Cunningham does the Double

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The 2010 Kick Energy Fiesta SportChallenge (FSC) competitors were in Welshpool on Saturday 24 March 2010 for Round 2 of the 2010 championship the Bulldog Challenge Rally and Round 1 of the 2010 BRC Challenge (BRCC).  The FSC supports the BRCC on five of the six rounds and competitors must nominate either the Manx or Ulster to score championship points.

26-year-old Ulsterman Jonny Cunningham was once again the man to beat in his Fiesta ST.  Richard Parry-Jones and John Pritchard finished 2nd and 3rd both of whom were in only their second events since returning to competition.

The shorter challenge ran over the final five stages of the full International event and started with the 17-mile Sweet Lamb stage.  Cunningham and co-driver Richard Millener took the early lead with a time of 21minutes six seconds.  The result was all the more impressive it was the first time Cunningham had driven the legendary North Wales stages.  Richard Parry-Jones and Sara Price, from Abermaw, were next up, 28 seconds behind Cunningham.  Local driver John Pritchard was third in stage one a further 30 seconds behind Parry-Jones.  20-year-old Alex Laffey from Market Harborough and co-driver Daniel Swainbank clocked the fourth fastest time and were continuing to make improvements in their first full season of competition.  Just seven tenths of a second behind Laffey was 18-year-old Jamie Brown, the Norwich based driver relishing the chance to compete on one of the most famous stages in the world.  Dan O’Brien, 17 from St Albans, and co-driver Will Rogers were sixth on only their third event together.  Round 1 runners up, Damien Smith, 28 from Silsden, and Frazer Hutchinson suffered a torrid time in stage one, going off the road and were unable to continue.  The pairing will hope to get their championship challenge back on track at Round 3, the Pirelli Challenge Rally.

The crews returned to service for the only stop of the day having enjoyed their run through Sweet Lamb, but many noting that there was much more time to be made up had they the chance to repeat the stage in the afternoon.  That was not the case however and the crews left service for the remaining four stages of Big Ray, Dyfi Main, Pantperthog and Gartheiniog.

Cunningham was fastest through Stage 2 but Parry-Jones was a close second, only six seconds behind the Workington based driver.  John Pritchard had a diagnostics check on his car at service as he felt it was down on power and with the car given a clean bill of health he was just half a second behind Parry-Jones.  Brown and Laffey switched positions with Brown posting a time six and a half seconds quicker than Laffey to leap frog him in the overall classification.  Dan O’Brien was once again sixth; the 17-year-old still finding his feet on the special stages having switched codes from Rallycross over the winter.

For the third successive stage Cunningham posted the fastest FSC time ahead of Parry-Jones and Pritchard.  Cunningham’s advantage over Parry-Jones was 28 seconds increasing his overall lead to just over one minute.  Dan O’Brien made the most of mistakes from both Laffey and Brown in Stage 3 to jump from sixth to fourth.  A missed pace note meant Laffey slid off the road in fifth gear on Dyfi Main and incurred a stage maximum.  He and co-driver Swainbank managed to un-stick the car and continue albeit minus the front bumper.  Brown also slid off the road in Dyfi Main incurring a stage maximum but with considerably less damage than his fellow ST driver.

Cunningham and Millener were having no dramas on their second FSC event despite still getting used to their Group N Fiesta ST.  The pairing once again won Stage 4, Pantperthog, by a comfortable 20 seconds ahead of Richard Parry-Jones and Sara Price in the Gwyndaf Evans Motors prepared ST.  Dan O’Brien was steadily improving his pace, as he had done on Round 1, to finish the stage fourth, just ten seconds behind the experienced John Pritchard and Chris Williams who were third.  Jamie Brown recovered from his earlier excursion to finish the penultimate stage under three seconds behind O’Brien.  Laffey also continued and posted a time only six seconds slower than Brown, as he aimed to regain his confidence on the challenging Welsh stages.

As the crews headed for the final test of the day, Gartheiniog, Cunningham held a comfortable one minute 20 second lead over Parry-Jones who was himself had a 35 second lead to John Pritchard in third.  O’Brien was still in fourth and with a six minute advantage to Brown could afford to back off and drive to the finish of the event without any pressure.

Despite his advantage Cunningham once again set the fastest FSC time through Stage 5 to increase his winning margin to one minute 50 seconds.  He and co-driver Richard Millener had been the class of the FSC field winning all five of the competitive tests and brought the car home third overall in the BRCC.  Parry-Jones took a steady approach in the final stage to bring the car home in second in only his second event after choosing to return to competition.  John Pritchard took the final spot on the podium just 30 seconds behind Parry-Jones move into second in the overall standings behind Cunningham.  O’Brien drove sensibly through the final stage to claim fourth in the FSC with the recovering Jamie Brown taking fifth.  Alex Laffey was the final FSC finisher after struggling with the damage he sustained in his earlier off.

The 2010 Kick Energy Fiesta SportChallenge heads to Carlisle for Round 3, the Pirelli Challenge Rally on Saturday 24 April.  Cunningham and Millener will be out to maintain their championship lead..  Both Pritchard and Parry-Jones however will be out to close the gap to the championship leader and Damien Smith will be looking to kick start his championship after his promising showing around the Cumbrian stages on Round 1.

Fiesta SportChallenge Winner – Jonathan Cunningham said:
Coming into the event I never expected to be leaving as Fiesta SportChallenge winner again!  I am extremely happy with how it all turned out.  It was a shame that Damien [Smith] retired early on but the pace of Julian [Wilkes] and Callum [Black] kept me honest and I really hope to be able to take the fight to them on the next round.  My thoughts now turn to preparation for the Circuit of Kerry where I will begin my Irish Junior Championship campaign.  I can’ wait to get back out competing!”