Hills, forests and country roads

SANJAY RAJAN

THERE is this interesting story that one heard about Possum Bourne during the Parker Enzed Rally of Rotorua in New Zealand's tourism capital. It was about how Peter Bourne, one of the most recognised faces among sporting heroes in Kiwiland, got the nickname Possum.

Stuart Warren in his Mitsubishi Lancer en route to the finish.-

The tale goes that Bourne crashed his car while trying to avoid the marsupial Possum, which abounds in New Zealand, in his early days in competitive racing, sometime in the late 70s, and thus the name was born.

Possum was to be the star attraction of the Rotorua event (June 28-30; total distance 1052.97-km; special stages 287.92-km), which was a round of both the New Zealand Rally Championship and the Asia Pacific Rally Championship 2002 (for FIA-registered drivers).

The home fans were keen that the three-time APRC champion win his maiden international title at home. But that was not to be, an engine problem in the second seed's Subaru Impreza STI forced him to withdraw. He took the ceremonial start though and drove a couple of stages in the second leg to try and appease his fans.

New Zealander Bruce Herbert (Rob Ryan as navigator), in a Subaru Impreza STI and contesting for NZRC points, won the title for the fourth year on the trot. Reigning APRC champion Karamjit Singh, driving a Proton Pert, topped the APRC Group A category as well as APRC overall, while finishing third in the Rally, and Team MRF Tyres' Stuart Warren (Darryl Judd), in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, annexed top honours in APRC Group N and second in APRC overall.

It was a big day for the racing team from India, which is in its first year in the APRC. Team MRF Tyres' drivers for its two-car team were originally Naren Kumar (D. Ram), last year's Asia Zone champion, and Arjun Balu (R. Kumar). But the team management decided to contract the experienced Warren, 36, a mechanic with the Perth-based Race Torque, which maintains Team MRF's cars, to draw from his experience. "Both Naren and Arjun are in practise mode this year. We wanted Warren to gauge the competitiveness of MRF's newly-designed rally tyres," said Team manager Antony Rodricks.

Team MRF Tyres has decided to take part in four out of the six-round APRC 2002 - two in Asia and two in the Pacific. It was Naren and Arjun in the opening round in Canberra while the second round in New Caledonia was given the miss, though Warren (Darryl) competed as an MRF entrant and finished fifth overall and third in Group N among APRC drivers.

The remaining APRC rounds are the Rally of Hokkaido in Japan (September), China Rally Shaoguan (October) and the Rally of Thailand (November/December). Of them, Team MRF Tyres will take part in the latter two, with Warren certain to drive in both.

The three legs in Rotorua were conducted on distinctly different surfaces. The first was through the hills, long and winding paths with a rock base. Among the 17 special stages, the first two - Motu I and II - were feared by all drivers for its tight corners and unforgiving twists.

The second leg was through the forest ranges, such as Rotoehu, Manawahe, Matahina and Wailhau to name a few, fast in places with the surface essentially gravel. Overnight showers and a persistent drizzle through day two saw the roads slippery.

MRF Tyres' Stuart Warren (left) and Darryl Judd who took the top honours in APRC Group N and placed second in APRC overall.-

The final leg's action moved to country roads, a combination of tarmac and fast gravel, and the fare was riveting to say the least.

Karamjit said his third-place finish overall was good, given that he lost a lot of time in Motu I and II owing to a split turbo hose, which saw the car lose power. "They are my favourite stages, I was the fastest in both stages last year, but this time... It was bad luck," said the Malaysian, who won the New Caledonia round. He had problems with the clutch on the final day.

Italian Nico Calderola, the APRC overall and Group N leader till New Zealand, suffered a broken turbo in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7 and lost considerable time in the first leg. He drove magnificently to make up much of it in the next two, but Karamjit's higher finish saw him take over as APRC overall leader after three rounds with 35 points.

The young, exciting Malaysian Saladin Mazlan, driving a Hyundai Accent World Rally Car, went off the road in Motu and, it is believed, that the fencing saved the car from a virtual 100m fall.

There were many retirements over the three days, with Naren Kumar joining the list in the second leg. Naren, third fastest in the APRC Group N at the end of the first leg, which saw him gain an APRC point, had a linkage problem in the gear box and managed with it to service. But the back-up team failed to fix the problem in time, and his dream of a placing was dashed.

Warren and Darryl have been partners in the Australian championship for two years now. The former, New Zealand-born and Perth-based, has 18 years of rallying experience while the latter is an experienced navigator whose best showing came in the European championships in 1995 where he finished runner-up.

Warren was fourth overall and second behind New Zealander Reece Jones (Jeff Judd) in Group N among APRC-registered drivers at the end of leg one. In fact, he had linkage trouble in the left wheel on that day.

On day two, Reece, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6, went off the road, slippery owing to rain, and lost six minutes in getting the car back on track. Warren made the most of it, going flat out in the last four stages after cutting a tread in the tyre for more grip. He now had a 40-odds second lead over Reece and that, in the end, made the difference, for Reece, a regular here, whittled the difference to barely 14 seconds on the final day. Warren won 16 points from this rally in the APRC Group N and is second (24 points) behind Caldarola (42 points) after three rounds and fifth in the APRC overall with nine points.

Final standings (Rally of Rotorua): 1. Bruce Herbert (Rob Ryan), NZ, Subaru Impreza STI, A-8, 3:00:25.2; 2. Geof Argyle (Steve Smith), NZ, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6.5, A-8, 3:02:53.1; 3. Karamjit Singh (Allen Oh), Malaysia, Petronas EON Racing Team, Proton Pert, A-8, 3:04:31.6; 4. Lewis Scott (Jane Black), NZ, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo5, A-8, 3:07:11.6; 5. Glenn Smith (Colin Smith), NZ, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo5, A-8, 3:08:00.3.