NO 1 seed Mark Kelly and co-driver Dai Roberts took a fabulous start-to- finish victory in the Hills Ford 3 Shires Stages in the Kelmore-backed Skoda Fabia R5, reports PAUL WILLETTS.

Cloudy overcast but dry conditions greeted over 100 crews as they left the Much Marcle Showground start early on Sunday morning, with 60 very slippery miles ahead in the narrow lanes over the 3 Counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

And it was Kelly who led the way on the first loop opening up a staggering 24-second lead from the Citroën C3 of Steve Wood with local man Paul Morris calling the notes.

“I wanted to start quick. Two of the stages were nice the other two were very dirty but we’ve built a decent lead,” said the likeable Kelly

Veterans Roger Duckworth and Alun Cook in the Fiesta R5 held third, Melvyn Evans in the Polo R5 4th, and Rob Swann’s Fiesta WRC rounding out the top five.

In the 2wd-drive battle, the Escort of Huw James just edged out the similar cars of Brad Cole and Oliver Davies in a titanic battle.

Of the local crews Roger Moran and Dan Petrie in the immaculate Moran Motorhomes Skoda Fabia R5 led the way, holding an excellent 10th after four stages. Hartpury’s Geoff Phelps entertained his neighbours with an exuberant right foot with plenty of straw in the rear arches of his immaculate Hartpury Farms mk1 Escort

Many others reported issues and moments on arrival in service. Unfortunately the rally lost the Escort 2.5 of Hereford’s Roger Matthews, who retired on stage 4 reason unknown.

The second loop saw Kelly extend his lead to 40 seconds over Wood.

“Just trying to stay ahead on this loop; roads were a lot cleaner surprisingly and we’ve extended our lead, so all good,” he said.

Wood held a comfortable 20 seconds over third-placed Evans, who joked: “I need to be here until Tuesday to challenge Mark.”

Rob Swann held onto his fourth place after ‘a better loop’ and said he was having fun now, with Duckworth dropping to fifth in his immaculate Fiesta R5.

But early historic leader Tom Llewellin in the beautiful Weir Rallying Escort RS1800, who had built up a very comfortable lead, went out on the loop, while event sponsor Tim Hill was another to retire with propshaft issues in the Hills Ford Fiesta R3.

Also out were the awesome Porsche GT3 of Nigel Mummery, along with Hereford’s Simon Dalton and Abergavenny’s Jamie Vaughan with a broken gearbox in the Subaru Impreza.

Moran upheld local honours holding ninth after stage 8.

The final loop saw the predicted heavy rain arrive as the crews were in service, so thankfully the tyre choice was made very simple.

But for Kelly it was a case of game management, and he brought the Skoda home by 32 seconds from Wood who had an excellent day getting quicker with each event in his new Citroën C3.

Duckworth also had a great afternoon to finish third, with Melvyn Evans fourth and Rob Swann rounding out the top five.

The 2wd honours looked to be heading the way of Huw James and Lewis Sim who held a 14-second lead over Brad Cole going into the last short test.

But Cole stopped the clocks 19 seconds ahead of James to take both 2wd and class honours with Oliver Davies taking the final step of the 2wd podium.

Local honours from a host of crews on the entry list went the way of Leominster’s Roger Moran and his Hereford co-driver Dan Petrie, who finished an excellent 10th in the Moran Motorhomes Skoda Fabia R5.

It was good to see the former Motoring News road rally star going so well.

Monmouth farmer Ben Williams and Tony Edwards took a fine 27th overall & seventh in class in their Escort RS

Gary Bollands and Nigel Baldwin finished 33rd and 6th in class in the GB Furniture Solutions Subaru Stationwagon.

Just behind them were Geoff Phelps with Colin Jenkins alongside in 35th overall and fourth in class in the first outing in a new Hartpury Farms MK1 Escort, despite a few exciting moments on his home stage and trips to the scenery with the straw hanging from the rear bumper testiment to his excursions.

Alan Marriage together with Kevin Lane on one of his rare outings had a trouble-free event to take 46th overall and seventh in class in the Brambourne Automotive Escort, one place ahead of Tim Phelps and Elwyn Manuel in the Britpart Escort RS1800, despite some panel damage.

An excellent drive from Ryan Taylor who had Luke Watts in the co-driving seat in the Slarks Mini finished an excellent 48th and second in class after a trouble-free run on his first event of the year.

The Forest of Dean’s Watts will be back in the driving seat next weekend on the Trackrod Rally Yorkshire.

Phil Skipp debuted his new historic spec Escort RS1800 with Russ Joseph calling the notes and took 51st overall and fifth in class.

Stu Cameron had a drama right at the start when his co-driver was taken ill, but in stepped Karen Watts who was actually there servicing to guideCameron to 60th overall and 12th in class.

Hereford duo Glynn and Tim Skipp took 63rd overall and 13th in class in their Escort RS1800.

Yet again the Hills Ford 3 Shires Stages provided an excellent test of man and machine in very changeable conditions which was wholeheartedly embraced by the local community, and it was so refreshing to see so many people out watching not only on the special stages but on the liason sections.

A rally spokesperson said: “The organising team would like to say a huge thankyou to everyone involved especially the local authorities and residents for there co-operation.”