Glory for Caldarola

SANJAY RAJAN

"IT must be a wonderful thing to push on alone towards the horizon and have it be your own. A grand feeling too, especially if you had wanted it badly and had faltered twice earlier."

Italian Nico Caldarola (right) and his co-driver Glovanni Agnese who won their maiden APRC Group 'N' championship while also finishing first in the Thailand Rally.

This was precisely how Italian Nico Caldarola expressed his feeling (as translated by his manager Martin Christie) at the conclusion of the Rally of Thailand, the sixth and final round of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) 2002 for cars, which he won in style to also bag his maiden Group N (production cars) championship crown.

Caldarola (co-driver Giovanni Agnese) had finished runner-up in Group N last season, and between his burning desire and his goal — the Group N honours — this time was Team MRF Tyres' New Zealand-born Australian driver Stuart Warren (Darryl Judd), who, notwithstanding having missed the season-opener in Canberra, took the tussle to the wire with back-to back victories in Rotorua (New Zealand) and Japan and two second-placed finishes.

With only the best five finishes taken into consideration to decide the championship, the battle lines were drawn at the province of Rayong, which is a three-and-a-half hour drive from Bangkok and a do-or-die situation for Warren who was adrift of leader Caldarola by seven points.

For this event, the Indian tyre giant roped in New Zealand's Reece Jones (Jeff Judd) to drive the team's other Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7 instead of their Indian drivers Naren Kumar or Arjun Balu as part of their strategy to counter Caldarola.

Jones' contract with Japan's Falken Tyres for the season had expired after the fifth round in China, where he clocked better times than Group A (modified) cars in some of the stages.

As per the plan, Jones was to finish between Warren and Caldarola on all three days, with Warren leading right though, as it would make bridging the difference in points quicker. Warren, nevertheless, had to bag full bonus points on all three days apart from winning this round to clinch the championship without leaving anything to chance. It turned out that even the best laid plans misfired. A late `call' by Darryl Judd on a corner as early as the first stage saw Warren go off the road and lose nearly 16 minutes, from which they could never really recover."

The champions Nico Caldarola and co-driver Giovanni Agnese in action.

"The locals tried getting the car back on road, but only managed to damage the inter-cooler while trying to get over a crest. In the end, Reece towed us out, losing two minutes in the bargain. Thereafter, we couldn't really `push' the car,'' said a visibly sad Darryl at the end of leg one.

Caldarola's better gear ratio in his Evo7 saw him on song in leg two, which had more `straights', but Warren hung in to stay second among Group N cars for two bonus points. Meanwhile, Karamjit Singh, driving a Proton Pert in the Group A, blazed though leg one and two. The Malaysian of Indian origin, who recently became the first Asian to win the World Rally Championship (Group N), had assured himself of retaining the APRC overall championship with a round to spare in China last month, but was here to secure Proton the manufacturers' title.

That only 10 out of the 22 cars completed this 1069-km, 16-stage (269.73-km) rally tells its own story. The tight corners and dips turning into ruts with stages being re-run saw a spate of accidents. In fact, both Jones and Warren turned turtle on the final day. Luckily though none was hurt. Explained Darryl, "It was one kilometre into stage 14. Just before this right corner there was a dip (so it was during the recce) that had turned into a rut. It toppled Reece first and then us."

Caldarola nearly rolled at the very same rut, but managed to retain control. "Luckily for me I was going easy on the pedal as I was concentrating on just completing the rally on the final day after having put in all the hard work in the first two legs."

The 40-year-old, who runs a driving school and owns a gravel circuit in Rome, said he was never under any pressure as it was for Warren to do all the chasing. The overall title in this rally came as a bonus to Caldarola when the engine of Karamjit's Pert seized owing to low oil pressure on the penultimate stage.

With the Malaysian out, the Italian gained the overall lead for the first time here. "I've won thechampionship anyway, but we lost the manufacturers' title, which has gone to Mitsubishi, and that hurts," said Karamjit. Caldarola, however, described the Malaysian's misfortune as part of rallying. "You winsome, you lose some."

In this rally, Warren finished third behind Caldarola and Reece Jones in that order in the APRC Group N while Jones emerged third behind Caldarola and England's John Lloyd among APRC drivers overall. Overall here, Jones was fourth and Warren sixth.

The final placings: 1. Nico Caldarola (Giovanni Agnese), Italy, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, Group N,2:38.00; 2. John Lloyd (Pauline Gullick), GB, Evo6, Group A, 2:41.19; 3. Sakchai Hantrakul (V. Sukosi), Thailand, Evo5, Group A, 2:42.23; 4. Reece Jones (Jeff Judd), NZ, Evo7, Group N, 2:47.22; 5. V. Bunchaylua (P. Sombutwong), Thailand, Honda Civic, Group A,2:57.11; 6. Stuart Warren (Darryl Judd), Aus-NZ, Evo7, Group N, 3:03.28.