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Some of Australia’s most talented young drivers will be racing to win a fast track to the World Rally Championship when they tackle Rally Queensland on the Sunshine Coast next month.

As a round of the 2009 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship, Rally Queensland will host the season’s first qualifying event for the rich Pirelli Star Driver program, which will take five drivers aged under 27 from around the globe to contest the World Rally Championship next year, with all expenses paid.

The Pirelli contest will add to international interest around Rally Queensland, which has stepped up from the national championship status it has held for the past 41 years.

The rally, also hosting the Australian and Queensland Rally Championships, will be staged on 8-10 March.

It will be headquartered at Marcoola Beach and after a traditional ceremonial start at Maroochy Showgrounds on the Friday night, more than 70 crews will tackle 14 competitive special stages on gravel roads in the Imbiil State Forest.

While the value of the Pirelli Star Driver prize has not been revealed, rally experts estimate it would be several hundred thousand dollars – an unheard-of budget for up-and-coming privateers with ambitions to join the world elite of rally drivers.

From Queensland and other Asia Pacific rounds in China Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and New Caledonia, the program will produce up to 14 qualifiers to race for two Pirelli Star Driver positions in a shootout at the Repco Rally Australia World Rally Championship round in September.

The winners will be given fully-paid entry to six WRC rounds next year in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 10 rally car, plus high-level training in driving, fitness, media, personal presentation and other skills needed to be a successful WRC driver.

The 2008 winners, including New Zealander Mark Tapper, started their World Championship campaigns at the Rally of Portugal last weekend.

Coffs Harbour driver Nathan Quinn, 21, is the first Australian to confirm he will be vying for Pirelli Star Driver selection at Rally Queensland.

“I’m busting to get to Rally Queensland – it’s probably the most important event I’ll do to date,” Quinn said.

“I’ve been rallying for two and a half years and this is the opportunity I’ve been looking for. I have aspirations to get overseas (as a driver) more than to get a national championship under my belt.”

Quinn is working hard on his preparation for Queensland, in particular finalising the purchase of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 9 to replace an older model he has been driving.

Rally Queensland Event Director Errol Bailey said the Pirelli Star Driver program was a huge incentive for young drivers to enter next month’s event.

“It’s an incredible opportunity with pretty good odds. In the course of just two events, Rally Queensland and Repco Rally Australia, a young Aussie could find himself launched into the World Rally Championship,” Mr Bailey said.

“It would be a dream come true for Nathan Quinn or some of his Australian rivals, who I know all have the talent if not the funds to acquit themselves well at world level.”

Prospective entrants who usually compete in the Australian Rally Championship will get assistance to step up to Asia Pacific level at Rally Queensland with a discount of $250 on the cost of an appropriate competition driver’s licence from the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport.

Rally Queensland will host round two of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship, round four of the Australian Rally Championship and rounds two and three of the Queensland Rally Championship.

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