The 2012 MSA British Rally Championship kicks off this weekend as the stars of British rallying head south for the opening round of the year, the Rallye Sunseeker International.
The Bournemouth-based gravel event joined the British Rally Championship calendar for the first time last year and a successful event, won by David Bogie, was voted 'Rally of the Year' by the drivers, co-drivers and officials at the championship's end of season awards, meaning a return to the south coast was inevitable.
This year's event will host the beginning of a new era for the British Rally Championship, as it moves into a two-wheel drive only format. Aimed at reducing costs and bringing in manufacturers, the move has been popular so far, with their being a strong entry for the Sunseeker opener.
The event, organised by the Southern Car Club, is once again split up into three sections, the International rally featuring the BRC entrants, the National rally and the Historique rally.
Topping the International entry after announcing an unexpected return is the 2009 and 2010 British Rally Champion Keith Cronin. After a year out of rallying in 2011, the Irishman is making a one-off promotional appearance in a Mantis-backed Renault Twingo R1 and although it's unlikely he'll be able to challenge for the overall victory, he'll definitely want to put in a strong performance on the Sunseeker as he looks at a possible full time series return.
Looking to challenge for Sunseeker victory will be another BRC returnee, Alastair Fisher. The Northern Irishman will compete in the WRC Academy once again this year, having enjoyed some impressive performances in his maiden season in the series last year, but has entered the first few events of the BRC as a warm up and will be looking for some good results in his Ford Fiesta R2.
He will be challenged by the current Pirelli Star Driver Jukka Korhonen and his team-mate Arron Newby, the highly-rated duo competing in a pair of Pirelli TEG Sport-entered Skoda Fabia R2's, whilst Korhonen's predecessor as the star driver, Elfyn Evans, will be looking to build on a strong 2011 BRC campaign in his Ford Fiesta R2.
Looking to go one step higher than he did last year is Tom Cave, the Welshman having come second on the Sunseeker last year. Cave will compete in another Fiesta R2, before switching to a new Citroen DS3 R3 for the rest of the season.
Two drivers who will be hoping to challenge for the rally win in their Renault Clio R3's will be talented Northern Irishman Mark Donnelly and Peter Taylor. The fact BRC regular Taylor is competing at all is remarkable, after he smashed his pelvis and lost an ear in a car crash in December.
Other drivers to look out for include young Finnish duo Jussi Kumpumaki and Niko-Pekka Nieminen, who will be competing in a pair of Ford Fiesta R2's for the Ford Junior Team Finland, and two series returnees who are competing in AVS Motorsport-prepared Ford Fiesta ST's, Gethin Jones who returns after 13 years away and Matt Cotton, who is entering his first international event since 2008.
Also returning to the BRC is Matthew Cathcart, the Northern Irishman entering a Ford Fiesta R2 for his first event in nearly two years. Two other drivers to watch out for are former BRC Challenge champion Callum Black, who enters a second season in his Millers Oils-backed Suzuki Swift S1600, and reigning Junior 1000 Rally Champion Chris Ingram, with big things expected of him in his Renault Twingo R2.
Part of the British Rally Championship is the NGK Spark Plugs BRC Challenge, which comes to the Sunseeker for the first time, bringing an entry of up and coming drivers and established clubmen. Amongst them is 2011 BRC Challenge runner-up Simon Moore in a Renault Clio, the highly-rated Mark McCulloch in his Proton Satria, BRC Challenge rally winner Richard Archer in an ex-works S1600 Opel Corsa and the quick Richard Sykes in a Citroen C2R2 Max, with all the drivers hoping to win the title and follow in the footsteps of 2011 champion Jack Rowe, who has stepped up to the full BRC and will compete on the Sunseeker in a Ford Fiesta R2.
Alongside the Rallye Sunseeker International is the ever-popular Rallye Sunseeker National event. Last year's event was won by Roger Duckworth, the Subaru Impreza driver adding to his 1998 and 2004 event wins after benefitting from the retirement of Anthony Wilmington.
Duckworth returns this year and will be looking to add to his victory tally and with it return to Sol Rally Barbados as a prize, whilst fellow Sunseeker regular Wilmington will be looking for another strong run in his trusted Mitsubishi Evo 6.
Looking to challenge for victory will be British and Irish rallying stalwart Michael O'Brien, who has entered an ex-Ken Block 2006 Ford Focus WRC, but to succeed one driver he'll have to beat is his son, with two time British Junior Rallycross champion Andy O'Brien entering a 2002 Ford Focus WRC.
Other drivers to look out for are the only two Production BRC class entrants at the time of writing Alan Carmichael and Shelley Taunt. Both are Sunseeker regulars and will be hoping to challenge for the National win, as will fan favourite Stuart Larbery in his MG Metro 6R4.
For the third year running, Rallye Sunseeker will also feature a designated Historic event, with the Historique rally bringing together a collection of classic rally machines to battle it out in the Dorset forests.
Leading entrants include four of last year's top six finishers, 2011 winner Richard Lane in his Ford Escort, another Ford Escort entrant Peter Egerton, Clive King in his Mini Cooper S and Eric Davis in a Mini Clubman. Ford Escorts and Mini's lead the entry, which also features a Chrysler Sunbeam Lotus, a Ford Cortina and a Fiat 131.
The fans first chance to the see the cars competing in the event is during scrutineering, which takes place from 10am to 3.30pm on Friday, running alongside the Barbados Holiday Show at the Bournemouth International Centre, entry costing £5. They then move on to the ceremonial start on Poole Quay from 6pm to 8pm in the evening.
The real action takes place on Saturday, with fans able to buy a Forest Car Park ticket for £25 per car, which gives them entry to stages in Wareham, Ringwood and Uddens forests. For those looking for more than just the rallying, there is also Somerley Park, which combines two live stages with a Motorfair, featuring various amusements and displays to keep fans entertained, again £25 per car for entry. Fans can also access servicing during the day at the Elliot Canford Park Arena, costing £10 to enter, with the cars to be serviced five times 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.
A full entry list for the event and more information on it can be found on the Rallye Sunseeker website (www.rallyesunseeker.co.uk). Fans can listen to live coverage of the event on Rally FM (www.rallyfm.net), while there will be live footage of scrutineering, the ceremonial start and the two Somerley stages on the official website.