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Flashback 17 years and the Australian Rally Championship had just completed its first season of full Group N regulations, and ahead of the formula's second season, RallySport Magazine, then Australian Rallysport News, published a feature on the main contenders for season 2003. Here's how the series was shaping up:

MITSUBISHI

Mitsubishi Australia will again run a two-car team in the Australian Rally Championship in 2003, with drivers Ed Ordynski and Spencer Lowndes heading the charge. After a successful 2002 season, where they narrowly missed winning the Manufacturers’ Championship, the pair will run Lancer Evolution 7’s in Group N trim from the start of the season. According to Mitsubishi Australia Special Vehicles Manager, Kevin Taylor, the withdrawal of the factory team from the World Rally Championship won’t have any effect on the Australian program. “We will run as we did in 2002,” he told ARN. “Our program is run separately from theirs, so it won’t have any effect at all.”

Ed Ordynski tackles the Tasmanian stages in 2003 aboard his Mitsubishi.

Although the new Lancer Evolution 8 is due for release some time in the first part of 2003, Taylor said that he wasn’t sure when the team would start competing with the new car. “There’s been some talk, but we don’t even know what changes the Evo 8 will have,” he said. “I’d expect that once it’s released we’ll endeavour to update one of the 7’s to the newer model, but until it’s released we don’t know when that will be.” The Mitsubishis will continue to run without a major sponsor, but with backing from subsidiary sponsors such as Pirelli.

TOYOTA

The Neal Bates Motorsport team are currently in the process of building a second prototype Corolla for next year’s ARC, although final confirmation on the appearance of the second car has not yet been made by Toyota. Since the Corolla’s debut at the Rally of Melbourne, Bates and his team have spent considerable time improving the car for next season. Most of the focus has been on engine performance and having the car on the dyno, which Bates says has been successful. “We’ve had the car out testing since its debut and we’ve made some good improvements – it’s certainly getting faster,” he told ARN. “We’ve also been working on the handling, as I wasn’t happy with the turn-in, and have made some improvements there as well.”

2003 would be the first complete season of the Group N (P) Toyota Corolla.

The Corolla will be sponsored in 2003 by Toyota, Caltex Havoline Premium and Michelin, although a colour scheme has yet to be decided on. “That’s not my area of expertise,” Bates said. More testing will take place before Christmas, and any announcement on a second driver will be made if and when Toyota announce a two-car assault. “We’ve signed Carlos Sainz as our second driver,” Bates joked. “He’d make a good number two, don’t you think?”

PROTON

The Proton Rallysport Australia team were still waiting on a call from Malaysia to go over and discuss budgets for next season when ARN contacted them early in December. But while budgets have not been finalised, team driver David West was confident that all would be sorted, enabling the team to proceed with the building of the first 4WD Waja. “The left-hand drive car we have is currently at the panel beaters being painted, and from there it will go to Sydney to have the roll cage fitted,” West said. The car will use Lancer Evolution 6 running gear, and plans are still for a two-car assault with West in one car and Tod Reed in the other. Meanwhile, 2002 Proton Trophy winner, Dave King, is preparing for a full season driving the 1600cc Satria that Reed drove during 2002. King’s funded drive is his prize for winning the one-make series. Note: Subaru Rally Team Australia's preview was completed separately.

