'The competition is intense'

IT has been a successful season for the Coimbatore ace V. R. Naren Kumar and his co-driver D. Ramkumar.

KHALYAN N. ASHOK

V. R. Naren Kumar (left) and his co-driver D. Ramkumar, who clinched the National Rally Championship title with a round to spare, at the end of the Rally de Bangalore. -- Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

IT has been a successful season for the Coimbatore ace V. R. Naren Kumar and his co-driver D. Ramkumar. The enduring and consistent duo once again made it to the podium as the National champion pair of the year and this triumph, their fourth National Rally Championship title after the 1999, 2000, 2002 wins besides an Asia Zone title in 2001, puts them in a class of their own.

This season, Naren and Ramkumar won the INRC events held at Chikmagalur, Nasik, Kochi and Chandigarh. They did not figure in the list of starters at Goa, because their vehicle failed to arrive. They finished third with a late surge at Bangalore, which saw them pile up 68 points, beyond the reach of their nearest rivals, Arjun Balu and Karandip Singh, by over 20 points.

Ramkumar credits their success to perfect understanding and coordination. "Naren just reads my mind and drives accordingly and he is very cool." Naren intones, "With Ram as the navigator, I just have to keep going and he reads the route perfectly."

They got together in the 1998 season and from then on they have stuck together and matured to provide champion stuff. "At the start of the season we were not exactly looking at the overall title. We wanted to take each race one by one and to see that we did our best. I guess we have given our best shot and come good," said Naren Kumar.

They regard the 2001 Asian Zone title as one of their major achievements and competing and doing well in the APRC events was a major gain. "The APRC field was much tougher than we had ever experienced and it had four wheel drive cars which are very fast. We don't possess one and it took some time for us to adjust to the conditions and as the legs progressed, we got better and better. It is a pity we didn't get more of APRC and I am sure we can do well at that level too, considering the fact that we had beaten Karandip Singh quite a few times here and for the Asia Zone title. Mind you, he had won an APRC title once," said Naren Kumar. "Competing in APRC events has certainly improved my navigational skills," chipped in Ramkumar.

Naren Kumar rates all the rallies at home in the same class. "There is no such thing as this one is a very tough rally or the other is an easy one. As competitors, all of us face the same terrain, conditions and toughness. If one has to define it, it comes from the competitors themselves and how hard they drive."

Naren Kumar rates the rally at Chandigarh, this season, as one of the hard earned wins. "It was a very close affair between me and Karandip Singh. For about five to six stages the lead swung both ways, with just a one-second advantage. I made it through, with Karandip's brakes giving away."

Naren would have loved to take the National championship title with a win at Bangalore, instead of a third place finish. "But then, with the course so rough, it was not prudent to push too hard when you know that even a third spot is good enough for the title. At one point we did try hard in the penultimate stage before we had a puncture."

"Naren just reads my mind and drives accordingly and he is very cool," says Ramkumar, while Naren chips in, "With Ram as the navigator, I just have to keep going and he reads the route perfectly." — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

The outlook for rallies in the country has improved tremendously after MAI came into existence, feels Naren Kumar. "They have been doing a good job since 1999. This year the Chikmagalur and Chandigarh rallies were well organised and they are getting better and better. But on the other hand we found some rallies such as the one in Bangalore are falling in standards."

The main problem with Bangalore this season, according to Naren Kumar, was the terrain. "There was not a single stage where the driver could really go fast. It was rough and you ended up driving slower than what you were capable of."

The MAI rallies are confined to MRF and a few other private teams, with JK Tyres studiously staying out.

Naren opines that it would be a good thing if JK Tyres gets back into action here after sorting out whatever the problems may be, amicably. "It would be great to drive against them as well. Not that we don't compete against each other in the MRF team. When we compete, each of us in the MRF team drives hard and wants to win. Mind you, all the best drivers are now with MRF and the competition is intense."

As for the future, Naren Kumar hopes that they will soon get back to competing in the APRC meets.

"After proving ourselves in the Asia Zone, the next step obviously is the APRC and our earlier foray there had taught us some valuable lessons. We got there without much practice in new cars with four-wheel drive, which are three times faster than what we drive here. Sufficient practice before the race should put us in the right shape and mood for the races. We are also looking for sponsorship and media support to put up a team and get there. We are just keeping our fingers crossed," concluded Naren Kumar.