The battle for the 2009 Pirelli MSA Gravel Rally Championship is set to continue next weekend, when crews make their one and only trip away from the UK mainland and head over to the Isle of Man for the annual Manx Telecom Rally.
The two-day tarmac event marks the halfway point in what is proving to be a dramatic season and the demanding fast and narrow lanes of the Isle of Man are expected to throw up a few more surprises along the way.
After three rounds, the points table is headed by the Mitsubishi Ralliart Evo Challenge drivers Daniel Barry and Simon Hughes, who are separated by just two points. However, all is not as it seems as with the scoring system of a competitor's best five results from eight rounds counting, the issue of dropped scores is likely to come into play before too long.
That will mean that ANCRO's 'big three' are likely to come into contention after they all missed out on Rallye Sunseeker when defending champion Marcus Dodd, as well as fellow former champions Steve Perez and Paul Bird, failed to see the Bournemouth finish ramp.
Since then, Hyundai Accent WRC-mounted Dodd has taken back-to-back victories on the Brick and Steel Border Counties Rally as well as the Pirelli Tour of Cumbria, with the Ford Focus WRC07 pair of Perez and Bird trading the other podium placings to edge up the leaderboard.
For Dodd, Manx victory would mean three in a row and, with Bird and Perez yet to take a victory and missing from the Severn Valley National Rally later in the month due to competing on Rally Barbados, it could mean that the four-times champion has title number five within sight. But, if tarmac specialist Bird or Perez - who has recruited Swedish world championship co-driver Staffan Parmander as co-driver for the event - manages the win, then it could be 'game on' going into the final three events.
Dodd and co-driver Andrew Bargery have taken maximum points in the past on the Manx event, while Bird, along with co-driver Ian Windress, have also been on the podium, but Perez has never enjoyed the best of luck on the event, crashing out spectacularly in 2006 before managing fourth place overall the following year.
Meanwhile, Irishman Barry and Welsh Mitsubishi counterpart Hughes will no doubt resume battle in Group N, with both expected to show well and add to their points tally. However, neither Nik Elsmore or Owen Murphy can be ruled out, as they are both currently in the top five of the overall standings, whereas in a Subaru-mounted Alan Cookson will be out to maintain his bid for class honours, and looking to add to a decent score in the opening three rounds.
The Manx Telecom Rally gets underway at 1900hrs on Friday 8 May with the traditional stage through the streets of Port Erin, before a loop of stages in the fading daylight takes crews back to Douglas for the overnight halt. Saturday sees a full day of action around the Manx lanes, starting at 0845hrs and finishing at the TT Grandstand around 1630hrs.