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For the second time this season Neal Bates, and his all-conquering Toyota Celica RA40, will come under pressure by a former protégé, this time Ben Barker and his BMW 318is.
Having seen off the Datsun challenge of Ryan Smart in both Queensland and Coffs Harbour, Bates will have to contend with former Toyota Team Racing team mate Barker and co-driver Damien Long at Rally Victoria.
Barker, from the New South Wales South Coast, rose to prominence when Bates enlisted him as a factory driver in 2003. He would partner both Bates and Simon Evans in the Toyota team up until the season ending WPS Rally Bathurst in late 2005.
“It has been a while!” laughed Barker on his absence from the regular Australian Rally Championship scene. “We’ve had the BMW for about three years now and I’ve been thinking for a while it was time to get back in the ARC, so this is my chance and if all goes well we might be back a couple of times next year too.”
Barker has developed the rear-drive BMW with his uncle Pip, who himself has a long history in Australian motorsport. "Pip used to work for Frank Gardner's BMW team in the 80’s, so he knows his way around these sorts of cars and it’s developed into a pretty good thing,” explained Ben.
“It’s all fairly standard on the outside, but underneath it’s all M3 and we’re running a dogbox now too. It’s not worth as much as Neal’s Celica, or as finely tuned, so I’m heading down to Victoria to put my best foot forward and do our best,” he added.
Bates will lead the Classic field away, followed closely by Barker, with local Ford Escort ace Grant Walker chasing them down. “We say even though it’s our home rally we’ll treat it the same as every other event, but secretly we do want to do well!” laughed Walker. “I know all the service crew are pretty pumped up for it.”
Walker, who has competed on the Rally Victoria roads over the past two years, says being the first group of cars on the stages is always a challenge. “The roads are really good, but on the first pass they can be very slippery. I look at the times the VRC (Victorian Rally Championship) guys set on their first pass and they are always a lot faster.”
Running his BDG engined Escort Walker is expecting Bates to be hard to beat. “Neal has got to be the hot favourite. I’ve raced against him twice before, last year at Calder and again at Rally Victoria, and both times he was super fast and obviously super committed to his pace notes,” Grant said.
“I’ve run against Ben Barker too, at Bega, and on some stages he was miles ahead and on others not as much. So it’ll be interesting to see where we all are once the action kicks off!” added Walker.
The front running trio will have to stay out of trouble if they are to keep the chasing pack at bay, with Queenslander Clay Badenoch in his Toyota Corolla, local Kim Begelhole running his Datsun P510, Mark Beard makes the trip down from the NSW North Coast in his Datsun 1200 Coupe and Mark Pickering rounds out the field in his Datsun 240Z.
Action gets underway on Friday morning (15th November) at Lardner Park before drivers tackle the opening forestry stages on Friday afternoon.
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