Kremer boosts his chances

WITH the China leg cancelled, and only rallies in Thailand in November and India in December remaining, Armin Kremer's victory in Rally Hokkaido, in Japan, in mid-September boosted the chances of the Team MRF Tyres' driver in the Group N (production cars) section of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship 2003.

SANJAY RAJAN

WITH the China leg cancelled, and only rallies in Thailand in November and India in December remaining, Armin Kremer's victory in Rally Hokkaido, in Japan, in mid-September boosted the chances of the Team MRF Tyres' driver in the Group N (production cars) section of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship 2003.

Armin Kremer (right) and his co-driver Fred Berssen on the podium after winning the Hokkaido rally.-

Kremer, the Indian tyre giant's German driver (countryman Fred Berssen as co-driver), collected 17 points in all in Obihiro to lead the standings with 47 points. The 2001 European champion is now seven points clear off second-placed Japanese Fumio Nutahara, who was the favourite for the all-gravel terrain event held in the northernmost island of the land of the rising sun.

Kremer, in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, also finished runner-up in the APRC overall behind Kiwi Geoff Argyle, driving a souped-up Group A (modified) Evo6. Argyle leads the overall standings with 34 points, followed by Nutahara (32) and Kremer (31). In what was a commendable achievement for one driving in Japan for the first time, Kremer finished third behind Argyle and winner, Japanese Toshi Arai, in the rally overall.

It was Kremer's second Group N triumph and third straight podium finish of the season.

There was celebration in the air in Hokkaido with news filtering in that the venue has gained World Rally Championship (WRC) status for the following season, with the FIA having expanded the WRC from 14 rounds to 16. And so, the third round of the APRC was followed keenly, what with it being looked at as a precursor to the big one next year.

In fact, the WRC team of Citroen Sport sent Sebastian Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena for a recce of the special stages, which will be a part of next year's WRC.

The spotlight was on Nutahara (co-driver Satoshi Hayashi) of the Advan-PIAA team, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, and expected to extend his lead in the overall as well as Group N standings owing to his knowledge of the terrain, he being Hokkaido-bred. But the Japanese crashed out on day two — it had rained the whole day — when, driving furiously to lead the APRC pack, the car's suspension broke after a jump 50m from the finish. He had turned on the heat on the opening day, recording the quickest times in four of the six stages.

Armin Kremer in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7 cruising ahead of the rest.-

The opening day saw quite a few exits. Among them were the APRC overall defending champion, Malaysian Karamjit Singh, and the reigning Group N champion, Nico Caldarola. The gearbox of Karamjit's Proton Pert went bust five kilometres into the first stage while Caldarola's Evo7 developed trouble in the second stage. Actually, Kremer also encountered problems when he broke his car's left rear suspension in the second stage, but managed to end the first leg in the second spot in Group N.

Team MRF Tyres' other entry, Australian David Doppelreiter (Ola Floene), broke the shifter cable of his gearbox 50 metres to the finish line of the sixth and final stage of day one.

The showers on day two made things difficult for the drivers. The competitors described the conditions as scarily slippery. Arai, the on-road leader, said it was downright dangerous. "It was impossible to turn, especially on SS-12 (Rikubetsu-2), where at any given point I thought I was going to fall over." In fact, stage 10 — the fourth of the day's eight stages — had to be cancelled after Kiwi Andrew Hawkeswood, in an Evo6, the ninth car on the starting list, got stuck in the slush midway through the stage.

The first seven cars kept their timings while the timing of the eighth car (K. Taguchi, 10:05.1), was given to the rest.

The day's biggest casualty was, however, Nutahara. And with his exit, new leaders emerged: Kremer took over the mantle in Group N while Argyle led in the overall, with Kremer in the second slot. A minute and 23.4 seconds separated the two. "Thankfully, things did not turn out that bad for us. We were lucky to make steady progress. The key was to maintain a steady pace. A touch of caution was required. I had problems with the clutch in the final stage. But we managed to get through with it. I must say that (SS-14) was a rather long stage," said Kremer. Only 38 cars out of the 62 original starters remain in the fray.

With the major players in his group out of contention, Kremer had to just survive the final day to bag the crown, which was what he did. "I kept to my brief. My focus was on finishing the rally. Masumura was far behind and so I was under no pressure.

"With regards to Argyle and the overall title, I realised as early as the day's opening stage that his car was too fast. My focus was Group N.

"Though it was sunny, the gravel roads were still wet and slippery. Caution was necessary," Kremer concluded. A minute and 49.3 seconds separated Argyle and Kremer.

Meanwhile, the Possum Bourne Gallery, erected at the Service Park, drew a full house on all three days. It goes to show that even if the man is no more, his memory lingers. A household name in the rally world, the affable Kiwi was a star in Japan.

It was indeed a poignant moment when Arai and his co-driver, Kiwi Tony Sircombe, of the Subaru Production Rally Team, placed a picture of Bourne on the bonnet of the Impreza on the finish ramp, even as tears welled up in Mrs. Bourne's eyes as she looked on. Bourne's three children, Taylor, Spencer and Jazlin were also present.

There were 19 special stages in all, tallying to 272.33 km in a total of 1285.22 km, over three days. The latest version of the Mitsubishi Lancers, the Evo8s, was also seen in action.

The results:

APRC overall: 1. Geoff Argyle (Steve Smith), NZ, Gr. A, Evo6, 3:04.02.3; 2. Armin Kremer (Fred Berssen), Ger, Team MRF Tyres, Gr. N, Evo7, 3:05.51.6; 3. C. Atkinson (Ben Atkinson), Aus, Gr. A, Suzuki Ignis, 3:13.41.2.

APRC Group N: 1. Armin Kremer, 2. Atsushi Masumura (Yukinori Fukumura), Jpn, Evo8, 3:24.13.4.