With a third of the 2009 MSA British Rally Championship already behind us, the premier division of British rallying finds a surprise championship leader in Irishman Keith Cronin.

After beating multiple Champion Mark Higgins on the last stage of the opening round Keith then repeated this performance on the second rally of the year, to take two wins from two events. But with the championship heading to tarmac the question is; can he do it again?

Looking at the statistics, one would say that Manxman Higgins should be odds on favourite. The three time British Rally Champion has not been beaten on the high speed tarmac lanes around Kelso for the past four years and will be looking to add a fifth victory to that tally. However 23-year-old Keith Cronin cut his teeth on tarmac rallying, and armed with a Mitsubishi Evo 9, could quite easily be a match for Higgins and his ageing yet reliable Subaru N11.

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This is unlikely to be a two horse race as there are a number of rapid drivers who could upset the formbook. Stuart Jones returns to the championship and is this time armed with a brand new Mitsubishi Evo 10. Last year the Welshman finished second to Higgins on this rally but a lack of testing in the new car could hamper him. Jones's team-mate David Bogie will be eager to add to his podium finishes after his Pirelli International Rally success but will have a fierce fight on his hands to be the 'first Scot' home. Euan Thorburn lives on one of the stages and learnt to drive around these lanes.

Another young Scotsman, Dave Weston Junior recent made his tarmac debut and nearly secured third overall over the fearsome Epynt Military Ranges. Lessons learnt from that day could help the 18-year-old spring a few surprises.

There is also Pirelli Star driver, Adam Gould, as well as the two Irishman, Jonnie Greer and Alastair Fisher, to think about. The Jim Clark International Rally marks the first time either Gould or Fisher will contest a tarmac rally in their four wheel drive machinery and Greer will be keen to make up for a lacklustre start to his 2009 campaign.

With the average age of the top ten seeded entries being 23 does this mean that the youth is taking over? Possibly, but perhaps the real dark horse of this rally could be 46-year-old Welshman Geoff Jones. Jones, a former works driver for Nissan and Proton, has made his name as a rally car preparation expert in recent years but has been recruited by Revolution Wheels to drive their second car this weekend. Armed with a Subaru Impreza N14, the car that Jones helped Prodrive to develop, the Welshman will certainly be watched over the course of the rally.

As always the British Rally Championship is not just about the four wheel drive cars but is strongly supported in the two-wheel drive classes as well. Class R3 sees the Renaults of Matti Rantanen and Tom Walster go head to head. Walster has a fair amount of tarmac experience but flying Finn Rantanen is an unknown quantity on the black stuff.

Fighting an internal battle within the R3 class will be the horde of Ford Fiestas. Headed by Craig Breen, who won the Pirelli Star Drive nomination on the Pirelli International Rally, the Fiestas are one of the many spring boards into international rallying and the action is always hot among this group of youngsters.

Chasing the more powerful R3 cars are the Citroen C2R2 Max cars that make up Class R2. Jason Pritchard, the reigning champion, won the opening round of 2009, but then fell foul of a Kielder ditch last time out and will be looking to make amends. Irishman Marty McCormack won the Irish C2R2cup last year and will be looking to add to his Pirelli International victory. Andrew Hockridge, the 2008 runner up at that event, had a recent test on the Isle of Man and won the class convincingly. By contrast Mark Gamble has only recently upgraded to a Max kit and has not had much opportunity to test.

Class R1 is the home of the Suzuki Swifts. After winning both of the opening rounds, Australian Molly Taylor heads to Scotland on a high. But Molly has virtually no experience of tarmac and could focus more on points than a third victory this weekend. Both Richard Sykes and Luke Pinder will be hoping to challenge, not just for the all important points, but to also restore some honour to the male gender!

With six stages on Friday night, including an all new spectator stage through the centre of Duns, a further 11 tough tests on Saturday the 2009 Jim Clark International Rally will prove well worth watching.

by Geoff Mayes