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This year saw the inaugural ‘Micra Challenge’ take place in Northern Ireland and with fifteen drivers taking part across a busy season of six events hopefully the way in which it started is the way that means to go on.

Affordable motorsport exists in many places. Track days in road cars, sprints and hillclimbs in motorsport prepared vehicles, and racing for those in more specialist cars are all examples of motorsport that can be costed within reach of most.

Rallying is a little different though and the closest any of us will get to driving this sport is via an experience day at the likes of Superdrive or Rally School Ireland. The costs involved in preparing and running a competitive car for a season can soon get out of hand, never mind the service crew required and the safety equipment and clothing for both driver and co-driver.

The Rallysport Association exists to give people affordable rallying that’s not affiliated to a governing body, but all their events are held at single venues and when I competed last year, it was the same stage ran six times, which would soon become a little monotonous. 

For over a decade now, there has been a great need in this country for affordable stage rallying, and the popularity of lanes and targa events has highlighted that people want affordable events to happen with cars that won’t break the bank.

Welcome the ‘Micra Challenge’ supported by Humphris Rallysport Ltd, Matcon Shopfitting, and Millers Oils.

Brainchild of Stephen Whitford, Sean Foy and Peter Dowds, and promoted by Ballynahinch and District Motor Club Ltd, one of the main aims of this Challenge is to provide low-cost competition for competitors of Micra K11 rally cars. 

Events included in the Challenge were selected from both the 2023 Northern Ireland Rally Championship and the Forest Rally Challenge to bring an exciting and testing range of stages, from race circuits to public roads, and forest-based gravel events drivers and navigators alike would soon experience the best of all stages.  

To make things even more interesting, from the six rounds, drivers wishing to be classified in the final table had to start one of each type of event: Circuit-based (R1 & R2), Closed road (R3 & R4) and forest (R5 & R6). With the best 5 scores from 6 events to count.

We all know that a rally season may not go to plan, so for the final round, the Bushwhacker Rally carried double points. This meant that going into the final round any one of six Drivers could still have won the Challenge (Stephen Whitford, Jack Shields, Peter Dowds, Sean Foy, Philip White, Raymond Mason).

It was Stephen Whitford and Jonny Hart who outclassed the competition with their decades of experience, to end the season victorious. From the five events started, the pairing came away with four wins and a third-place finish on a troublesome final round. Inscribing their names on the first Micra Challenge trophy.

Eleven points adrift was Sean Foy and Clodagh McMorrow in second place. Their season started with a brace of fifths and a fourth place, before progressing up the time sheets in the woods to claim their first win and a second place. Not a bad introduction to rally rookie, Clodagh.

Third place went to Jack Shields and Ashley Boulton who held consistent pace to see them either fifth or seventh all year. Their points haul was boosted on the final round when the crew made sure their slim advantage over Peter Dowds was increased thanks to double points on a second place event finish.

Peter Dowds and Steven Dowds finished the challenge in fourth place overall, with Raymond Mason driving his Micra on just three rounds to score within the championship and rounds off the top five.

This championship is quite simply put, clubman at heart, and within reach of most of us. It provides all that the old but beautiful Northern Ireland championship gave us. It is without doubt smiles per miles with great camaraderie. Well done to all involved!

 

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Graham is a photojournalist and motoring writer with over 20 varied years of coverage from manufacturer press launches to international motorsport and motoring events throughout the world. Graham is a full member of the Guild of Motoring Writers and Ulster Motor Writers Association.