Activ RallySport driver, Justin Dowel, embarks on his 2011 Bosch Australian Rally Championship campaign this weekend, with the first round to be held around Busselton, south of Perth.

Dowel and co-driver, Matt Lee, are one of the leading contenders for this year’s title race, which will see a number of firsts for the Melbourne-based team.

With the absence of reigning champion, Simon Evans, this weekend’s Quit Forest Rally will be the first round of the national championship that Dowel has started as the first car on the slippery gravel stages.

And while Dowel is honoured to have the opportunity in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX, it also comes with its difficulties.

“We have the speed, and the seeding list says that we’re the fastest crew here, but that also means that we’re the first car on the road and sweeping the stages for everyone else,” Dowel said.

“Western Australia is probably the worst place in the country to be car one on the road, and I would have preferred wet weather, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”

Despite this, Dowel is confident of a strong showing in an event that hasn’t been kind to him in the past.

“Our priority this weekend is to finish - not to win. I’ve never had a decent finish in WA, so there’s no point in being in the top three on Saturday if you don’t finish Sunday.

“The plan will be to pace ourselves and ensure that we’re in the mix on Sunday afternoon.”

This year’s Australian Rally Championship also sees a change in the vehicle regulations, with four-wheel drive turbocharged cars now being allowed to run without power-sapping turbo restrictors.

The new ‘unrestricted’ class has generated much interest, from both competitors and the media alike.

“We’ve done a lot of testing and in the new spec the car is awesome,” Dowel added.

“By removing the restrictor and adding extractors to the car, we’ve had an increase in power by 30%, which means the engine is now producing around 270kW at the wheels. It really does sound like a World Rally Car.”

Dowel’s main rivals this weekend are expected to be the Mitsubishi Lancers of Mark Pedder and Steve Shepheard, the Toyota Corolla of Queenslander Ryan Smart and, to a lesser extent, the factory Honda Civic of Eli Evans.

“We know that Mark has done a lot of work in the off season, and he has more power than we do,” Dowel said. “That doesn't faze me much, because in the scheme of things, five horsepower isn't going to matter too much.

“We also know that Eli (Evans) will be fast this year, but WA is probably not an event that suits the front-wheel drive Honda.

“The new rules have made the gap to the 2WD cars greater, but we still need to ensure that we are consistent over the whole championship, not just over one day or one stage.”

With the added horsepower on offer, tyres are going to be a critical factor in determining results, and Dowel was not about to give away any secrets on what compounds he was planning on using this weekend.

“We’ve come up with a plan that we think will work, but we don’t think tyre wear will be such an issue here because it’s such a loose surface.

“Having said that, keeping the tyres within the right temperature range is the key if the weather is warm, because more horsepower means they'll get hotter quicker.”

Dowel believes the Kumho control tyres held up incredibly well during their pre-season test, and he expects them to perform consistently over the weekend.

He and Lee have continually evolved their pacenotes over recent seasons, and with much of the Forest Rally route being similar to last year, it gives them further opportunity to refine the descriptive notes that guide them through the stages.

“I’m quite confident heading into the season,” Dowel added. “Not having Simon (Evans) there is a big advantage for everyone, and we just need to ensure that we make the most of that opportunity.

“Testing has gone really well, I’m driving better than ever, the team has done a great job over the off-season in getting the car ready, and we can’t wait for the rally to get underway on Friday night.”

The Quit Forest Rally starts on Friday night with the tarmac Busselton Toyota Super Special Stage (to be repeated on Saturday night) before heading to the forests of Nannup for the gravel stages on Saturday and Sunday.

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