After finishing the 2007 Australian Rally Championship in magnificent fashion, claiming second place in the final round in Melbourne, Victorian Spencer Lowndes has his sights set high for the 2008 season.

The former Mitsubishi Ralliart factory driver returned to the ARC for four events in 2007, and gradually built his speed in a brand new Lancer Evo 9. His second placing in Melbourne has many pundits predicting that he’ll be a serious championship contender next year, particularly with Simon Evans moving into the Super 2000 Toyota Corolla that has been slower than Lowndes’ Group N Mitsubishi during the recently concluded season.

But talk is cheap, and while Lowndes hopes the predictions are right, he and his team are putting all their time and energy into making sure that next year’s car will be even faster than his 2007 mount.

Recently married to Georgia, Lowndes had no sooner returned from a three week honeymoon to the Maldives and Vietnam than he was planning his 2008 assault, which will include making a number of changes to the specification of the car that he will use next year.

Having purchased two Lancer Evo 9’s this year, the second car was used as a spare parts car, but for 2008 that car will be rebuilt into the rally car, with the 2007 machine taking on the role of the team spare.

Heading the list of technical changes to the Evo 9 will be big new Group N brakes that offer a disc size 24mm bigger than this year’s car, and big callipers that are virtually identical to those used on the Peugeot 307 World Rally Car.

“At the Rally of Melbourne we were chewing through brake pads and disc rotors fairly quickly, so the new brakes should make a huge difference,” Lowndes told RallySport Magazine today.

“We also have some shock absorber development to undertake with Murray Coote at Proflex, to try and get more lateral grip from the car, and we’ll also be testing some different spring rates to get increased grip levels as well,” he added.

The Access Hardware team ran their car in PRC trim in Melbourne to try some different variations and to increase the power of the car, but will return to Group N specification for next season. A new Motec engine management system – that enables the team to tune each cylinder of the engine individually for knock or detonation – should help to increase the engine power by between seven and 10 horsepower.

“I noticed the horsepower difference in Melbourne, particularly at the top end of the rev range, so the new engine management system should give us a performance advantage,” Lowndes explained.

Diff settings are another area where the team hope to make significant improvements next year. This year’s car ran with diff settings from the Lancer Evo 7, but an early January test session will see a whole day dedicated to diff settings in order to get the car working better in all types of road conditions.

A major weight loss campaign is also being planned for the Evo 9, which should make the car considerably lighter than it was this year.

Of course none of this comes cheaply. In 2007 Lowndes estimated that each round of the championship cost him between $15,000 and $20,000, and those costs are expected to remain fairly constant next year. To this end, the team are working on a number of sponsorship deals, which include product and technical advice, as well as the much sought-after cash deals.

However, the changes won’t be limited solely to the car. Lowndes has committed to embarking on a major fitness campaign after admitting that he’s been “fairly slack” in that department since his drive at Mitsubishi Ralliart was terminated three years ago.

So what about those talks that he may start the year as the championship favourite. Does he see next year as his big chance to win the Australian Championship?

“Rather than going out next year with the aim of winning the championship, I’m more interested in making sure that we have everything in place to ensure that we do the best job possible,” he said. “To be honest, I think Simon (Evans) could have won the championship in our Evo 9 this year, so there’s no doubt that he’s going to be fast again.

“He’ll be fast in anything, and I’m sure that Toyota will be doing lots and lots of testing between now and the first round of the 2008 championship to make sure he’s on the pace from the first event.”

As for his own driving, Lowndes still believes he has some way to go to recapture his best form.

“I think I’ve got a fair bit to go to recapture the form I had at the end of my stint with Mitsubishi,” he admits. “At the end of my final year with them I thought I was driving really well, and the following year was looking good as I was finally going to be given equal machinery and tyres to my team-mate, Ed Ordynski. But then the program fell over and I was out of a drive.”

However, now he’s back in the championship full time, he’s confident he can return to his best form.

“I need to be able to push harder on the rougher stages, such as the Marginal stage on the Rally of Melbourne. On that stage Simon took heaps of time off everyone, so that’s the main area I need to work on.

“While I felt I was driving well, I think I probably have another 15% to go, which will give me the confidence to push hard in those conditions, conditions where the road surface can throw in more variables that make staying on the right line – or on the road – a lot more difficult.”

Between now and the first round of the championship in March, Lowndes will have his head down and tail up as he plans his attack on the 2008 ARC. If nothing else, he’ll know that he’s left no stone unturned in his preparation.

“The car will be lighter and faster, and I’ll be fitter,” he says. “If things go our way that will give us a good chance at achieving the results we believe we are capable of next year.”

Four months out from the start of next year’s title race, Lowndes has laid his cards on the table and looks set to take the battle right up to the factory Toyota and Ford outfits. It’s now up to the factory teams to stop the likeable privateer from turning the ARC on its head, and creating one of the biggest upsets of all time.

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