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The Australian Rally Championship starts its 2009 season in Tasmania today with a strong group of privateers hungry to grasp their best opportunity in years to win.

Rally Tasmania, the only all-tarmac event in the six-round championship for drivers, starts in Burnie and during the next three days will take crews over almost 217 kilometres of special stages on some of the island’s States most challenging roads.

With the Neal Bates Motorsport Toyota Corolla S2000s of Neal Bates and Simon Evans appearing for the last time with Toyota backing, following the company’s decision to withdraw from rallying, leading privateers including Eli Evans, Dean Herridge, Spencer Lowndes, Justin Dowel, Brendan Reeves and Glen Raymond believe the way is open for a new order in the competition.

“It’s the greatest opportunity a privateer has ever had. Anyone in the top five has a great chance of winning this event and we’ve got just as good a chance as anyone now,” said Dowel, who will drive a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9.

“The budgets are going to be more even and it’s going to be a matter of just who’s got the best crew and the best car.

“I think Eli, Brendan and Spencer will be exceptionally quick and will challenge Neal this weekend.

“Simon wasn’t at home here last year, but he’s the fastest rally driver in Australia and is still going to be a man to beat this year.

“This is our first tarmac event, but I can’t wait. It’s going to be really fun, exciting and challenging and will reward good clean, neat driving.”

Bates, the defending champion and constructor of the dominant S2000 Toyotas, is a tarmac specialist and remains among the favourites for this weekend.

The four-time champion and co-driver Coral Taylor won last year’s Tasmanian round in wet conditions, but are expecting dry weather this year will increase the pace – and tyre wear.

"Last year tyre conservation wasn't an issue in the wet conditions, but it will be this year as we are expecting a dry and therefore fast event. However our Michelin tyres are great, so they should stand us in good stead," Bates said.

West Australian Dean Herridge will be another to watch.

The former Subaru Rally Team Australia driver is returning to the Australian Rally Championship after a season honing his skills in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship and is in strong form after finishing fifth in the recent Targa Wrest Point rally.

Herridge, and co-driver Glen Weston, will debut a current-model Subaru Impreza STi for his Maxiumum Motorsport team.

The Rally Tasmania schedule includes a ceremonial start in the town centre and three special stages today including the legendary 20 km Hellyer Gorge, a city street stage tomorrow night and a Sunday-afternoon finish near the recently-developed Burnie Foreshore.

The ARC cars will contest Rally Tasmania alongside modern and classic tarmac cars, the second group chasing points in the inaugural Australian Classic Tarmac Championship.

Television coverage of the ARC first round will be shown nationally on Network Ten, on a date yet to be announced. Under a new production arrangement, privateers will feature prominently in the season’s coverage.

Dates for the 2009 Australian Rally Championship are -

February 13-15: Rally Tasmania, Burnie
March 7-8: Rally of Canberra
April  3-5: Quit Forest Rally, Western Australia
May 9-10: Rally Queensland, Sunshine Coast
June 27-28: Daikin Coffs Coast Rally, New South Wales
July 31- August 2: Sprint Auto Parts Rally, South Australia
September 3-6: Repco Rally Australia (WRC), northern New South Wales

(Rally Queensland is also a FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship round; the FIA WRC Rally Australia includes a round for the ARC Manufacturers title only, not drivers)
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