Armin Kremer tops

Team MRF Tyres' Armin Kremer is in a position to bag the Group-N (production cars) honours in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship 2003.

SANJAY RAJAN

Armin Kremer (right) and co-driver Fred Berssen recorded a resounding victory in the Rally of Thailand.-

Team MRF Tyres' Armin Kremer is in a position to bag the Group-N (production cars) honours in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship 2003. This, the German made possible with a resounding victory in the Rally of Thailand for his third title of the season, held in the Rayong Province between October 31 and November 2.

Kremer (co-driver Fred Berssen), the 2001 European champion, tops the championship standings in his category with 66 points, a clear 12 points ahead of his nearest rival, Japanese Fumio Nutahara, who finished runner-up in Rayong, which is a three-hour drive from Bangkok.

The Advan-PIAA team, for which the Japanese ace drives, has confirmed participation in the MRF-India Rally, the fifth and final round of the season, to be held in Pune from December 5 to 7. Sparks would certainly fly, with the fast and furious Nutahara sure to give the charge. If Kremer triumphs, MRF Tyres will be the first Indian company to bag honours in the competitive APRC using its indigenously-manufactured tyres.

India's maiden APRC round will, nevertheless, be a needle affair with Kremer going all-out for the APRC overall crown, in which only four points separates him from the championship leader, Kiwi Geof Argyle (46 points).

Kremer, seeded fourth, reduced the leeway by finishing ahead of Argyle in Rayong and take the runner-up slot in the APRC overall (as well as the rally as such) behind reigning champion and top-seed Malaysian Karamjit Singh. A commendable performance indeed, considering that the podium finishes in this category are generally the preserve of the modified Group-A cars. Karamjit was firing on a Group-A Proton Pert and Argyle in a souped-up Mitsubshi Lancer Evo6.

Meanwhile, Kremer's teammate, Austrian David Doppelreiter (Ola Floene), who was in position to finish third in Group-N, was done in by engine failure at the start of the 17th and final stage. He, however, took home two bonus points from the rally.

In Group-N, Kremer, who was piloting a Lancer Evo7, recorded the fastest leg times on all three days to finish the event with full 19 points (10 points for victory, plus 3+3+3 for fastest times).

The pressure was on Nutahara at the start of the rally, as he had to wipe out the seven points difference between him and Kremer. The Japanese regretted not having got a good look at the terrain, busy that he was with the National championship back home. He also spoke of suspension problems through three days.

The opening day consisted of four of the scheduled 17 Special Stages, totalling to 42.10-kms. It saw Kremer and Argyle top their respective classes, though the former led Nutahara by just six seconds and the latter was up by just one second over Karamjit. It was the first time in the season that Kremer was leading Nutahara at the start. "It is an encouraging sign, really," he said.

Meanwhile, defending Group N champion, Italian Nico Caldarola, broke his gearbox in the very first stage and was out of the race.

The second day was gruelling for both man and his machine, what with it consisting of nine Special Stages broken into three equal blocks of 47.95-kms each with two service breaks in between.

Kremer, who was especially quick in stages seven, 10 and 13 — he was faster than Group-A cars in the first two — and extended his lead over Nutahara to 39 seconds while Karamjit upstaged Argyle in the overall. Stage 12 was cancelled after it was decided unsafe (unexpected onward traffic!). Earlier, in Stage eight, New Zealander Andrew Hawkeswood, who was overall third overnight, retired with a busted engine.

"I got my braking point right," said Kremer, who explained that he lost on time in the 13th stage owing to the dust thrown up by the front-runners in Argyle and Karamjit. He had now moved to the third spot behind Karamjit and Argyle in the overall.

Beating Nutahara in the Group N was not a huge task, considering that Kremer had a comfortable overnight lead (he eventually won by 49 seconds). Kremer said finishing ahead of Argyle in the overall was a good feeling. "Argyle was driving a quick Group-A machine. It was a hard-fought battle," said Kremer, who edged the Kiwi by just three seconds.

Argyle said he lost precious time in the final stage. "The engine began misfiring and as a resultant loss of concentration I went off the road. My confidence took a beating yesterday when I encountered onward traffic in the Special Stage. I mean, you don't expect that on Stages. It kind of forced me to drive cautiously thereafter."

Karamjit was happy with the result. "I was pushing for bonus points," said the Malaysian of Indian origin, who is fourth with 35 points in the overall standings, one slot behind Nutahara who has 37.

Thirty-three cars were in the fray, of which 12 were APRC-registered. The rally originally comprised 17 Special Stages, covering 274.17-kms in a total of 947.72-kms. The stages were of gravel and wound through some truly picturesque spots.

The final placings:

APRC Group N: 1. Armin Kremer (co-driver Fred Berssen), Germany, Team MRF Tyres, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, 2:08.52, 2. Fumio Nutahara (Satoshi Hayashi), Japan, Evo7, 2:09.41, 3. Norberto Cangani (Christina Castorina), Italy, Evo6, 2:16.00.

APRC overall: 1. Karamjit Singh (Allen Oh), Malaysia, Petronas-EON, A-8, Proton Pert, 2:07.57, 2. Armin Kremer, N-4, 3. Geof Argyle (Steve Smith), New Zealand, A-8, Evo6, 2:08.55, 4. Fumio Nutahara, N-4, 5. Chris Atkinson (Ben Atkinson), Australia, A-6, Suzuki Ignis Super 1600, 2:14.09.