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Armstrong Impressive 17th in British Rally
Sol Rally Barbados promotion a success

Double Barbados Rally Club (BRC) Group N Champion Neil Armstrong and Rally Barbados 2005 winning co-driver Max Ferri finished 17th overall and ninth in Group N on Rallye Sunseeker, the opening round of the UK's Pirelli MSA Gravel Rally Championship, which finished in the English south coast resort of Bournemouth yesterday (February 28).

Shortly before driving over the finish ramp, Armstrong said: "I can't even begin to explain the experience. Its like my first rally again, a whole completely new experience." Driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII, prepared by North Yorkshire-based MSR Motorsport and carrying Sol Rally Barbados 2009 livery, Armstrong had faced a multi- national class of Group N drivers from England, Iceland, Ireland, Sweden and Wales on his first-ever rally in Europe.

Rallye Sunseeker is the only mixed-surface round of the Pirelli Championship, with two Friday evening 1.6-mile tarmac SuperSpecials in the centre of Bournemouth, where it has been based for the past 24 years; the organisers were forced to abandon these stages before they were completed after a major incident in which a Subaru Impreza WRC struck an electricity pole, resulting in damage that could not be repaired easily.

Armstrong was classified 24th overnight - those crews which had not passed through both SuperSpecial stages were given notional times so, for many, the rally only really began on Saturday morning. The schedule covered 11 stages in the nearby Ringwood and Wareham forests, plus Somerley Park, home of Event Patron Lord Normanton, where an all-day Motorfair attracted thousands of spectators and featured a display of MG Metro 6R4s, marking the 25th Anniversary of the iconic Group B car's launch.

As the day progressed, Armstrong worked his way slowly up the order, in part through the problems experienced by his competitors, in part through his own determination. He earned the cheers of the Motorfair crowd on stage six, when he demolished the wall of straw bales at the popular ninety-right in front of Somerley House, by which time he had progressed to 22nd overall.

Among his ambitions was to finish higher than the same car had achieved in 2008, when Miles Johnston finished 19th; by the second service, mid-afternoon on Saturday, he had matched that position, and that was how it seemed set to stay. A big effort on the final stage of the day, when he was 16th fastest overall, his best of the weekend, promoted him two slots up the order to 17th.

Describing the experience, Armstrong said: "I can compare rallying in Barbados to track racing - you know the roads, you know what you're doing, you just drive it without notes. This is a whole different skill altogether. I need to come back and do some more."

Of his co-driver Ferri, who won Rally Barbados 2003 alongside Roger Mayers, Armstrong said: "He was amazing, hasn't called a wrong note all weekend; if it wasn't for him, I'd still be knocking around somewhere in Ringwood."

From the other side of the car, Ferri noted: "It was brilliant, we had a fantastic time, the stages are amazing, it's a fantastic experience. Neil drove perfectly, he's definitely a gravel expert for sure."

Group N and the opening round of the Mitsubishi Ralliart Evo Challenge was won by Ireland's Daniel Barry and Martin Brady (Evo IX) in a time of 58 minutes 43 seconds; Armstrong's time was 63m 36.8s. The overall winners were Will Nicholls and Nick Broom (Subaru Impreza WRC) in a time of 56m 14.0s.

Two of the most enthusiastic supporters of Rally Barbados, Steve Perez and Paul Bird, were also locked in battle in Bournemouth, each equipped with a 2007 version of the Ford Focus World Rally Car. Despite the machinery at hand, however, neither of the former National Champions (Perez in 2004, Bird in 2005) would prevail - Perez retired when he ran off the road and could not rejoin, while Bird suffered an electrical failure following a heavy landing a few stages later.

Sol Rally Barbados 2009 (May 29-31) and Shell V-Power King of the Hill (May 23) are organised by the Barbados Rally Club, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2007; title sponsor is the Sol Group, the Caribbean's largest independent oil company, and both events are rounds of the Virgin Atlantic BRC Driver's Championship. Associate sponsors include the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association.