After four rounds and over 600 miles of high speed rallying action the top two title protagonists head to the penultimate round of the 2009 MSA British Rally Championship this weekend, the Todd's Leap Ulster International Rally, equal on points.
With two wins and two runner-up positions apiece Mark Higgins and Keith Cronin are fully aware of the importance of this event - and whilst Higgins may have won the event in 2008, young whippersnapper Cronin finished fourth, at his first attempt.
Furthermore just to add a touch of spice to the saga, former rally winner, and multiple British Rally champion Gwyndaf Evans returns to the fray in a brand new Mitsubishi Evo X.
Evans, the master at car set-up, has been enlisted by the JR Motorsports team to assist David Bogie in fine tuning the new Mitsubishi. Bogie has shown the potential of the car, especially on gravel, but has so far struggled to unlock the pace on tarmac.
Can Gwyndaf do this and prove to be a thorn in the side of the title protagonists? Quite possibly.
But one must not forget the youth, for they are the future. Bogie will once again be fighting for Scottish honours against the likes of Euan Thorburn and Dave Weston Junior. Thorburn and Weston have both impressed mightily in their first season in the premier division of British rallying and with Weston joining Thorburn in the Revolution Wheels Rally Team from Ulster onwards, the pair will only push each other forwards.
Another rapidly rising star is Alistair Fisher. In his first season in a four wheel drive the young Irishman has improved in leaps and bounds and after scooping the Pirelli Star Driver nomination by finishing on the podium on the recent Rally Isle of Man, the youngster now finds himself lying third overall in the championship.
The battle of the classes will be even hotter this weekend as the West European Clio Trophy joins the fray for the first time. With British Clio R3 pilot Tom Walster having fared well on his recent excursions to Europe he will be hoping to be on the pace of the similar spec cars this weekend. Finnish driver Matti Rantanen has not had the best of seasons in his older spec Clio but after finishing a fine fifth overall on the recent WRC Rally Finland he will be hoping that his fortunes have turned.
The Clios will once again have to fight it out with the Fiesta SportTrophy contingent. Craig Breen won the international category on Rally Finland and will be hoping to keep rival Kris Hall behind him on the time sheets this weekend.
The Citroen Racing Trophy for C2R2 Max's is down to three cars this weekend after Mark Gamble was unable to repair his Citroen in time following its battering on the Isle of Man. A recent class win for Andrew Hockridge, where he was challenging WRC star Matt Wilson for class honours on the Stonethrowers Rally, should help his confidence, but the fight for the championship is now a straight fight between local hero Marty McCormack and defending champion Jason Pritchard. On the previous round the fight between these two was so rapid that they even beat the more powerful R3 cars to the finish.
The Swift cup returns to challenge for R1 class honours. After a strong start to the season Australian Molly Taylor's world recently was turned upside down with a violent roll on the previous rally. The car has been fully rebuilt and the young Aussie now has a fight on her hands for the title. Luke Pinder has never seen the finish of this rally due to mechanical gremlins, whilst Richard Sykes is an Ulster virgin, like Taylor. So therefore Gordon Nichol, the current series leader, should have the advantage.
With thirty registered crews taking to the start on Friday afternoon the MSA British Rally Championship is in rude health and the action throughout the field will be fierce. The 2009 Todd's Leap Ulster Rally has a new headquarters in Antrim, but the characteristics of the 14 special stages will be typical of this part of Ireland. High speed, bumpy and with changeable weather conditions thrown in the Ulster is guaranteed to be tough and challenging.
by Geoff Mayes