Smiles in Chennai after Canberra drama

STAN RAYAN

AS he stood on the Subaru's bonnet and uncorked the fizz, one could notice a small scowl playing on Tohihiro Arai's face. The Japanese had won the Asia Pacific Rally Championship opener in Canberra only a few minutes earlier and one was surprised to see the rather perturbed visage.

Jussi Valimaki, the winner of the Subaru Rally of Canberra.-

"I'm disappointed," said Arai a little later, shocking everybody. "You know, I'm the leader in the Production Cars World Championship now," said the Japanese in his small English.

Everybody was confused.

Many hours later came the flash that Arai's car had been disqualified for a technical infringement. And slowly, one could feel the jigsaw pieces fall into place.

Thousands of miles away, in Chennai, there were many smiles when news flowed in that Arai's trophy in the Subaru Rally of Canberra had been snatched away. For, that gave the title to Finland's Jussi Valimaki, Indian tyre major MRF's new signing in the international circuit.

Despite Valimaki's impressive credentials in the world circuit, the title came as a big surprise for MRF. Quite realistically, the team's pre-event goal for Valimaki was to just complete the rally.

One could understand. The Finn was making his APRC debut. He was new to Canberra too. And though Valimaki's co-driver Jarkko Kelliplepi had driven with him in nearly 50 rallies, the two were coming back together after five years. And for the Finn duo, the MRF tyres were an unknown quantity.

The Canberra rally was packed with Subarus, which, being lighter, offered a big edge to its drivers over the Indian team's Mitsubishi Lancer Evo-8. And being the Production Car World's No.1, Arai began as the favourite.

But these things did not trouble Valimaki one bit. If anything, he appeared to relish the new challenge. The 30-year-old had driven in 33 World Championship events and came to Canberra, keen and confident to impress his new team bosses.

The Australian Capital was a huge dustbowl during the rally and, with visibility being poor, Valimaki opted for a cautious drive in the early stages. But after the gap between each flag-off for the 48 cars was increased from two to three minutes, to allow the dust to settle down, the Finn found his groove. He was quick to offer his tail to Arai.

Valimaki topped the first day with a small 1.8-second lead over the Japanese and this with a disobedient fourth gear. And at the end of the first leg, it was clear that he was in love with the new tyres.

"I should try these at some of the rallies in Finland," he said. After fitting in a new gearbox, Valimaki was hungry to go all out in the second leg the next day. Unfortunately, he encountered a series of problems. His rear suspension troubled him and after the halfway mark, in the competition's most difficult stage — the 30-kilometre long `Mineshaft', which was marked by long, winding, often steep and unpredictable roads — Valimaki's fourth gear began to misbehave once again.

Arai, despite losing a few seconds after a puncture in the Mineshaft, was quick to roar to the fore. At the finish, the Japanese was nearly half a minute ahead of Valimaki.

But when the world body FIA's scrutineers dismantled Arai's Subaru Impreza after the rally, they found blatantly illegal modifications to its front differential. Since the vehicles were competing in an unmodified cars event, officials were quick to scratch out Arai from the final finish order. And Valimaki went home with 16 points, the maximum available in Canberra.

For the MRF, Valimaki appears to be a prize catch. A native of Tampere, a lovely tourist town 180 from the Finnish capital of Helsinki, Valimaki has tasted virtually everything in the sport, from Junior Worlds to the Super 1600cc class and the Worlds.

He is capable of handling the threat that his team now expects in the other rounds of the APRC. Malaysia's defending Asia Pacific champion Karamjit Singh and Australian star Cody Crocker are expected to join the series soon.

Finland is considered as rallying's spiritual home. Rallying for the Finns is what cricket is to Indians. No wonder, the two biggest names in the sport, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen, both four-time world champions, hail from Finland.

"Back home, youngsters take to rallying as soon as they get the license to drive. But by watching the sport often, children are ready for rallying as soon as they get the license, at 18," said Valimaki.

With Japanese Katsuhiko Taguchi, the other MRF team, failing to complete the Canberra event, Valimaki has now emerged as the team's star.

"Our aim is to win the Asia Pacific series. We have a lot of testing to do to understand the car better," said the Finn, who with 16 points (including the six bonus points for topping the two Canberra legs) now has a comfortable four-point advantage over New Zealand's Geoffrey Argyle in the APRC series.

But given a choice, he would prefer testing to be as brief as possible before the next Asia Pacific round in New Caledonia on May 20.

"My girlfriend and I expect a baby just before Caledonia. She is not so happy about Caledonia," he said.

But for sure, he would be thrilled to show the Caledonia trophy to his new bundle of joy.

Final placings: 1. Jussi Valimaki/Jarkko Kalliolepo (MRF, Mitsubishi, Finland, 2:56:10.8); 2. Geoffrey Argyle/Jeremy Sinclair (Mitsubishi, New Zealand, 3:02:32.0); 3. Brian Green/Fleur Pedersen (Mitsubishi, New Zealand, 3:13:33.8); 4. Dermott Malley/Stephen Smith (Mitsubishi, New Zealand, 3:19:17.1); 5. Mitsuhiro Kunisawa/Simone Bachmann (Subaru, 3:22:43.3).