Nutahara pips Karamjit

GOING by his performance in the first two rounds of the 2003 Asia Pacific Rally Championship for cars, it would not come as a surprise if Fumio Nutahara emerges a strong contender for the crown.

SANJAY RAJAN

GOING by his performance in the first two rounds of the 2003 Asia Pacific Rally Championship for cars, it would not come as a surprise if Fumio Nutahara emerges a strong contender for the crown. That the remaining four rallies are in Asia (Japan, China, Thailand and India), on terrains that he understands well, could also work to his advantage.

In the Hella Battery Town-Rally of Rotorua, the season's second event (July 11 to 13), held in New Zealand's North Island town known for its hot springs and geysers, emerged the fact that the 39-year-old Japanese driver's defining quality is his implacable self-belief.

Nutahara (co-driver Satoshi Hayashi), driving a Group N (production car) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, clinched the honours in both categories, pipping reigning champion Karamjit Singh of Petronas on tiebreak for the APRC overall title while winning the Group N crown with ease.

Team MRF Tyres' Armin Kremer (Fred Berssen), driving in New Zealand for the first time, collected his second straight podium finish in Group N, following his overall and Group N triumphs in the opening round in Canberra. Here he finished fourth in the APRC overall classification and second in Group N.

Nutahara, who participated in his first competitive rally way back in 1986, leads the championship overall as well as in Group N with 26 and 34 points respectively. Kremer is second in both classifications with 21 and 30 points respectively. The third round (Rally of Hokkaido) will be held between September 12 and 14.

For the first time in the 16-year history of the APRC there was a tie for a rally crown. Resuming the final day nine seconds behind leader Nutahara, Karamjit Singh, who was driving a souped-up Group A Evo6 in Proton Pert colours, finished even with the Japanese on time (3:00.22.9).

It must have been heart-breaking for the Malaysian of Indian origin to see the overall honours go to Nutahara on a tie-breaker for having posted the faster timing on the event's opening stage. The Japanese had won the first stage, Motu-I (considered one of the most challenging stages by even World Rally Championship drivers), beating the field of 42 cars (however, only 12 were registered for the APRC). So close was it that at the start of the 15th and final stage, Nutahara was leading Karamjit by half-a-second.

Meanwhile, Kiwi Bruce Herbert (Rob Ryan), running for the National championship angle, won the rally for the fifth time on the trot.

A bulk of the action in Group N on the final day revolved around the face-off between Kremer and defending Group N champion Italian Nico Caldarola. Kremer, trailing the Italian by 51.2 seconds overnight, recorded faster times than the latter in four of the five stages to finish second.

Team MRF Tyres' other entrant, Austrian David Doppelreiter (Ola Floene), finished fourth in Group N and sixth overall.

Nutahara termed this as the best race of his life. "It's unbelievable to tie with Karamjit, for he was driving a modified Group A car. He's such a fast driver. At the start of the day, I did not think I stood a chance. But then... it was unbelievable," said the rising star from Hokkaido.

Karamjit felt that it was a good result considering the problems he had with the car (brakes locking up). "It was an invigorating battle with Fumio and we got some good points to start our championship title defence. I hope to get more funding after this performance," said the World Rally Group N champion, who missed the Canberra round owing to budget problems. He is on the lookout for sponsors.

What makes Nutahara's performance stand out is the manner in which he adjusted to the tricky terrain, especially the tight, fast corners. "Our domestic championship is all second and third gear corners. To be honest, I don't really like these very quick stages, not used to them really," he said.

Kremer had problems right through with the suspensions of the car. "I lost a lot of time at the corners owing to lack of traction," said the German, a former European champion who was happy with the newly designed tyres.

Kiwi Geof Argyle, who led the pack at the end of the first day, blew the turbo early on day two, but managed to complete the leg, though clearly out of contention for a spot among the top three.

The 1077.02-km event included 15 special stages totalling 274.69-km. A minute's silence was observed at the ceremonial start in memory of Possum Bourne, one of New Zealand's great rally drivers.

The placings:

APRC overall: 1. Fumio Nutahara (Satoshi Hayashi), Japan, Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7, Gr. N, 3:00.22.9; 2. Karamjit Singh (Allen Oh), Mal, Proton Pert, Gr. A, 3:00.22.9; 3. Andrew Hawkeswood (Paul Fallon), NZ, Evo6, Gr. A, 3:00.44.4; 4. Armin Kremer (Fred Berssen), Ger, Team MRF Tyres, Evo7, Gr. N, 3:02.57.8; 5. Nico Caldarola (Paolo Cecchini), Italy, Evo7, Gr. N, 3:05.07.4; 6. David Doppelreiter (Aut) (Ola Floene, Nor), Team MRF Tyres, Evo7, Gr. N, 3:06.10.9.

Group N: 1. Nutahara (Hayashi); 2. Kremer (Berssen); 3. Caldarola (Cecchini); 4. Doppelreiter (Floene).

Group N standings (after two rounds): 1. Nutahara (Hayashi) 34 points; 2. Kremer (Berssen) 30; 3. Doppelreiter (Floene) 14; 4. Caldarola (Cecchini) 10.