The two main title contenders for the 2009 Hankook MSA Scottish Rally Championship are each out to beat the other on next Saturday's (September 5) penultimate round, the Merrick Forest Stages.

Mike Faulkner and David Bogie are tied at the top of the drivers' standings - and both regard the Newton Stewart-based rally as a 'make or break' event.

The Merrick has attracted another top-quality field, the provisional seeded entry list headed by reigning champion Jimmy Girvan, the only driver to have won the event in its current form, with victories in 2007 and 2008.

Among those targeting victory is Jock Armstrong, whose championship hopes were dashed following exclusion from the results on last month's Speyside Stages for a technical infringement, while Borderer Euan Thorburn is aiming for a top three finish to keep himself in touch in the title race and at the top of the Group N standings.

Although not eligible for SRC points, the entry list has been enhanced by the inclusion of 2008 BTRDA Gold Star Champions Hugh Hunter and Andy Marchbank, the pair making their first competitive foray north of the border in their ex-Colin McRae Ford Focus WRC '01, while British championship contender and ex-Ford Fiesta ST title holder Jonathan Greer will make the trip across from Belfast to compete in his Mitsubishi Evo 9.

SRC regulars Andy Horne, John Morrison and Donnie MacDonald are among the Highland contingent making the trip south to the Galloway forests: Horne out to break his duck having failed to finish a single round so far this season, while MacDonald will field his repaired and repainted Mitsubishi Evo 9, following his big off on the Speyside.

David Bogie and co-driver Kevin Rae head to Newton Stewart on the back of an outright victory on the Speyside in their Derek McGeehan-prepared Toyota Corolla WRC. It was their second SRC win of the season - a statistic they share with Mike Faulkner and Peter Foy.

On last year's Merrick, Bogie was duelling for title honours with Jimmy Girvan when he crashed heavily in the Corolla - resulting in the car being completely rebuilt. The 22-year-old Dumfries driver knows there is no room for error this time out.

"We have to go out there and beat Mike Faulkner - it's as simple as that," said Bogie. "It'll certainly be an interesting fight, I think when it gets to this stage, with us being tied this late in the championship, it could still be a make or break round. If someone slips up, and makes a small mistake, then that's their championship hopes more or less over".

In turn, Faulkner, who was runner-up on the Speyside and starts second next Saturday, believes the classic Merrick stages give him the best chance of keeping his title challenge on track in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6.

"The competition is that close, there's no room for taking it easy to see what happens, because you'll just get left behind," Faulkner added. "David and I are tied and if we're to finish first and second then I have to beat him once in the final two rallies - and if I'm going to do that then I think it will be on my favourite Merrick stages, rather than on the McRae in Perth - so Saturday is the day we have to get it done".

Fourth seed Jock Armstrong will have more horsepower at his disposal after upgrading his Subaru Impreza N11, following the Speyside exclusion for a technical breach of Group N regulations.

Having built up a healthy championship lead, the ruling has ultimately put paid to his title hopes, along with those of co-driver Kirsty Riddick. However, they are determined to put that disappointment behind them with a strong showing on what for both is a home event.

"I've now come out of Group N by adding a 34mm restrictor to the car, which adds an extra 25 horsepower - so we'll definitely be going for a win on the Merrick", said Armstrong, "and I'll be doing the shakedown to get some match practice!"

Euan Thorburn will be back in action in the Subaru Impreza in which he and co-driver Campbell Roy went off the road on the Ulster International Rally last weekend. Fortunately damage to the car was not too extensive thanks to a soft landing.

"We were very lucky it went into a bog and didn't hit anything hard, or roll over, "said Thorburn. "We really just need to concentrate on Group N on the Merrick. Our car is not quick enough to keep up with either David or Mike so we won't be pushing ourselves over the limit to try and beat them. If we can win GpN and hopefully finish in the top three overall that would be ideal. That still leaves us with a chance of winning the overall championship going into the last round and then you never know what could happen."

Alick Kerr has been one to watch since switching to 4-wheel drive earlier in the season, most recently on the Speyside where, with navigator Drew Sturrock, he finished fifth overall and third in class in his Subaru Impreza.

However, the young Lanarkshire driver has a race on his hands to get his car prepared in time for next Saturday, after snapping a gearbox input shaft during a test-run. If Kerr makes it to Newton Stewart, he will start one behind the Mitsubishi Evo 9 of Stonehaven's Barry Groundwater and Jedburgh navigator Jude Wylie - the pair aiming to get their championship campaign back on track after gearbox problems cut short their Speyside outing.

Meanwhile, after taking sixth overall and second in class on the Speyside, Oban's Shaun Sinclair and Chris Hamill are keen to keep the momentum going in their ex-Jimmy Christie Mitsubishi Evo 9.

"We'd certainly like to be challenging the top end of the GpN cars to add to our Speyside run," noted Hamill. "We have a very busy programme in September and October - with the Merrick, Lindisfarne, McRae Stages and Mull, and are confident that with more time in the car we can be on the pace."

The class act at the top of the 2-wheel drive category all season has undoubtedly been that of Steve Bannister and co-driver Louise Sutherland in their Escort Mk2 - the pair notching up their fifth top ten finish of the season on the Speyside. They will likely face another strong challenge for Mk2 honours from, among others, Irishman Frank Kelly and Malcolm Buchanan from the Isle of Skye, but Bannister feels the pressure is off.

"We've already won the 2wd's and our class, so we can hopefully go and have a play on the Merrick!" Bannister stated. "I'm aiming for a steady run, nothing exciting, and hopefully a top ten finish to improve our poor score on the Snowman, and to keep in the top ten overall standings".

The battle for honours continues throughout the championship classes as the season nears its end.

No less so than in Class 4, where nine points separate Alasdair Graham of Paisley in his Vauxhall Corsa from 2009 John Easson Award winner and Newton Stewart resident Mark McCulloch, who is aiming for a strong performance on his home event at the wheel of his Corsa.

In Class 3, Mull's John MacCrone holds an 18-point lead in his Peugeot 205, but second-placed Colin Smith of Inverurie, also in a Peugeot, will be looking to close the gap having taken top honours on the Speyside, while Ayr's Blair McCulloch lies just four points further back in his Vauxhall Nova.

From the start ramp at the Riverside car park in Newton Stewart, competitors will head out to the first of five stages totalling 45 miles, including two in the famed Glentrool complex. Three of the tests have not been previously used on the event in its current format, and one of those, Palgowan, at just over 3 miles in length, has not been used for almost a decade.

With 78 road miles, and a purpose built central service area at Glencaird, the event is noted for being one of the most compact on the Hankook SRC calendar.

The Merrick will also count as a round of the Brick & Steel 205 Ecosse Challenge, and the Borders Rally and Five of Clubs championships.