Privateer drivers have been urged to aim high and take the fight to the dominant Toyota manufacturer-backed team in coates Rally Queensland starting on the Sunshine Coast today by the last driver to achieve the feat, Australia’s World Rally star Chris Atkinson.

Toyota Racing Development Rally Team’s current Australian Rally Championship leader Neal Bates and defending champion Simon Evans can be beaten, says Atkinson, whose Rally Queensland win in 2004 helped catapault him into the Subaru World Rally Team the following season.

“Someone’s got to start beating Simon on the stages. I don’t think anyone has really taken it to Simon,” he said yesterday during a home visit between the Turkish and Finnish rallies.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on Australia and there’s been a couple of young guys doing some good times.

“Now they have to start taking some risks.

“Don’t think the guys at the front are unbeatable. Why not set your targets high?”

coates Rally Queensland, round three of six in the 2008 Australian championship, starts tonight with the Pacific Ford Shootout, a Super-Special stage under lights at the Maroochy Showgrounds, Nambour.

This morning, invited teams will take part in a shakedown session at the showgrounds, which, although an unofficial contest, usually provides a rough form guide for the weekend.

Thousands of spectators are expected to turn out for the Pacific Ford Shootout before the field of almost 70 cars tackles two days of racing in the Imbil State Forest, just south of Gympie.

Despite Atkinson’s comments – which will be judged when he visits the rally on Sunday - Bates and Evans in their Super 2000 Toyota Corollas are clear favourites for the rally, to be run over two heats comprising a total of 18 competitive stages and 243 kilometres.

Bates and co-driver Coral Taylor, who have won three championships together, lead the series with 148 points after round wins in Western Australia and Canberra.

Evans and his co-driver wife Sue – champions for the past two seasons - are 36 points behind in second spot, followed by West Australian Darren Windus, Spencer Lowndes and Evan’s younger brother Eli in equal-fourth and Justin Dowel, fifth.

It’s one of the most open privateer fields in years.

After two rounds in a Subaru, Windus will be back at the wheel of the potent Super 2000 Ford Fiesta he drove in 2007, run out of Jason Bright’s V8 Supercar team.

Former Ford teammate Michael Guest will start in a Les Walkden-entered Subaru Impreza.

Tonight’s start will end a busy week for the competitors. Many have spent the time testing their cars in the forest or conducting reconnaisance of the course. Crews have set up makeshift “pits” in streets outside their Marcoola Beach hotels to finalise the cars’ preparation.

Some have had other issues, however.

Queensland star Stewart Reid has been flat out repairing his Toyota after rolling during testing on Tuesday, but is confident of making the start.

Matt van Tuinen is due to complete the registration of his ex-world championship Subaru only this morning, after it was shipped from Christchurch at the last moment.

This year’s coates Rally Queensland celebrates the 40th year a championship round has been run in Queensland. This is its 13th year on the Sunshine Coast.

Entry to the Pacific Ford Shootout or the Imbil Spectator Park costs $10 for adults, with children 12 years and under free.
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