The MSA British Rally Championship blasts back to life next weekend as no fewer than 54 registered crews from eleven nations tackle the opening round of the series, the Mid Wales Stages.
After a year's sabbatical, the revitalised BRC returns with a new breed of cars, stars and classes for the 2016 season, which gets underway over 5-6 March in Newtown. The championship's top category will feature four-wheel drive competition for the first time since 2011, as the exciting new R5 cars do battle with S2000 machinery at the front of the field, while support classes include the DMACK Junior BRC that will showcase the talents of the best young drivers in two-wheel drive R2 specification cars and the National Rally Cup offers the challenge of longer rallies for non-homologated vehicles.
“In the course of the past 20 months, there has been so much work involved to get to this point and it's really exciting how things are taking off," a buoyant Ben Taylor, managing director of championship promoter International Motor Sport, commented, "So many people have played a part in what has been achieved and it is incredibly gratifying that the competitors have responded so enthusiastically. It's great for the sport that people are talking positively about rallying again and I can't wait for the new season to get underway!”
The Mid Wales Stages' classic stages will be a genuine early-season test for the crews, with the first two stages, which take place on Saturday evening, requiring bravery, commitment and strong lights as drivers thread their way through 26 challenging miles in the depths of darkness. On Sunday, the crews embark on a day of flat-out competition over classic Wales Rally GB stages including Myherin, Sweet Lamb, Hafren and Pike's Peak with the winner being crowned in the centre of Newtown in the early afternoon.
Further underlining the renaissance of the new championship, ten manufacturers will be represented on the first round - with models from Citroen, Ford, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Proton, Renault, Skoda, Subaru, Toyota and Vauxhall all lining up to contest the six gravel stages - while WRC star Elfyn Evans will lead the teams away on Saturday evening in his Ford Fiesta R5, ahead of a host of drivers aiming to prove they have what it takes to claim the title.
Previous BRC champions David Bogie (Skoda Fabia R5) and Keith Cronin (Citroen DS3 R5) will be keen to repeat their previous title successes, while Euan Thorburn (Peugeot 208 T16 R5) and Marty McCormack (Skoda Fabia S2000) will be looking for a good start to their campaigns.
Underlining the strength of the Irish contingent, Jonny Greer (Citroen DS3 R5), Desi Henry (Skoda Fabia R5), Robert Woodside and the Moffett brothers (all Fiesta R5) will put up a formidable challenge, many of them combining their BRC endeavours with an Irish Tarmac campaign.
International entries from further afield bring the Fiestas of Sweden's Fredrik Ahlin, and Finland's Max Vatanen, son of 1981 world rally champion Ari Vatanen, who won the British title in 1976 and 1980.
With a staggering 21 cars fighting for honours in BRC1, the competition is expected to be absolutely fierce and with such a variety of makes and models, as well as an open tyre formula, it makes it almost impossible to pick a winner at this stage.
The support classes are led by the DMACK Junior BRC, which is designed to provide the ultimate proving ground for drivers under 26 years of age, and offers a £60,000 prize fund from series sponsor, DMACK Tyres. Leading the way in a truly international field will be highly-rated Swedish star Mattias Adielsson who heads a three-car Vauxhall Junior Rally Team assault in a trio of Adams.
Chasing the BRC1 runners will be the hotly contested BRC2 class, which is home to such iconic vehicles as the Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer, while BRC3 - which will feature newly-announced BBC Top Gear presenter Chris Harris debuting the exciting Toyota GT86 CS-R3 - and BRC4, which provides a home for the same R2 machinery as used in the Junior championship, but driven by hopefuls who fail to make the 26-year old age cut-off!
The National Cup, meanwhile, will see home-grown heroes Osian Pryce challenging for honours in his Spencer Sport-run Mitsubishi Mirage, while setting his sights on breaking into the top ten overall. Pryce, along with team-mate Jamie Jukes and fellow Mirage driver Robert Blomberg will face a stiff test from a number of experienced crews who are stepping up to the longer stage mileage on offer alongside the BRC show.
“I really can't wait until the end of the first two stages on Saturday night," BRC championship manager Iain Campbell concluded, "Not only will they be a huge challenge to the crews, it will mean that after all the work from everyone involved and all the hype and anticipation, BRC 2016 will have something tangible. We will have results on the board; we will have heroes, we will no doubt have some heartbreak and the story of the season will have started.
“From having had a year away, it was never on my radar that we would have such a high quality and quantity of entry for the start of this programme. Now the really hard work starts – maintaining the forward momentum for the future.”
The new-look BRC will take in seven events across the British Isles as it tours England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland before culminating on the iconic lanes of the Isle of Man.
The final event will count for double points, while each driver has one 'Joker' to play on one of the first six rounds. Selected a week before each round, a 'Joker' can only be played only once and will enable a driver to double the points scored on that nominated event.