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The decision by the world’s biggest car maker, Toyota, to withdraw from rallying has presented a huge opportunity for a host of well-credentialed privateer competitors to stake their claim for the 2009 Australian Championship, which gets underway with Rally Tasmania this weekend.

Among those likely to challenge when the event gets underway late on Friday in Burnie are 2008 Pacific Champion, Dean Herridge, and Victorians Eli Evans, Spencer Lownes, Brendan Reeves, Justin Dowel and Glen Raymond, and 2007 Targa Tasmania champion, Tony Sullens.

While Toyota has withdrawn from the series, their former drivers and cars will both be on the start line, but without the factory support of days gone by.

Reigning Champion, Neal Bates, and the 2006 and 2007 champion, Simon Evans, will start as two of the favourites for victory in the first round of the ARC in Burnie, ensuring rally fans still get to see the best of the ARC drivers and cars in action.

Driving their normally-aspirated, four-wheel drive Corollas built under the Super 2000 regulations, Bates and Evans are eager to start the season in fine form.

"I am really looking forward to Tasmania," Bates said this week. "The event was very good to us last year and it was certainly a round that helped secure the championship.”

Evans, while not as adept on tarmac as he is on gravel, is also confident that he has the speed to push for victory.

"We learnt a lot last year and we have to build on that,” Evans said.

“Tarmac rallying clearly requires a different driving style. Our main goal going in is to get some points to help build towards the championship,” he explained.

Last year’s championship runner-up, Eli Evans, younger brother of Simon, will be back in his Group N Subaru Impreza WRX STI, and with a full season of running at the front of the ARC field under his belt, he is sure to be a man to watch.

Two other ‘young men in a hurry’ will also push hard for podium finishes. Brendan Reeves finished the 2008 rally season by finishing a brilliant third in the international Fiesta shoot-out in the UK, a competition that pitted the world’s best young drivers against each other in a series of tests both inside and outside the rally car.

Reeves, who finished second outright in Rally Burnie (behind Jim Richards) in 2007, will step back into a Les Walkden Rallying Impreza WRX STI, and could well be a real victory chance.

Similarly, fellow Victorian, Glen Raymond, has come off his most successful season at ARC level, and with a fast and reliable Group N(P) Corolla, he’s expecting even bigger things in 2009. Raymond capped last season off by winning the CAMS Motorsport Personality of the Year award, so his confidence will be sky high.

Both Spencer Lowndes and Justin Dowel will be driving their Lancer Evo IX’s. Lowndes was on target for a podium finish in last October’s Tasmanian Tarmac Challenge until a crash late on the final day, while Dowel is quickly emerging as a driver to watch.

Herridge, the former Subaru Rally Team Australia driver, spends many months each year competing internationally and throughout Asia, and he will be very competitive in his new-model Impreza WRX STI.

2004 and 2007 Targa Tasmania winner, Tony Sullens, will also be in a Subaru, and he regularly shows his pace on these roads, so the list of potential ARC winners grows to eight.

Rally Tasmania is the only tarmac round of the Australian Rally Championship, and presents many new challenges to competitors.

Different tyre and suspension combinations, and different driving techniques all add to the mystique of the event, and crews who don’t get their set-up right from the first stage will be well behind the eight ball.

The ARC cars will start the event behind the Modern and Classic crews, but the action will be no less intense. The first round of six this year, all crews will be out to prove a point and try to set up their season.

Rally Tasmania starts on Friday afternoon with three stages to kick off the event. Saturday is the rally’s biggest day, with eight stages over 116 competitive kilometres, while a further eight stages (72 kilometres) make up Sunday’s schedule.

Further details and live results from Rally Tasmania can be found at www.rallytasmania.com.au.
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