The eagerly anticipated battle for the 2010 MSA Gravel Rally Championship gets underway next weekend when crews from all over the UK - as well as further afield - converge on the South coast resorts of Bournemouth and Poole for the annual ANCRO season opener as the 25th annual Rallye Sunseeker roars into life.
Six-times event winner and, very much the local hero, Marcus Dodd from nearby Poole along with co-driver Andrew Bargery from just down the coast at Hove, will be looking to win back the crown they relinquished to Isle of Wight Subaru driver Will Nicholls and co driver Nick Broom last year, and given that Nicholls and Broom are not returning to defend their title, the Hyundai Accent WRC pairing will start the event as one of the favourites.
Whereas Dodd is the reigning Pirelli MSA Gravel Rally Champion, having landed the crown five times in total and the last three times in succession, he faces stiff opposition as heading the challenge will be four former champions who are making a welcome return to the fold.
Twice Rallye Sunseeker winner Roger Duckworth and co-driver Mark Broomfield took the Championship honours in 1998 and the driver who lives near Silverstone is back for another crack at the title in his venerable Subaru whereas 2004 ANCRO winner and VK boss Steve Perez from Chesterfield along with co driver Paul Spooner has the ex Marcus Gronholm Ford Focus WRC07 at his disposal and is fresh from winning last weekend's Wyedean Rally.
2005 Champion Paul Bird is back with a vengeance in his works-specification Ford Focus WRC08 and the flamboyant chicken farmer from Penrith has won his last three events in a row along with co driver Kirsty Riddick but like Perez, has never sampled Sunseeker glory. The other winner of the national title to take to the start line is Ulsterman Kenny McKinstry who won the series in 1999 and the Subaru WRC driver will be looking to repeat his win on Rallye Sunseeker of 2002, this time with co driver Harvey Bell on the notes.
The rivalry between Perez and Bird is legendary in Rallye Sunseeker history, but they, as well as Dodd, Duckworth and McKinstry, will be having to look to their rear view mirrors as there are a host of top names expected to be in the mix come Saturday afternoon.
Double British Champion Jonny Milner is reunited with his trusty Toyota Corolla WRC and co driver Ian Windress so could be the dark horse whilst Irish marauders Richard Cathcart/Martin Brady (Subaru WRC) and Jonny Greer (Mitsubishi Evo 9) could spring a surprise. County Durham driver Stephen Petch teams up with John Richardson in their Hyundai Accent WRC and don't rule out local aces Anthony Willmington/Andrew White (Mitsubishi Evo 6) and Scotsman Dave Weston Jnr and Ieuan Thomas in their latest version Subaru. Scandinavian drivers Daniel Sigurdarson and Johannes Gunnarson add to the international ambience in their respective Mitsubishis as part of the shakedown for the upcoming Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge.
Other drivers who could make a splash on the two day event include local motor dealer Steve Hendy (Ford Focus WRC), BTRDA front runner Alex Allingham (Subaru) and the similar cars of Tristan Pye and Wug Utting plus there's a legendary MG Metro 6R4 competing in the hands of Stuart Larbey which is always a crowd favourite.
Strength in depth in the various classes is the outcome of some radical restructuring of the championship over winter and around 70 crews will be doing battle for honours including the Viking Motorsport Ford Escort Challenge, 1400cc Cup, Super 2000 Cup and Land & Range Rover Cup, Richard Burns Trophy and Manufacturer's award which should make a great spectacle to entertain the huge crowds expected on the South coast.
Throw in the cosmopolitan mix of 72-years-young veteran Harry Dodd (Hyundai Accent WRC) competing in his back yard, fast ladies Shelley Taunt and Sara Williams, both driving Subarus, and the iconic Lancia Delta Integrale Evo of Rod Bennett, and the scene is set for a typically exciting curtain raiser to the National rally scene.
With the traditional Friday evening Winter Gardens and Seafront stage not included this year, the event gets underway with a pompous ceremonial start at Poole Quayside at 18.15 on Friday, before the event proper starts on Saturday morning with the traditional loops around the forests and stately homes of Ringwood and Wareham before the winners' champagne is uncorked in Bournemouth town centre around 17.30.