Monday, Sep 08, 2003
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Racing : Motor
By Stan Rayan
The event, the MRF India Rally, the fifth round of the APRC, will be run in Pune this December but our best driver will not be competing in the glittering event.
Instead, Team MRF's national champion V.R. Naren Kumar will be driving in the Indian National Rally Championship, which will be held simultaneously with the APRC. He will just be a part of the sideshow.
"I just don't know whether I'd be driving. Nobody has told me anything," said Naren when asked about his APRC plans and preparations.
But Antony Rodricks, the Team MRF's motor sport chief, was clear in his answer. "No, Naren will not be taking part in the APRC. Of course, he will be competing in the Indian National Championship," said Mr. Rodricks.
The news must be really shattering for the king of the Indian rally circuit. Naren has been the best in the country the last few years. And, apart from winning the National drivers' championship hands down last season, Naren also leads this year's Nationals by a big margin. He has won the last seven rallies he figured in, the last one, the Kerala Rally held early this week in Kochi, by a whopping two-minute margin.
And when he took part in the Asia Zone Series a couple of years ago, he won the championship virtually unchallenged. Surely, he deserves a better deal. And since the APRC will be run at home this time, the financial burden could be much less for fielding a team in India than in sending it abroad.
"Well, not this year. There's no point in going for a championship where we don't have a chance. They should first come to that (APRC) level. We are okay in the Asia Zone, but the APRC is a different thing altogether. Probably, in two years, I think Naren or somebody will reach that level," said Mr. Rodricks.
Not that Naren is new to the APRC, which comes just behind the World Rally Championship in terms of quality and, probably, in degree of difficulty. The Coimbatore youngster took part in three rounds of the APRC last year, in Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
"He was far behind in all the three APRC rallies he took part. Our boys will take time to get used to the faster cars. But the problem is, they don't have fast cars in our country," said the MRF manager.
But Naren claims to have improved with each round of the APRC last year, despite the three `DNFs' (did not finish) against his name, the result of gearbox problems. "In Australia, I was three seconds off the pace but in the next round, I had cut it down to one second. And in fact, in Japan, I had the fastest times in two of the first five stages," he said.
"We had no problems in winning the Asia Zone. In fact, we won all the four events but the competition is definitely much higher in the APRC. The cars are 2,000cc four-wheel cars, while we have 1,600cc two-wheel drive vehicles in the Indian Nationals. So, it takes some time to get used to APRC's fast cars," said the 28-year-old Metallurgy Engineer.
But Naren did not get much time to get accustomed to the cars during the international tours. "Basically, we go for these APRC rounds two to three days before the event and just jump into the car. If we do a lot of testing, we could spoil the car. So, we don't push the car too much while testing," said Naren.
Even Malaysia's Karamjit Singh, the World Rally champion in the production cars section, had problems when he came down to compete in the slower cars at the Asia Zone in 2001, soon after winning the APRC.
In fact, he lost to Naren, which proves that even world champions take time in settling down to different cars. And Karamjit, who has his roots in India, feels that Naren should be driving in the APRC. "If we could bring one or two of those fast cars and train in them, I am sure we can do a lot better," said Naren.
But the cost factor appears to be a problem, even for a giant like MRF which has been the backbone of Indian motor sport for a few years now and which plays a big role in the APRC these days. "It's very costly to bring down the cars here. Our APRC cars are prepared by an Australian team in Perth," said Mr. Rodricks.
However, MRF has two teams competing in the APRC. It supports and sponsors Germany's seasoned rallyist Armin Kremer, who currently is at No. 2 in the overall list, and Austria's young David Doppelreiter. Two men to keep the MRF flag flying on the international stage. How nice it would be if MRF had an Indian face in the APRC. And how lovely it would be if the tyre major could groom, guide and support an Indian driver all the way to the podium. Indian motor sport longs for such a day.
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