Rhys Yates stepped back aboard a Ford Fiesta R5 for the first time in six months to win his class and finish second overall on the M-Sport Back to Rally Stages on Saturday.
It was like the last half a year had never happened; like the Chesterfield star had been competing just last week.
The six-stage event run in Greystoke forest marked British rallying’s return to business after six months of coronavirus-enforced lockdown. It also marked one of Rhys’ finest performances. Second after the first stage, he remained in that runners-up spot until the finish.
To offer some context, second place on Saturday was like a win for Rhys and co-driver James Morgan. The only car ahead of them was the Fiesta WRC driven by long-time WRC competitor Matthew Wilson. That Rally1 car is the cutting edge of rally technology, it’s the Formula 1 of the forests. The Rally2 is a step down in terms of power, suspension and transmission.
“I’m well happy with this result,” he said. “Before the start I talked a lot about coming here and having some fun and that was exactly what I was after. But when you come here, to M-Sport’s rally in an M-Sport car with M-Sport stickers on, there’s definitely some expectation. I know the team wanted a one-two-three and I also knew nobody was realistically going to get close to Matthew [Wilson, in the Rally1].
“The plan for me was to just drive, just relax and drive. I didn’t have to think about the set-up once and the team hasn’t needed to touch the car all day – it’s been sound.
“On the first couple of stages this morning, I didn’t know where I would be or what I should expect, not having been in the car for six months – so I just gave it a go. I’m not saying I took my brain out and went mad, but I did push quite hard to see what we could do. Second behind Matthew was good and to stay there was even better.
“I’d like to say I controlled things a little bit, but that’s probably stretching it a bit. Adrien [Fourmaux, M-Sport team-mate] is quick – he doesn’t hang about. But I was bang on. We made the time in the first couple and then I managed it, I didn’t take quite as much risk when everything was a bit more marginal in the really tricky bits.
“One of the aspects of going to a World Rally Championship round is that I do find myself thinking quite deeply about the set-up, how’s the car working and how I’m driving and that kind of thing. Here I put that out of my mind and just cracked on with it. It was really refreshing, kind of liberating a little bit to be honest.
“But the best thing is that I really showed the speed today.”
And M-Sport Ford World Rally Team managing director Malcolm Wilson agreed.
Wilson, the man who has masterminded all of M-Sport’s world championship triumphs, said: “Rhys has done a really good rally. His pace has been good all day. What we’ve seen today is a very strong performance from Rhys and now we need to try to get him back out on some WRC events.”
Rhys’ programme for the remainder of the season has yet to be finalised, but today’s result provided a strong reminder of both the pace and the potential of Chesterfield’s finest.