On the eve of Round two of the CAMS Australian Rally Championship, the speculation is on who can conquer the fast and slippery roads of the Make Smoking History Forest Rally in Western Australia and come away with the championship lead.
After a super-tight battle at the ARC round one Eureka Rally last month, only three points separate the top three—Harry Bates, Nathan Quinn and Eli Evans—in the championship standings; and Marcus Walkem in fourth and Molly Taylor in fifth are also within striking distance.
Championship leader Harry Bates concedes that it is nice to be in the lead after round one of the championship but he and co-driver John McCarthy know that there is plenty more work to do.
"It was a good start to the year. It's nice to be in the lead. But the points situation is so close, so there's no time to relax," says Bates.
"The Forest Rally is one of my favourites. The roads are incredible fun; they flow really well and they're quite fast which we enjoy.
"It will be a really challenging event for us, due to the fact that we are opening the road—I'm expecting the stages to be very slippery, but we are looking forward to the challenge."
Hot on the heels of Bates and McCarthy will be the Coffs Coast Rally Team of Nathan Quinn with new co-driver Ben Searcy. Quinn pushed Bates’ Toyota Genuine Parts Corolla S2000 all the way at the Eureka Rally in Ballarat, falling just short after the last stage in heat two.
Quinn says: "The Eureka rally was just a great event and weekend for us—Harry, Eil (Evans) and I were all having a good crack, trading times.
"To be part of that, us young blokes coming through, was fantastic—I’d really like to do that again.
"I last went to the Forest Rally in 2010…we actually hadn’t planned to do this one but the determining factor in us going over there was Neal Bates offering to take our car and all our spares over for us.
"That’s fantastic sportsmanship on his part—he just wanted to see us all do battle again. I’m really hoping that we can provide a good battle and make for a really exciting event."
Tankformers Eli Evans and co-driver Glen Weston will take to the forests of Nannup in the Race Torque Engineering Peugeot 208 MAXI after deciding to push back the MINI Cooper AP4's ARC debut.
"I'm disappointed that the MINI Cooper AP4 could not be here for this event, but excited to be in the 208 MAXI again," Evans says.
"The WA round of the ARC is one of my favourites—it's fast and loose roads reward aggressive driving styles.
"I have won this rally three times and I'm aiming for the win for the Race Torque Engineering team, which will be a great achievement for these guys who have invested a lot of effort into the MAXI car."
Subaru do Motorsport's Molly Talyor and Bill Hayes, currently fifth in the championship standings, completed a pre-event test this week to make sure they and the Subaru Impreza WRX Sti are tuned into the West Australian conditions.
Taylor says: “We really want to show our full potential and be well and truly in points contention.
“The Les Walkden Rallying team have been working hard to ensure we have everything fine tuned and set up for the different conditions we’ll face in WA.
“We already know it’s a massively competitive season, with the likes of Harry Bates and Eli Evans constantly challenging for honours, so from a rally fan’s point of view there’s every reason to follow the action!”
Brad Markovic was the talking point of last year's Forest Rally for all the wrong reasons when his Subaru WRX Sti went up in flames on day one of the event; this year he is excited to be back on home soil and says he has unfinished business with this event.
"The disappointment of last year’s Forest Rally has just provided me more motivation for this year to show what we can do against Australia’s best rally drivers," explains Markovic.
"The biggest thing for me is the huge amount of local support we receive and it's always great to compete in front of your home crowd. The team at Maximum Motorsport have done a great job preparing the Auto One Subaru, including a new engine after the first round in Ballarat, so we are 100 per cent ready to go."
More than 50 crews will contest the Make Smoking History Forest Rally on April 21-23, through the forests of Nannup and race the electric Busselton Super Special Stage under lights around the Busselton foreshore.
To keep up to date with all the news and spectator information over the weekend, visit www.rally.com.au.