After more than four months since the thrilling 2022 finale on the Coffs Coast, the Bosch Motorsport Australia Rally Championship (ARC) is back with the Buckby ŠKODA Rally Launceston to kick off the 2023 season.
A Tasmanian-record field of 25 ARC cars have make up the opening round, where crews will contest 207 competitive kilometres on some of Launceston’s most picturesque forest roads.
Split across two heats, the season opener will see 31 ARC and state entered crews tackle Saturday’s 119 kilometres over six stages before the 25 ARC crews run the remaining 87 kilometres over seven stages, including the EROAD Power Stage on Sunday afternoon.
With 11 of the top 12 seeded entries made up of AP4, R5 and R2 spec rally cars, the season opener is highly reflective of how strong the ARC is at the moment.
Headlining the star-studded entry list are the two Toyota Gazoo Racing Australia Toyota AP4s, which are piloted by 2019 ARC Champion Harry Bates and new co-driver Coral Taylor and current champions, Lewis Bates and Anthony McLoughlin.
Bearing the number one plate for the first time in his career, Lewis was excited to get his title defence underway.
“Really excited going into the weekend. Always exciting for the new season. It’s an amazing field with lots of fast cars so we’re looking forward to the challenge,” Lewis said.
“It’s exciting to have the number one plate. Every time Anthony and I look at it now, we have smiles on our faces.
“We certainly don’t feel any more pressure at this stage to previous years, if anything both Anthony and I feel more relaxed about it.
“We had a strong end to the second half of the season last year and I just hope we can carry that momentum into this year.”
The reigning champions will have their hands full this weekend with many talented steerers ready to start their campaigns off strong.
Some of the drivers that are likely to challenge the Bates brothers on the Apple Isle include Skoda Fabia pilots Luke Anear, Daniel Gonzalez and Troy Dowel, Nathan Quinn in his Hyundai i20 G4 and Tom Clarke in the Ford Fiesta.
Outside of the regular contenders are few drivers who make the step up for this year including Jamie Luff and James Dimmock, both of whom will be running new Toyota AP4s and IntelliSpatial Fleetcare Racing’s Peter and Alex Rullo, each to be behind the wheel of their new Hyundai i20 Rally 2 cars.
With the Hyundai i20 Rally 2 cars extremely fresh and having no experience in Tasmania, Alex was ready for the challenge.
“Really looking forward to the new car and new challenge, so I really want to get my head around the car as we haven’t had much seat time in at all,” Alex said.
“We’re keen to get used to it and get a good feel and have some fun.
“I have never been here before. I am told the roads are wide and fast which will give me some room to play with to get a good feel for the car, but it should be some fun.
“No expectation really. Just want to get used to the car and then see where we are at and build on it there. Might be fast or slow out the blocks, but we’re just focused on getting a good baseline for the year.”
In addition to outright honours, there will also be plenty of special cups taking place with the White Wolf Constructions ARC Production Cup, ARC 2WD Cup and Shamrock Haulage ARC Junior Cup also in action.
The rally is also hosting the opening round of the Motorsport Australia Tasmanian Championship, which will see quite a few ARC crews cross-entered in the state championship, including Eddie and Stephen Maguire, Bodie Reading and Aidan Peterson.
The big winners for the season opener will be rally fans though, with plenty of options to keep up to date with the event available to both those attending and those tuning in from afar.
For those able to make it to the rally itself, the first opportunity to see crews will be at Friday night’s Rally Show at The Avenue on Brisbane Street, where all cars will be on display and drivers on hand.
The Rally Show won’t be the only place fans can see the cars and drivers up close, with service crews to be working on the cars at Rally Central in the Invernesk Turntable on multiple occasions throughout the weekend.
There are also multiple stages serving as spectator points, where fans can see the cars in action as they pass by.
For those unable to make it to the event, the newly announced Subaru Results Hub will provide live results all weekend, while all the ARC’s social platforms will provide content from both Rally Central and stages.
Sunday’s EROAD Power Stage will be live streamed on 7plus, while an extended highlights show will be broadcast on 7mate and 7plus in the weeks after.
The Buckby ŠKODA Rally Launceston takes place in Launceston on 24-26 March.
Feature Photo: Angryman Photography