GRAHAM Coffey had his first taste of success at Oulton Park when he won the Neil Howard Memorial Stages Rally.
Coffey, from Manchester, and co-driver Paul Woodford claimed their victory by just 15 seconds after eight stages at the Cheshire track.
Paul Evans and Lol Powell brought their Ford Escort Mk2 to the runner-up spot, while Nigel Mummery and Fiona Scarrett, in an ex-works Ford Focus WRC completed the podium.
Thousands of spectators turned out to witness the return of rallying to Oulton Park after almost 20 years.
And organisers Bolton-le-Moors Car Club were rewarded with a full-house entry of almost 100 cars, with competitors coming from all over the UK.
Top seed and past Neil Howard winner Nigel Worswick, from Blackburn, led off the competitors in his Ford Escort WRC, which last saw action on February’s North West Stages.
But there was drama on the very first stage, which saw second-seed John Indri excluded in controversial circumstances.
Indri made a mistake at the split junction, steering his Darrian to the left, out onto the international section of the track, instead of taking the correct route to the right.
Realising his mistake, Indri then turned around to retrace his steps, driving against the direction of the stage towards the split junction, narrowly avoiding the hard-charging Coffey.
Indri was then immediately excluded from the event by the stewards, and retired on the spot.
“We went wrong at the split and I knew that the only people on the track were Worswick, me and Coffey,” he said afterwards.
“In the heat of the moment, I made a bad decision to turn round and go back onto the right route again.
“Basically, I was unsure of the rules and I was trying to go back on to the correct route.
“I slowed at the bottom of the hill to wait for Coffey and slotted in behind him.
“It didn’t feel dangerous in the car but I can understand why it did look dangerous.”
The battle for the lead was a three-way affair for most of the rally between Evans, Coffey and Blackburn businessman Russell Morgan.
Evans and Powell posted the fastest time on the opening stage, with Morgan and Martin Kenyon claiming the honours on stage two in the distinctive Ciceley Ford Escort Mk1.
Coffey went fastest on the third test of the day and stretched out his lead over Evans to 15 seconds by the end.
Morgan and Kenyon were denied a place on the podium when they slipped to seventh quickest on stage 8 and sixth on the final stage of the day.
Worswick, who had his usual co-driver Clive Molyneux alongside as a last-minute replacement for the scheduled Phil Scholes, finished 11th overall, five places ahead of Steve Quigley and Terry Martin, from Clitheroe DMC.
The pair had a great run to 16th overall and third in class, which was enough for them to clinch the SD34 MSG Stage Championship.
And Martin revealed it had been an eventful day on on the track. “Steve was in great form and thoroughly enjoyed himself, but on stage six, on a bone dry track, he out-braked himself and took out all the tyres and bales at the chicane,” said Martin. “One even ended up under the car.
“We dropped 30 seconds to our class rivals, dropping us down to 18th overall.
“But back in service, the service lads set about repairing the car, and with a change of tyres we managed to claw back two places and win the championship.”
RESULTS: 1: Graham Coffey/ Paul Woodford (Subaru Impreza) 43mins 50secs, 2: Paul Evans/ Lol Powell (Ford Escort Mk2) 44.05, 3: Nigel Mummery/ Fiona Scarrett (Ford Focus WRC) 44.05, 4: Ian Woodhouse/ Stephen Woodhouse (Ford Escort Mk2 44.35, 5: Adrian Spencer/ Mark Hewitt (Subaru Impreza) 44.36.
6: Russell Morgan/ Martin Kenyon (Ford Escort Mk1) 44.40, 7:David Davies/ Mike Hughes (BMW Compact) 44.45, 8: Mike Gilman/ Iain Douglas (Ford Escort WRC) 44.58, 9: Lyndon Barton/ Johnny Vance (Ford Escort 2.5) 45.13, 10: Martin Hodgson/ Tony Jones (BMW M130i) 45.23.
Others: 11: Nigel Worswick/Clive Molyneux (Ford Escort WRC) 45.34, 16: Steve Quigley/Terry Martin (Renault Clio) 46.12