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FINLAND'S champion rally driver and European car maker Skoda will join forces with the number one team in the Asia Pacific for a major multi-national bid to win the International Rally of Queensland on the Sunshine Coast in July.

Esapekka Lappi will be a star attraction for rally fans when he drives a factory-backed Skoda Fabia S2000 car for the Indian-owned MRF team in the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) third round on 12-14 July.

A second, identical car will be driven by MRF regular and two-time Indian Rally Champion Gaurav Gill in a field also set to include competitors representing France, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Australia.

The International Rally of Queensland will start on Friday night 12 July with a Rally Show and stadium-style Super Special Stage under lights at the Nambour Showgrounds, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

Headquartered at beachside Caloundra, the event will run its daylight Special Stages around Kenilworth, Imbil and Pomona, to the north, and make a meet-and-greet visit on Saturday eveningto the popular Ettamogah Pub tourist attraction.

The "works" involvement announced by Skoda Chairman Prof. Dr. h.c. Winfried Vahland at the company's headquarters in the Czech Republic is one of the biggest developments for the International Rally of Queensland since Malaysian manufacturer Proton debuted a two-car team in 2010.

Lappi, 22, won the Finnish championship last year with a clean sweep of all seven rounds and, driving a Skoda, recently won the WRC2 category of the FIA World Rally Championship round in Portugal.

Gill has driven for MRF since 2007 and won the International Rally of Queensland in 2010. Last year, MRF also won the event and the Asia Pacific Championship with Australian Chris Atkinson, whose seat in the re-named Skoda-MRF outfit has now gone to Lappi.

“Skoda’s entry to the APRC is an important step in terms of the brand’s growth offensive in international markets," Prof. Vahland said.

"Asia is exactly the region where our ambition is to grow substantially in the coming years. Demonstrating local people’s enthusiasm about rallying, the APRC is one of the key motorsport competitions in this region, offering us a great opportunity to present our brand to a large audience.”

Australia has become one of Skoda's most important markets in South East Asia since the brand launched here in 2007.

International Rally of Queensland Director Errol Bailey said Lappi, with countryman and co-driver Janne Ferm, promised spectators a display of world-class driving talent.

"Esapekka is a star in a country that breeds rally drivers like no other and by the time he arrives on the Sunshine Coast his skills will be honed to perfection by regular competition in the APRC, WRC and European championship.

"The activity supporting Skoda's official involvement will undoubtedly raise the profile of our event. It will be a thrill to welcome Skoda-MRF, Esapekka and Gaurav to Queensland."

Skoda's announcement was welcomed by APRC President Steven Kennedy, who said it would boost the regional championship's standing in Europe.

“Official confirmation from Skoda that they will enter the 2013 Asia Pacific Rally Championship is great news and to bring the current Finnish champion Esapekka Lappi into the team adds another international element to our championship," Mr Kennedy said in Auckland.

"With the recent confirmation of European press agency Mediatica as an APRC official media partner, plus the new and exciting partnership with official supplier Würth, the APRC's profile in Europe is going from strength to strength."

Other recent announcements also promise to boost the International Rally of Queensland APRC entry list with new drivers, new cars and new team sponsors.

Toyota will back a Vitz RS (named Yaris in Australia) for New Zealander Michael Young, Frenchman Claude Cavel, representing New Caledonia, and Hiroshi Asakura of Japan will visit Queensland for the first time and India's Sanjay Takale will step up to the outright class with a four-wheel drive Subaru.

Three Queensland drivers, Bruce Fullerton, Simon Knowles and Matt van Tuinen, will join the championship from the opening round at the International Rally of Whangarei in New Zealand on18-19 May, when Lappi also will make his debut.

Young's entry in the APRC Two-wheel-drive Cup, Asia Cup and Junior Cup will be a joint venture between Toyota Racing Development (TRD) and Japan's Cusco Racing, with support from Dunlop Japan.
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