Nico Caldarola thwarts Stuart Warren's hat-trick bid

SANJAY RAJAN

STUART WARREN is the kind who has gratitude for all his experiences, both the hardships and the joys. The Kiwi-born Australian, donning Team MRF Tyres' colours and driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7 in the ongoing FIA-Asia Pacific Rally Championship, was no doubt disappointed that he couldn't complete a hat-trick of APRC Group N (production cars) titles, at the Rally of China held in the industrial town of Shaoguan, situated in the southern Province of Guangdong. But he, nevertheless, was thrilled to have given Italian Nico Caldarola (co-driver Giovanni Agnese) of Team Top Run a run for his money, considering the tough conditions made wickedly slippery by rain.

The top two finishers in the Group N (production cars) section of the Rally of China: Nico Caldarola (second from left) and co-driver Giovanni Agnese are flanked by Stuart Warren (extreme left) and his co-driver Darryl Judd.-

Warren (co-driver Darryl Judd), winner of this category in the New Zealand and Japan rounds, finished second behind the Italian in what was the fifth of the six-round 2002 series held between October 19 and 21.

While Karamjit Singh of Petronas EON Racing, driving a Proton Pert in Group A, has assured himself of retaining the overall championship crown with the Thailand round (Nov.-Dec.) to spare, the Group N honours is open. To clinch it ahead of current leader Caldarola, Warren will have to win the final round as well as all the three legs there. It will also depend on how the Italian fares. "The battle with Nico continues. It's certain to be a thriller. It's always nice when the championship runs to the wire," said Warren, who missed the season opener, the Rally of Canberra.

Karamjit, a Malaysian of Indian origin, scored maximum points (19) here, bagging the title as well as winning top points in all the three legs. "I'm thrilled about winning the championship. I'll certainly participate in Thailand, more for the fun of it," he said.

Of the 46 cars that were flagged off in what was also the fourth round of the Chinese National championship, only seven drivers were FIA-registered for the APRC and of them, three were in Group A. In essence, top-seeded Karamjit, a FIA 'A' seed driver and possessing a highly powerful car, didn't have much competition in his category and went on to win the overall title with a four-minute, 44.2-second lead over second-placed Caldarola. Warren finished third in the overall classification.

The Rally, run through forest and hills, covered a distance of over 950-kms, of which the 17 special stages totalled some 270-kms, all on gravel.

The other Team MRF Tyres entrant, Arjun Balu, the lone Indian in the fray, was laid low by a mechanical failure as early as the first leg. Winner of the China round in the Asia Zone Rally Championship last year, Arjun (navigator D. Ram), who tackled the slippery surface with confidence in an Evo7, went off the road in the fifth and final stage on the opening day and there ended his chances. He could not compete for leg points either, as the car was damaged badly.

"I wasn't going at a high speed, really. I was taking a right bender and the car failed to respond. I had to apply the hand brake. We hit a mountain bank and rolled over," said the driver from Coimbatore, who replaced teammate V. R. Naren Kumar for this round. It was Arjun's second outing. He hadn't finished the Canberra Rally either.

Caldarola pipped Warren by 9.4 seconds to the title, this after the latter held a two-second lead at the start of the third and final leg in what was yet another wet day. Warren felt that he should have gone in with larger cuts on the tyres, as it would have gripped better on the loose gravel. Caldarola, on the other hand, drew advantage from the fact that he possessed the right kind of mud tyres.

Judd felt they were victims of being the second car (Karamjit was the first) out on the final leg. "You see, we cleaned the way, making it easier for Nico (the third car) to drive faster. I don't think we could have driven any faster, because we were virtually living on the edge. Nico was faster no doubt, but then he knows the terrain from previous experiences (Nico had won this Rally last year)."

Many of the drivers were discontent in the manner timings were clocked. In fact, Warren was at the receiving end on the opening day when, in the fifth stage, there was a 40-odd seconds difference between his stopwatch and the official timings. Nothing came out of the appeal. Earlier, Warren had encountered right rear wheel suspension problems in the second stage when he knocked a small rock while negotiating a right bender.

Caldarola didn't have a good outing in the second leg, spinning off in stage 10 which resulted in the car hitting a rock, causing damage to the exhaust of his Evo7 that led to a perceptible fall in the power of the car. At a stewards meeting later that evening, he was also docked a minute for having come in early at a time control. Actually, in the last two stages of the second leg, which were exceedingly slippery, it was New Zealander Reece Jones and Warren who clocked the best times.

This year could be Caldarola's best chance of clinching his maiden championship crown. The 40-year-old businessman's best result has been the runner-up spot that he clinched last year. He, however, has to contend with an inspired Warren. Thailand should be interesting.

The final standings:

APRC Group N: 1. Nico Caldarola (Giovanni Agnese), Team Top Run, Italy, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, 3:30.25.1; 2. Stuart Warren (Darryl Judd), Team MRF Tyres, Aus-NZ, Evo7, 3:30.34.5; 3. Reece Jones (Jeffrey Judd), NZ, Evo6, 3:31.08.4.

APRC overall: 1. Karamjit Singh (Allen Oh), Petronas EON Racing, Malaysia, Proton Pert, 3:25.40.9; 2. Nico Caldarola; 3. Stuart Warren; 4. Reece Jones; 5. John Lloyd (Pauline Gullick), NA Motorsport, GB, Evo6, 3:39.56.8.