The first of two brand new events in the 2009 Pirelli MSA Gravel Rally Championship takes place next weekend, and the Pirelli Tour of Cumbria could prove pivotal in the race for ANCRO honours this season.
After all missed out on Rallye Sunseeker, defending champion Marcus Dodd narrowly saw off former champs Steve Perez and Paul Bird on last month's Brick and Steel Border Counties Rally to claim maximum points but the two Ford Focus drivers will be hoping to turn the tables on the Hyundai ace as the crews return for another salvo in the daunting Kielder Forest complex.
The Carlisle-based event will see a dozen registered crews in action over eight stages totalling nearly seventy miles and whereas the leaderboard is headed by a couple of Mitsubishi Ralliart Evo Challenge runners in the shape of Daniel Barry and Simon Hughes, it should only be a matter of time before the 'big guns' start topping the points table but as the old adage goes: 'in order to finish first, first you have to finish...'
Dodd and co driver Andrew Bargery know how unforgiving the Kielder ditches can be after one claimed them on last year's Border Counties and Bird, along with co driver Ian Windress, champions in 2005, were bitten by a log pile earlier this season in the Lake District which badly damaged their Ford Focus WRC07. 2004 winner Perez and co driver Paul Spooner slid out of the rally in Bournemouth's season opener in his '07 car too, so it's by no means a foregone conclusion all three will see the finish ramp, but if they do, it is anyone's guess as to in what order.
Irishman Barry and co driver Martin Brady along with Welsh counterpart Hughes and his co driver Craig Parry will resume battle in Group N and are expected to show well and add to their points tally but soon they will need to drop points as in this year's series, a competitor's best five scores from eight rounds count so they need to be thinking in terms of a podium, like they scored on Rallye Sunseeker.
The tag of 'Mr Consistency' as far as the WRC contingent goes should be attributed to Alan Cookson and co driver Julian Wilkinson in their Subaru and they'll be looking to improve on their 7th and 6th place finishes so far and after much-publicised problems in recent weeks, Charlie Payne and Craig Thorley will be after a good result in their Mitsubishi WRC Step 2.
If any of the fancied runners slip up, then it could well be one of the other Mitsubishi Ralliart Evo Challenge and ANCRO Group N runners who benefit such as Nik Elsmore, Owen Murphy and Alan Carmichael as they are all currently in the top six of the overall standings.
Trevor Martin and Ray Cleghorn make a welcome return to the ANCRO fold in their Subaru and the legendary Steve Bannister along with Scottish co driver Louise Sutherland have recently announced they will challenge for honours in the Mintex Two Wheel Drive Championship in their Ford Escort Mk2.
The Pirelli Tour of Cumbria gets underway at 10.15 from Carlisle Racecourse whereafter crews tackle the Kielder classics of Pundershaw, Trinket, Roughside and Chirdonhead before returning to service followed by the second loop later in the day and the finish back at Carlisle Racecourse around 18.40.