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Victorian Steve Riley will start the 2009 Australasian Safari as the favourite in the Auto division after taking a convincing victory in last year’s outback marathon.

Riley heads a strong field of Australian and international competitors in the 3600 kilometre adventure through Western Australia’s outback.

Drivers from the United States of America, China, the United Kingdom, Germany and New Zealand will battle it out with Australia’s best, starting in Perth this Saturday, August 1, and finishing in Kalgoorlie on August 8.

Driving a Mitsubishi Pajero with a thumping 6-litre engine, Riley won the Auto division of the Safari for the first time last year, but will face stern opposition from a host of hotshots in a wide range of four-wheel drive vehicles.

The Leongatha dairy farmer believes he can do well again.

“I’m confident that we’ve prepared as best we can, although we would have liked to have done more testing,” Riley said. “The car sustained a lot of engine and body damage last year, and it was virtually a write off. We’ve had a stressful time with plenty of late nights rebuilding it.”

Riley gave the car a shakedown at the Condo 750 event at Easter and finished third outright, with performance improvements helped by a new engine management system that enables the team to monitor the engine performance.

“This year we’ve formed a two-car team with Geoff Olholm and will run under the Cairns Coconut Holiday Resort Banner,” he added. “The cars are painted in the same livery and we’ve been able to share some resources, which will help on the event as well.”

He believes his toughest competition is likely to come from the factory-supported Isuzu D-MAX of Safari veteran Bruce Garland, but he’s quick to point out that there’s a host of others in with a shot of victory.

“With all his experience Bruce will be tough to beat, but there are up to 10 drivers who could win. The Safari is such a tough event, so you can be the fastest driver with the best prepared car and still not win. Look at last year when John Hederics was the hot favourite and rolled out of the event on the first day.”

Garland, from New South Wales, finished a brilliant 11th outright in this year’s Dakar Rally, and is determined to improve on his third place finish from last year’s Safari.

“I’ve won the Safari five times in a petrol vehicle. This year I want to be the first winner in a diesel vehicle – and I’m confident the D-MAX is capable of doing it,” Garland said.
“This is the vehicle we ran in the Dakar this year, but we’ve done a lot more work on the suspension since then so it should ride even better. We’re also going to be testing some new diesel engine technology in Western Australia, which we believe will give us a lot more speed. It should be a pretty awesome package if it all comes together.”

Last year’s runner-up, Des Harrington, will drive a 2008 Nissan Patrol, and is expected to be at the pointy end of the field once again.

Two of Australia’s leading circuit racers, Paul Weel and Tony Quinn, will create plenty of interest as the events moves through the sparsely populated Western Australian outback.

Weel won the 1997 and 1998 Australian Off Road Championships before switching to V8 Supercars, so he knows a thing or two about driving on dirt. He’ll be co-driven by his father, Kees Weel, in a Holden Colorado – the same car that John Hederics crashed last year.

“I’m learning how to drive on dirt again after so long racing V8 Supercars,” Weel said. “You feel as if you’re going pretty quick, racing through the bush at 200km/h with trees flashing past on either side of you.”

Quinn contested last year’s marathon but retired early in the event with engine failure. Nevertheless, the 2009 Targa Tasmania winner is itching to push his Mitsubishi Pajero to the limit again.

“The Safari is an extreme event,” he said. “I didn’t go to school for long enough to learn sufficient words to best describe the event - brutal and phenomenal are the two words that comes to mind.”

A three-car team from China will make their Safari debut, with drivers Lui Bin, Xu Weiyu and Zhou Yuande each behind the wheel of the 3.8 litre, normally aspirated Changtong Motor – a Chinese variant of the Mitsubishi Pajero. Lui, Xu and Zhou normally contest China’s FASC cross country racing series.

American Josh Hall will give the big Hummer H2 SUT its Australian competition debut, although for 2009, his 6.2-litre monster is not eligible to run for outright honours. Safari regulations limit the engine size to 6.0-litres, but with next year’s Hummer featuring a 5.7-litre motor, the American sees this year as part of his practice for 2010.

“As a rookie, I firmly understand the challenge of just finishing such a taxing motorsport event. Our goals are to finish, learn, and be a part of the community of Australian off-road racing,” the four-time winner of the famed Baja 1000 said.

The only female driver in the Auto field is New Zealander Sarah Twaddle. This will be the 26-year old’s second Safari, after she won the BF Goodrich “Most Adventurous Driver” award in 2009.

“This year I’m more prepared,” she said. “I now understand a lot more about the Pajero Evo, and my body knows what it’s going to go through over the week of competing in the event.

“Knowing how to deal with the fatigue and dehydration from driving in Western Australia’s rugged outback is a vital key to performing well.”

Finishing the Australasian Safari, let alone winning it, is the biggest challenge for many of the crews. The less financially funded teams will have a battle on their hands just to keep their cars running. Add to this the physical and mental pressures that come with competing in Australia’s toughest motorsport challenge, and you have the ingredients for a very hard week.

This year’s Australasian Safari begins in the Western Australian capital, Perth, with a prologue on Saturday, August 1.  The event proper starts the following day.
Auto, motorbike and quad bike competitors will tackle the course that starts in Perth and ends in Kalgoorlie.

The Safari will have overnight stops in Geraldton, Mt Magnet, Leonora and Laverton, before finishing in the gold mining capital of Australia, Kalgoorlie, on Saturday, August 8.

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