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On recent form, you’d have to think that only Simon Evans and Scott Pedder stood a realistic chance of winning this weekend’s NGK Rally of Melbourne.

Even when you take the results from this year’s Australian Rally Championship out of the equation, you’d have to think that either the Toyota tiger or the Mitsubishi maestro are the only two capable of winning.

Not since 2002 has a non-Victorian driver won the Rally of Melbourne, and even that year Evans looked set for victory until his Subaru’s engine died just 800 metres from the end of the final stage, handing victory to Possum Bourne.

Evans’ team-mate, Neal Bates, describes the event as his favourite, but he hasn’t won in Melbourne since 2000.

The two local boys, Pedder and Evans, are expected to fight it out, but how much the Toyota man’s pace is restricted by his desire to secure the Australian Rally Championship remains to be seen. Expect Pedder to shoot out of the blocks the fastest and, barring any major problems, he should take his first round win of the season.

Bates and Dean Herridge are both going to be fast as well, as are the impressive list of privateers who will start the event tonight at Melbourne’s Docklands precinct. Darren Windus (a former local), Will Orders, Stewart Reid and Kevin Shaw will all be fast, with Windus and Orders both a real chance for a top three placing.

Add into that list drivers of the ilk of Jesse Robison and John Murray Junior, and spectating at this weekend’s event will be well worth the trip out into the forests.

Much interest will focus on Ford’s substitute driver, Rick Bates, who will drive Ford’s rear-drive Focus for the first time. Michael Guest has been sidelined after losing his licence for speeding, and Bates will be watched keenly. A RallySport Magazine survey shows that 73% of people believe Bates will get a better result in the car than Guest has so far this year. Time will tell.

The father and son, John and David Hills, will both compete – David in his Lancer Evo 7 and John in his Mk1 BDA Escort, before both head to New Zealand next month for the week-long Silver Fern Rally. There are more family connections too – John Murray Jnr (Subaru) is entered, as is his father, John Snr (Commodore), while Ian Swan will drive his booming Falcon GTHO replica, and daughter Penny will drive the family Volvo.

A welcome addition to the entry list is the two-time Australian Champion, Geoff Portman, who will drive a 6-cylinder Commodore in his first Rally of Melbourne. The former Datsun/Nissan works driver has been out of the sport for many years, but is eyeing a comeback on a regular basis and will be eager to show fans he has lost none of his natural ability.

The event is also a round of the Victorian Rally Championship, and to that end, 22 entries will start the rally, headed by current champion Justin Dowel (Lancer Evo 8). He will be pressured for the VRC victory by Eli Evans, fresh from a number of Asia Pacific outings with the Les Walkden Subaru team.

Another making a welcome return to the sport after an extended absence is David Nutter, the Melbourne car dealer who has been a VRC front-runner in recent years. He’ll start as the third VRC competitor, ahead of the first two-wheel drive car in the VRC field, the rear-drive Nissan 200 SX of Brian Semmens.

With wild and windy weather in Victoria today, the event could be at the mercy of the Gods, and getting to the finish in one piece on Sunday afternoon might be the biggest battle to overcome.

Good luck to all competitors!

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