The closely fought battle for the 2009 Scottish Rally Championship reaches a pivotal point next weekend [August 8] as crews head to Elgin for the Gleaner Oil & Gas Speyside Stages, the sixth round of the Hankook MSA series.

With the best six scores out of eight deciding final championship positions, the pressure is on the leading contenders.

Jock Armstrong currently leads the drivers' standings by 28 points over Mike Faulkner, with David Bogie a further two points behind. Just twenty-two points separate fourth-placed Escort Mk2 maestro Steve Bannister from Shaun Sinclair in tenth.

In line with the previous rounds of this year's Hankook SRC, the 'Speyside' has attracted a bumper entry of 112 cars.

Top seed Bogie and co-driver Kevin Rae will be re-united with the Toyota Corolla WRC in which they won the event last year. The pair crashed out of the Scottish at the end of June, causing substantial damage to their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9.

With little prospect of the car being repaired in time for the forthcoming round, Bogie said the opportunity to drive the Derek McGeehan-prepared Toyota provided the best option. The car has been fully rebuilt since it was wrecked on last year's Merrick Stages while the Dumfries driver was duelling for the overall title with Jimmy Girvan.

"It's good to be back in a car I'm familiar with," said Bogie: "It might be ten year's old - but it's still very competitive and ran very well on last year's Speyside, so hopefully we can take maximum points again".

Faulkner - the #2 seed - is so far the only driver to have won two rounds of this year's championship in his Mitsubishi Evo 6, and believes there will be no margin for error on the forest stages to the east of Elgin.

"The championship is getting serious now, once the two dropped scores are taken into consideration," said the Kirtlebridge-based driver. "There are still probably five people who have serious ambitions of winning the title, and that could be reduced to three by the end of the Speyside.

"Peter [Foy] and I can't win the championship in Elgin but we have to be on the podium. A non-finish would mean it was all over. It's a fine line, but that's how it should be in the Scottish championship - 100 per cent committed, otherwise you're nowhere".

Armstrong - in his first full season in the SRC - has steered a steady path through the five completed rounds to stay ahead in both the overall standings and the Hankook Group N category.

The Castle Douglas competitor, who will again have reigning co-drivers' champion Kirsty Riddick on the notes, has kept up his consistent run of form while continuing to fine-tune his Subaru Impreza N11, which made its debut on the Border Counties in April.

"We've made further changes since the Scottish - mainly to the diffs - so hopefully that will be the car sorted after four events," he noted. "I've never done the Speyside so I'll just have to concentrate harder than usual!"

Reigning champion and fourth seed Jimmy Girvan currently sits thirteenth in the drivers' points. The Inverness veteran will be back in action in his Subaru Impreza, despite cracking several ribs in a heavy crash on the final stage of the Scottish, after the car suffered brakes failure.

Girvan plans to wear a rib-protector of the type worn by competitors in karting, and said he was looking forward to another battle Royal with his fellow competitors.

"I'm going to give it my best shot and really go for it," said Girvan, who will again have Mike Ramsay on the notes.

Recent results suggest Borderer Euan Thorburn has hit form at the wheel of his Subaru Impreza. A misfire put paid to his hopes on the Granite, with a similar problem dogging his early progress on the Jim Clark Reivers, but the Duns driver succeeded in finishing second in the points on his home event - and went on to repeat the result on the Scottish.

He will be co-driven by Campbell Roy with whom he was paired for the first time on the Dumfries round.

Former series leader Willie Bonniwell from Oban, with Neil Ewing on the notes, starts a car further back in his Subaru Impreza, one ahead of the DAM 4100GTi of 1998 Speyside winner Andy Horne and navigator Jim Howie. Horne is praying for a strong finish on his home event after a very disappointing season which has seen the pair forced into early retirement on all five previous rounds.

Snowman winners Reay Mackay and Robert MacDonald from Fort Augustus will be aiming to keep Horne and Howie in their sights in their Metro 6R4 - the pair starting one ahead of the Subaru Impreza WRC of Jim Carty, who won the 2000 Speyside in a 6R4.

Barry Groundwater and co-driver Jude Wylie round off the top ten seeds in their Mitsubishi Evo 9, ahead of the ex-Jimmy Christie Evo of Oban duo Shaun Sinclair and Chris Hamill.

The pair have not finished lower than 13th on the rounds they've completed so far, and Hamill said the pressure is on if they want to improve their rankings.

"We have to be on the pace from the off if we want to get into the Hankook GpN awards for the IRC Rally of Scotland, and get back into the top five of the championship - so the Speyside is all or nothing for us!" he stated.

Donnie Macdonald of Inverness sits two points ahead of Sinclair in the drivers' table, and fifth in GpN. With fourth placed Rory Young sitting out this round, MacDonald and co-driver Paul Beaton are targeting a strong class finish.

So too is young Lanarkshire driver Alick Kerr, who, with co-driver Drew Sturrock, recorded his best ever SRC result on the Scottish - seventh overall - in just his third competitive outing in the ex-Bob Grant Subaru Impreza.

"We've had mechanical issues on all three rallies in the Subaru so far - although it didn't affect our times too much on the Scottish," said Kerr, "so the game plan for the Speyside is a clean run with no technical problems."

The battle of the Escorts will again be headed by Yorkshireman Steve Bannister with Louise Sutherland on the notes - the pair starting one ahead of Northern Ireland's Frank Kelly and Jason Harron, with Malcolm Buchanan from the Isle of Skye and Forfar-based co-driver Ian Nicoll starting third in class in their Mk2.

Having sat out the last two rounds, Bruce McCombie of Banchory returns to action in his Ford Puma in the fiercely contested 1600 category - ten points covering the top three places currently occupied by Paisley's Alasdair Graham, Ian Bendall from Castle Douglas, who is not on the entry list for the Speyside, and Newton Stewart's Mark McCulloch, all in Vauxhall Corsas.

Amongst the Juniors, John MacCrone in a Peugeot 205 presently has a four point advantage over fellow Mull man Craig Rutherford in a Vauxhall Nova, while Garry Pearson of Duns in a Peugeot 205 Gti and Fraser Wilson of Port William in a Nova are tied a further seven points back.

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