THIS weekend's Witch Way launches the 2001 SD34 Motor Sports Group road rally championship.

Ecurie Royal Oak's Dave Jones returns to defend his driver's title in a Peugeot 309GTi, with previous winner Neil Bye, from Pendle DMC, bidding to equal Ken Skidmore's record of three championship wins.

Bye, who will have his father Stephen on the maps again, had to settle for finishing top of the expert class last year after reliability problems with his Peugeot 205GTi.

Veteran navigator Jeff Smith won't be back to contest the 2001 season after retiring due to ill-health.

Smith, from Clitheroe DMC, claimed a record fifth title last year with Jeff Watkinson driving , his first being way back in 1965.

With 13 events spread over ten months, this year's calendar has the traditional mixture of very competitive rallies with some more navigational events, taking in the classic lanes of North Wales, Cumbria, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire.

Calendar of events: Jan 27: Witch Way (Pendle DMC); March 10: Hall Trophy (Clitheroe DMC); March 31: Eastwood Trophy (Morecambe); April 14: Rali Gogledd (Rhyl); May 26: Oaks Trophy (ERO); June 16: Memorial Rally (Garstang and Preston); July 7: PK Memorial (Bala); July 21: Westmorland (Eden Valley); Aug 4: St Wilfrid's (Ripon); Sept 1: Red Rose (GPMC/CDMC); Oct 13: Classic Lanes (Welsh Border); Oct 20: O61 (061); Oct 27: Cock of the North (Morecambe).