Yet despite getting away almost scot free with such a moment there was still a time loss of over four minutes compared to the previous time over the stage for Armstrong. It was a bitter disappointment for the crew, but a not unexpected consequence of two punctures, one a roadside repair and the other pre-empting a trip into a field.

The car still handled like new and there was no mechanical damage. A flapping boot lid from bent catches was the only issue that hampered the Fiesta over the final stage of the night, as it trailed behind the car on the last stage like a parachute, the bottom line was Jon & Martin had dropped down out of the top 20 drivers and day two and its eight stages would now be a fight back up the order.

Day two began with an intention to reset from the maladies of the first night and to begin to rebuild the confidence after the field trip of the Abbey St Bathans stage. Jon had to be cognisant that he was still learning both the car and his pace notes, so that approach was the mindset the crew began with on day two.

Garry Pearson was still the benchmark in the Fiesta class and he was being chased hard by Daniel McKenna, this meant Jon’s target was to stay as close as possible to the times of these guys without taking un necessary chances trying in vain to recover a four minute time loss.

Pearson was soon to leave the fight stuck in a ditch on a slippery corner at the end of greasy straight, and such was the conditions Jon also overshot the very next corner after Pearson’s departure and had to reverse back from a gravel driveway to recover from the overshoot, Jon describing the braking surface for the corner as “like a bottle”.

The following Daniel McKenna admitted he found the surface there lethal and only he escaped incident as he braked early catching sight in the distance of Armstrong pulling away from the overshoot with the stage marker tape streaming behind as a reminder.

Confidence was returning in the Armstrong Fiesta and as the stages dried out Jon was literally getting to grips with everything from pace notes to the Fiesta’s performances and the timesheets confirmed this as Jon set two fastest Fiesta times ahead of both McKenna and the round one victor, Steve Røkland.

By the end of the final stage Jon had pulled back to 14th overall and fifth Fiesta and in a last stage battle just managed to pip David Carney by 9.4 seconds to once more claim the top place in the BRC Ravenol Newcomers Trophy. A silver lining in a weekend and a rally that started positive, became gloomy after the Abbey St Bathans bit a large chunk of time away from the Fiesta to then return to a positive by the end of the event.

Jon had this to say at the finish: “I am happy with what we learned this weekend and the car worked really well and we got good experience of our notes and the car on asphalt this weekend. It was a tough rally and the punctures were a big disappointment but that’s rallying and to get close to Daniel McKenna’s times here was a really good thing today as I know he goes so well on asphalt and he is definitely the benchmark.”

Martin Brady co-driver commented, “Once again this rally Jon drove with a maturity and a solid temperament that makes you forget he is only 18 years of age and four rallies under his belt in this car, I was hugely impressed especially when he saved us from certain disaster on Abbey St Bathans, we had a great rally together in the car and even changed the puncture in perfect unison, I am really looking forward to the rest of the rallies and the season because I know we can keep improving.”

The next rally is less than a month away and the BRC series will return to gravel and return to Scotland for the Scottish in Dumfries. As unpredictable as rallying is, there is a guarantee that for this rally Armstrong will be right up there on the pace and if luck can stay with him then hopes are high for a good result on the next step of the BRC championship.

Jon is joined and supported in his championship efforts by a number of partners and sponsors, including Monaghan Bros Ford Garage of Lisnaskea, Tyrone Truck & Trailer LTD, Jennings Fuel & Lubricants, Lakeland Tyres, Loane Transport Kesh and Battery Energy Drink. Find Jon Armstrong Rallying on Facebook or visit www.jonarmstrong.co.uk for up to date results and stories.

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