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For the first time in six years Mazda Australia will enter a two-car team in next month’s Targa Tasmania, with the 2007 event marking the endurance rally debut of the country’s quickest hot-hatch, the Mazda3 MPS.

Acclaimed rally driver, Rick Bates, will spearhead the Mazda Targa Team in the front-wheel-drive Mazda3 MPS and, in a first for Mazda Motorsport, rising female rally star, Melinda Both, will pilot the four-wheel-drive luxury Mazda6 MPS that won its class at last year’s rally.

Gearing up for their assault on the 2007 Targa rally, the cars - powered by the same 2.3-litre, direct injected, turbo engine that pumps out 190kW at 5500rpm - will enter the production car class in the event’s fiercely contested Modern Competition.

As one of the few manufacturers to commit to this year’s rally from April 17–22, Mazda’s preparation for its 2007 Targa campaign began late last year at the Mt Buller Sprint where Bates and Both first tested their Targa-bound cars in a competitive environment.

Using the short hill climb to fine-tune both cars for the unpredictable Targa Tasmania challenge, Mazda Motorsport guru, and Team Manager, Allan Horsley, says a significant amount of work has gone into preparing the two cars for the five-day rally.

“As Australia’s leading import brand we always have a lot riding on competitive outings of this intensity, but I selected Rick and Melinda based on their raw driving ability, knowing they would do the Mazda brand justice,” says Horsley, who anticipates both crews will be aiming for a win.

“This year’s event will be a good testing ground for the Mazda3 MPS as it will give the public an opportunity to see how it stacks up on challenging roads, under extreme conditions.”

Bates, a professional rally driver from Canberra, has competed in four Targa Tasmania events. The 42-year-old first drove for Mazda in the 2002 Targa rally in a RX-7 SP.

“I will be driving this car as quickly as I can but the goal is to make it across the finish line,” says Bates. “As a standard production car the Mazda3 MPS is a great piece of machinery that is well suited to Targa Tasmania and its changeable weather conditions.”

Calling the corners for Bates is 31-year-old professional co-driver Anthony McLoughlin, of Queensland. McLoughlin.

This year Melinda Both, who also hails from Queensland, makes history as the first female to be selected for Mazda’s Motorsport team.

31-year-old Melinda, also a senior position holder in the State Public Service, has only been driving competitively since 2003 but already her natural driving ability is earning her top results. Her debut drive at last year’s Targa Tasmania, with younger sister Jasmine, scored her a class-win and the event’s Fastest All-Female Crew award.

Melinda’s motorsport biography also boasts successful outings at Rally Tasmania, various club and state level Queensland rally rounds and more recently the 2006 Mt Buller Sprint.

“I am keen to repay Mazda’s faith in me by delivering my best driving performance yet,” says Melinda. “The Mazda6 MPS has a lot of strengths that I plan on taking full advantage of.”

As well as having one drive under her belt, Melinda also navigated in the 2004 and 2005 Targa rallies. Her extensive knowledge of the course will be an advantage to Mazda’s first all-female Targa crew as Melinda’s navigator, motoring writer Samantha Stevens, makes her debut at the rally.  

28-year-old Stevens, of Sydney, writes for Australia’s leading motoring publication, Wheels Magazine, and is one of the country’s top female test drivers.

Mazda last entered a two-car team in Targa Tasmania in 2001, with former ARC champion Murray Coote and motoring journalist Michael Taylor each driving an MX-5. This will be the sixth time Mazda Australia has entered the rally, which is now in its 16th year.

The 2007 event comprises 2000 kilometres with 445 of those competitive. The competitive course is held over 42 challenging closed-road stages plus a prologue.

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