This weekend’s Tasmanian Tarmac Challenge will be a step into the unknown for many of the Australian Rally Championship (ARC) regulars, many of who will contest a tarmac rally for the first time.

Never before has the ARC included a tarmac rally as a full round of the championship, which means teams have been busily preparing their cars for the challenge of a new surface.

ARC entrants will be the last cars on the road in a stand alone section of the overall event.

Heading into what is the fifth round of the ARC, three-time champions, Toyota’s Neal Bates and Coral Taylor, hold a commanding 57 point lead over Eli Evans and Chris Murphy, driving a Subaru Impreza WRX.

Bates’ Toyota team-mates, husband and wife Simon and Sue Evans,  have won the previous two national titles, but an engine failure and a crash in the early part of the season have put their hopes of winning a hat-trick of titles behind the eight ball. As a result, they are nearly 100 points from the championship lead in third place, with just two rounds remaining.

Running a pair of high-tech Corollas built to the international Super 2000 regulations, Toyota have been the pace setters for much of the season. Their normally aspirated, four-wheel drive cars have been designed and built at Bates’ workshop in Canberra, and have proven to be incredibly reliable so far this year.

Their only real challenger has been Eli Evans, the younger brother of Simon.

Significantly, however, Eli won’t be in Tasmania to make a push for the ARC lead. Instead, he’s heading to the Rally of Malaysia to take on the best drivers from the Asia-Pacific region in the Pirelli Rally Challenge, with the winner taking the prize of a sponsored drive in six events of the 2009 World Rally Championship.

That leaves Spencer Lowndes and Michael Guest as the most likely challengers to the factory-backed Toyotas.

Lowndes – who is no relation to V8 Supercar driver Craig – has returned to contest the full ARC this year and is coming to grips with his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX. Built to the production car Group N rules, the turbocharged Mitsubishi should perform well this weekend.

Subaru-mounted Guest, driving for the locally-based Les Walkden Rallying team, is currently fifth in the championship, but a car-destroying crash at the previous round in South Australia has halted his title charge.

Guest hit a tree at high speed, and the resultant damage has meant that the LWR team have had to build a brand new car for the Newcastle driver for this event.

Others who will feature strongly among the ARC runners include current Victorian Champion Justin Dowel (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX), youngster Glen Raymond (Toyota Corolla), former go-kart racer Brenton Kaitler (Lancer Evo VI), and West Australian veteran, Dennis Dunlop (Lancer Evo VII).

The only female driver in the field is Molly Taylor, the daughter of Toyota co-driver, Coral Taylor. Twenty year-old  Taylor has only just returned from the UK where she competed in the Trackrod Rally, a round of the British Rally Championship.

Local hopes in the ARC component rest with Burnie’s Craig Brooks and Daniel Wilson, driving a Subaru Impreza WRX. Brooks, the owner of Total Alarm Services, will be aiming for a solid result and could push for a top six placing by the end of the two-day event.

Following the Tasmanian Tarmac Challenge, the final round of the ARC will take place in Coffs Harbour, on the NSW coast, in November.

Australian Rally Championship point score (after 4 of 6 rounds)

1.    Neal Bates / Coral Taylor (Toyota Corolla S2000) 283 points
2.    Eli Evans / Chris Murphy (Subaru Impreza WRX) 226 points
3.    Simon Evans / Sue Evans (Toyota Corolla Super 2000) 187 points
4.    Spencer Lowndes / Chris Randell (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX) 184 points
5.    Michael Guest / David Green (Subaru Impreza WRX) 123 points
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