Rallye Sunseeker International 2011 marks a new chapter in the life of the Dorset event, as it becomes the opening round of the Dulux Trade MSA British Rally Championship for the first time. The event, running on February 25th and 26th, marks the 26th year of the Poole/Bournemouth area hosting a round of a National Rally Championship.
The rally, organised by the Southern Car Club, begins with a ceremonial start on Poole Harbour on Friday evening, before 65 stage miles in forests across Wareham and Ringwood on Saturday. For 2011, the event is split into three rallies, International, National and Historique.
The BRC runners lead the way in the entry for the International section of the rally, with Craig Breen and Gareth Roberts top of the pile as number one seeds and favourites in their Ford Fiesta R2. Heading to the event after finishing 15th overall on the opening round of the World Rally Championship in Sweden recently, the duo will be looking to add to their International Rally Northern Ireland BRC win last year.
Hot on their heels will be two drivers in Skoda Fabia S2000's. First up is Northern Ireland's Jonny Greer, co-driven by Dai Roberts, who returns to the rally having finished ninth in 2010 in an Evo IX. The other Fabia will be driven by Irishman Robert Barrable and co-driven by Damien Connolly, the pair coming into the season after a successful 2010 which saw them win the British and Irish C2R2 Championships.
A driver to watch will be the 2010 BRC Challenge champion Callum Black in his Suzuki Swift S1600. Co-driven by Paul Wakely, Black is aiming for the F2 title this season despite it being only his second year in rallying and will look to get a good start to the season on the Sunseeker.
Leading the line up in the Citroen Racing Trophy is Desi Henry/John Rowan, the Northern Ireland pairing making their debut in the BRC having competed in Ireland previously. Following them will be fellow Northern Ireland pairing Mark Donnelly/Barry McNulty, the latter being the winner of the 2010 BRC Co-Driver title as he navigated Keith Cronin to the drivers' championship.
Scottish ace David Bogie leads the way in the four wheel drive entrants in the International Rally. Co-driven by Kevin Rae, the 2010 Scottish champion will be running a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX and is one of the favourites for the rally as he looks to mount a title push.
Also challenging for the win will be JR Motorsport pairing Tom Cave and Daniel Barry in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X's. Cave, co-driven by Craig Parry, competed in various Intercontinental Rally Championship rounds in 2010, but has decided to stay on home soil this season, while Barry returns to the rally on which he finished fourth in 2009, with Rory Kennedy alongside him.
Another driver to look out for is reigning Pirelli Star Driver Shoot-out winner Elfyn Evans, the prize for which was a fully funded drive in this seasons BRC in a Pirelli backed, TEG Sport run Subaru Impreza. The 2010 UK Ford Fiesta Trophy winner will be co-driven by Andrew Edwards. The TEG Sport team has also entered a Ford Fiesta ST for Nick Cristofaro/Rob Fagg.
Other BRC entrants to look out for include the 2008 Pirelli Shoot-out winner Adam Gould, co-driven by Seb Marshall, last minute entrants Euan Thorburn/Paul Beaton in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX and Alan Cookson/Julian Wilkinson in their Subaru Impreza N15, who suffered a huge accident on the rally back in 2008.
Rallye Sunseeker International has a real international feel to the event this year, with drivers coming from all across the world to compete. Leading these are Finish pair Mikko Pajunen/Jani Salo in their Autosport Technology run R2 Renault Twingo. The duo won three R1 rounds and one R2 round last season so will be one to watch on the Sunseeker. Running an identical Twingo will be Estonian pairing Siim Plangi/Marek Sarapuu, who finished sixth overall on Rally Scotland last year.
Flying all the way from Barbados for the rally will be Neil Armstrong and Max Ferri in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX. It will be the duo's second appearance on the rally after finishing seventeenth overall in 2009 and comes as part of the major Sol Rally Barbados 2011 promotion at the event.
As part of the promotion, the winner of the Rallye Sunseeker National event will receive free entry and shipping to the 2011 Rally Barbados from the Barbados Tourism Authority. They will also get flights, accommodation and rental car from the Barbados Rally Club, an award valued at around £5,500.
With the introduction of the British Rally Championship and the loss of the MSA National Gravel Rally Championship at Rallye Sunseeker, many of the top national drivers that have graced Rallye Sunseeker in recent years are missing this year's event.
Out of the top ten seeds from last year's rally, only two have returned for this year's national rally. Regulars like Paul Bird, Steve Perez, Andy Burton, Stephen Hendy and Kenny McKinstry are missing from the entry list, with the biggest absentee from this year's rally being seven time Sunseeker winner and local hero Marcus Dodd.
This has left two time winner Roger Duckworth/Aled Davies leading the field for this year's National Rally. Duckworth, who won in 1998 and 2004, is the only former winner in this year's field and will be looking to make it a hat trick in his Subaru Impreza WRC.
Hot on his heels will be Anthony Wilmington and Andrew White, who have impressed in the Dorset forests in recent years. 'Wilmo' finished sixth in 2009 and seventh in 2010 and will hoping to match those results this year in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI.
Behind them the rally has many of its stalwarts returning once again. Wug and Max Utting head into the event off the back of finishing third in class on the Wales Rally GB National last season in their 2007 Group N Subaru Impreza.
Another Group N Impreza crew are experienced female pairing Shelley Taunt and Julie Murphy, who return to the rally in their 2004 model having finished seventeenth overall in 2010. Another returning crew are Rod Bennett and Henry Richardson in their Fiat Stilo Arbath. The duo has competed on the event in many different machines over the years, including a Lancia Delta Integrale, and has over sixty years' rallying experience between them.
The iconic MG Metro 6R4 rally car is having its final fling on the Rallye Sunseeker in 2011 as Stuart and Simon Larbey enter their ex-Tony Pond car on the event for the final time. Their car has built a legacy on the event over the years, having competed on it over ten times.
Another car that has become iconic on the Sunseeker is local driver Darren Jones' little Skoda Felicia. Jones and his co-driver Paul Burley missed the event last year, but return in the car they picked up for £40 in 2007, a car that has won its class on Wales Rally GB in recent years. Taking them once again in another Skoda will be James and Colin Beckett in their Favorit.
After a successful first run in 2010, the organisers of Rallye Sunseeker have once again added a designated Historic rally within the event. Eight cars entered last year, but more than double that are set to take to the stages this time round.
Fans of the iconic rear wheel drive Ford Escorts can see many different examples of these machines competing on Rallye Sunseeker once again this year. On top of the five on show in the National rally, there are four more in the Historic section, including a MK1 Mexico in the hands of David Kirby and Ben Friend and a RS1800 run by Ernie Graham/Chris Parsons.
Another legendary rally car well represented is the Mini, with eight versions of the little machine set to grace the stages. Other cars on show include a Ford Cortina G, Austin Healey MK III, Lotus Sunbeam and Datsun 240Z.
Fans first chance to see the cars competing in the 2011 Rallye Sunseeker International is at the ceremonial start on Poole Quay from 6.30pm on Friday evening.
On Saturday, fans can pick up a Forest Car Park ticket for £25 per car, which gives them entry to the special stages in Ringwood, Uddens and Wareham forests. Those looking to make a day out of it can head to Somerley Park, where two special stages will run as well as the Motorfair, featuring various amusements and displays to keep fans entertained. This also costs £25 per car for entry. The Elliot Canford Park Arena, which is used for servicing, is also open to the public, costing £10 to enter, with the cars serviced twice during the day.
Spectators can get their final glimpse of the cars and drivers with the ceremonial finish on Bournemouth Pier Approach at 5.30pm on Saturday evening.