PRIVATEERS

Simon Evans: The sensation of 2002 will return in 2003 with a brand new 2003-spec left-hand drive Impreza, and with increased support from Hella, Yokohama and other team sponsors. Evans and co-driving wife, Sue, will be aiming for the outright championship next year and believe they will have the machinery to do the job. “The new car will have a better engine with more power and more torque, and better suspension geometry,” Evans said. “It will be a bit heavier than our car from this year, but that should mean it will get better grip, so that’s not a problem.”
But running a team competing for outright honours comes at a cost and Evans says the team need a budget of $800,000 for next season.
“Our sponsors wanted us to try and win the championship, but that comes at a cost,” he added. “Fortunately they understand that and they’ve increased their sponsorship.” The added money will also allow the Evans team to pay their crew while away on events. “We’re going to do it properly, and that means reimbursing the crew for their time away,” he said. Talks the talented Victorian had with Ford are still continuing, although the blue oval has announced nothing to either Evans or the media on what their plans are for 2003 and beyond. Pedders Suspension: After an impressive 2002 season, the Pedders Rally Team again plan a two-car assault on the Australian Rally Championship. With plans still awaiting confirmation, due to on-going sponsorship negotiations, the team plan to run a pair of Lancer Evolution 6’s for brothers Scott and Mark Pedder. Mark, who drove a Group A Evo 3 this year, will upgrade to a Group N car and should be right on the pace of his brother. Bill Orders, Team Manager for Pedders Rally Team, said that the team had contemplated upgrading to an Evo 7 Lancer, but believed that the later version of the Mitsubishi contained too many electronic components for a privateer team to deal with.

Scott Pedder was part of a strong privateer team in the early 2000s.

At this stage plans are for both cars to do all ARC rounds, plus the Rally of Canberra and Rally Australia, although the manufacturers’ rounds depend on sponsorship being forthcoming. It is expected that both cars will continue to use Yokohama tyres. The team will also run a Lancer Evo 1 in the Victorian Championship for young gun Will Orders. Michael Guest: After struggling for much of 2002 as he and the Les Walkden team became familiar with the tricky transmission on their Lancer Evo 7, Guest’s pace improved at the final round in Melbourne where he set second fastest stage times. Like others, he’s got a few “irons in the fire” with regard to his 2003 plans, but admitted that one option was to continue with the Walkden team. “I couldn’t believe how hard the Evo 7 was to drive,” Guest said. “It would swap drive from front to rear when you wouldn’t expect it, but the team perservered and by the end of the season we started to get on top of it. “The car ran a standard engine a gearbox in 2002, and with more power and a dog box I’m sure it will be closer to the leading pace.” “I think the ruling allowing dog drive gearboxes in Group N cars was a big mistake as it adds a huge expense. For the Lancer it’s $30,000 for the gearbox, yet a standard ‘box would last us three or four events and only cost about $2000 to rebuild. I can’t understand why they brought the rule in,” he said. The Newcastle driver is currently talking to a number of sponsors about increased funding for next year, which he hoped would be finalised before Christmas. However he said Ford certainly weren’t one of the teams he was talking to. Chris Atkinson: When ARN spoke with the young Queenslander he was being tight-lipped about his plans for 2003. While he admitted that his team had ordered a 2003 Subaru Impreza WRX, there were other plans being made. Atkinson is overseas as this issue of ARN goes to press, trying to finalise a deal to contest the Australian Rally Championship and the Asia Pacific Championship in an unspecified car. “The overseas option is looking quite good,” Atkinson said, “but that’s all I can tell you. If I told you the country I was going to that would give it away,” he added.

