* Toshi Arai takes Production Cup victory* Jarkko Nikara sets storming pace to lead but retires close to end
The Japanese tyre manufacturer Yokohama helped to guide Subaru driver Toshi Arai to victory in the Production Cup category of this weekend's Rally Scotland, the penultimate round of the 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge. It also helped young Finn Jarkko Nikara to set a blistering pace to lead the class until a late spin ended in a ditch and retirement.
The weather in Scotland is changeable at the best of times and in early October, as in the last two years, it's possible to have all four seasons in a single day. This year, the event saw mainly two - summer and winter as rain gave way to brighter conditions sporadically.
This meant that the conditions on the fast and flowing gravel stages were predominantly slippery but at the same time, inconsistent. The levels of grip that the crews found changed, often within the same stage and this lead to a raft of spins, crashes and retirements.
There were actually five crews starting the event on Yokohama's recently-developed gravel rally tyre, the A053. Arai and countryman Fumio Nutahara were driving their ADVAN-sponsored Subaru Impreza R4s, up-and-coming Finn Jarkko Nikara was at the wheel of a private Group N Mitsubishi Lancer EvoIX and female Turkish driver Burcu Cetinkaya returned to the IRC, this year at the wheel of a Skoda S2000. In addition, Italian driver Marco Cavigiola was at the wheel of another Group N Mitsubishi Lancer EvoIX.
It was Nikara who made the early running in the Production Cup, battling with recently-crowned British and Scottish Rally Champion David Bogie at the head of the field. His pace increased throughout the event, peaking with fourth-fastest on Stage 11, to hold sixth overall by that point with a one-minute margin over local hero Bogie - a remarkable achievement against such a high-class field.
However, Nikara eventually spun off the road and into retirement on the final forest stage of the event, becoming stuck in a ditch and despite no damage to his car, unable to get back on to the road. But there was consolation for the young Finn, as he was presented with the Colin McRae Flat Out Trophy, presented by Jim McRae and awarded to the driver who shows exceptional pace and performance.
This left the door open for Arai, who had driven round some of the worst conditions he had faced in his career to maintain an error-free run. He eventually finished ninth overall, ahead of four S2000 cars with Nutahara claiming 15th and third in Production, ahead of BRC regular Robert Barrable overall. Cetinkaya unfortunately failed to finish the event but Cavigiola completed 18th overall and second in Group N.
There were additional points on offer in Scotland, to attract entries and ensure that the IRC went down to the wire and as a result, Arai is now second in the Production Cup. And with double points on offer on the final round, Cyprus Rally in three weeks' time, the Japanese driver is still in the running for the overall title.
Commenting, Arai said: "This was one of the most difficult and technical events I have ever done. The conditions were very slippery at times, and then with very good grip at other times, even in the same stage, so it was very challenging. But we played it safe, used the full potential of the car and finally, got a representative result.
"Yokohama did a fantastic job with our tyres this weekend. It's even more incredible, as the conditions were so varied and no two corners had the same grip. But thanks to Yokohama, we seemed to have the perfect tyres for the conditions all the time."
STi General Manager, Motorsports George Donaldson said: "This was always going to be one of the best events in our IRC program, in partnership with Yokohama. It was also the one we were most looking forward to, as we felt it played to the strengths of the Impreza R4 and the Yokohama tyre range. We are delighted to claim the top three positions in the Production Cup [Jason Pritchard second in Production in another Subaru]."
Commenting, Mark Evans, Manager of Motorsport at Yokohama HPT Ltd, the UK distributor, said: "I am delighted to offer our congratulations to Toshi in winning the Production Cup class this weekend, and of course Fumio for his third place.
"I understand the conditions were extremely tricky but I know that the STi team worked very closely with our technicians at the event to ensure that the drivers had the best tyre options available at all times. We know that the A053 is a very versatile tyre and handles changing conditions exceptionally well; our work in British rallying this year has shown this.
"However, what's particularly satisfying is that we have demonstrated that the Yokohama A053 gravel tyre is fully competitive. Jarkko set some incredible times in a Group N car, beating a brace of S2000s at times and this shows that the tyre performs as well as we felt it would. And this was using a tyre with the same compound as an off-the-shelf product."