A young Chris Atkinson had options heading into 2003. Photo: Neil Blackbourn

Two test drives with Suzuki earlier in 2002 could mean that a Suzuki 1600 program is on offer, although until the deal is signed, nothing can be announced. “If it doesn’t happen, we’ll contest the ARC in the Subaru,” he said. “We had no problems at all with Mitsubishi and the support they gave us this year, it’s just that the sponsors we’re talking to wanted us in a Subaru.” Watch this space for more details. Mark Thompson: After a year in the UK where he only competed in one rally (the Ulster), Sydney’s Mark Thompson will return to the ARC in 2003 driving the Lancer Evo 5 used successfully by Chris Atkinson in 2002. Thompson went to the UK with a contract from Slipstream Motorsport that could have gained him access to the British and World championships, but it didn’t eventuate and he finds himself back on home soil eager for another crack at the ARC. Thompson had one works drive with Mitsubishi Ralliart Australia in Tasmania in 2001, but rolled the car in testing and was forced to use his own Evo 5 in the event. But throughout that season he showed the speed that marked him as a driver to watch. At just 22, Thompson has plenty to offer. According to his father, Steve, the car they bought was the best one on offer. Although they believe it is currently the heaviest Evo 5 in the ARC, a weight loss program should see it considerably lighter by the time the first event starts. The car has a rebuilt engine and gearbox and should prove to be a good package. Sponsorship is still being chased, but Steve Thompson pointed out that the costs are getting ridiculously high. “It costs $500 to fill the fuel tank with Elf Fuel, so without sponsorship it’s going to be tough. We’ll do the full 2003 season one way or another, but without substantial funding 2004 won’t be an option,” he said. Thompson’s mother, Rita, will co-drive, as she has done in the past. Martin Lintott: Sydney driver Martin Lintott purchased an ex-Top Run Racing, Marcus Ligato Lancer Evo 7 just before Rally Australia this year and put in some creditable stage times before a last day retirement. The Mitsubishi dealer plans to do all ARC rounds in 2003, as well as the Rally of Canberra and Rally Australia. “I haven’t done much in the last year or so because of business and family commitments, but hopefully I’ll get a full season in,” Lintott said. “Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get enough time in the car in the last couple of years, but with a few more events planned I hope we can do well.”

Martin Lintott's Evo 7, pictured here in 2004.

Lintott will again be co-driven by the experienced Tasmanian, Tony Jackson. Warwick Rooklyn: 2002 Formula 2 winner Warwick Rooklyn will be one driver absent from the 2003 championship after selling his Daihatsu Charade to Victorian Ian Martin. Martin, in fact, also purchased the Charade of Brett Comber, and he plans a serious assault on the Super 1600 title next year. According to co-driver Linda Long, Rooklyn is once again headed down the circuit racing path. He’d originally planned to run a new Lancer Evo 7 in the outright category, but when sponsorship funds weren’t forthcoming, the car was sold. “He’s now heading off on a different tack, which I suppose is not unusual for a sailor,” Long says. “Waz is hankering to get back on the black top, and this obviously precludes the use of a co-driver. I find myself with a championship trophy in the cabinet and the prospect of joining Nicky Grist in the navigator’s unemployment queue.” While Rooklyn looks set to be lost to rallying, Long is still hopeful of an offer to co-drive in the ARC.

BOURNE SET FOR WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

Although his plans are still not set in concrete, Possum Bourne is forging ahead with plans to contest the 2003 World Production Car Championship (Group N). His entry into the World Championship has been accepted and he is one of nearly 30 drivers set to tackle the series next year. “It should have been finalised weeks ago,” Bourne told ARN, “but we’re still a couple of weeks short of securing the budget we need.” That budget is a few million dollars, but Bourne is confident that he, co-driver Mark Stacey and a new Subaru Impreza WRX will appear at the first Production Car round in Sweden at the beginning of February.

Possum Bourne's PWRC campaign did eventuate until his untimely death.

The seven-time Australian Champion would appear to have as much chance as anyone of winning the championship, given that Malaysia’s Karamjit Singh took out the 2002 title. Bourne has been far and away quicker than Singh this year and, if he can maintain his consistency, he’ll be in with a good chance. “I was actually surprised at how well we did in the Group N car this year,” Bourne said. “I still don’t think I’m fully on top of the car.” Bourne also admitted that he didn’t drive flat out on the final three rounds of the Australian Championship, “especially in Melbourne, where we were preserving the car for Rally New Zealand” he said. As for the New Zealander’s plans for the 2003 Australian Championship, he said they are “far from decided. I’m not sure when that decision will be made as we’re waiting to hear from Japan.” It is expected that Subaru Australia will again run a three-car team with Bourne, Cody Crocker and Dean Herridge, but nothing has yet been announced.
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