Whangarei (New Zealand), April 29: India’s Gaurav Gill of Team MRF Tyres, struggling with an errant damper, saw his slender advantage vanish as team-mate Ole Christian Veiby from Norway literally splashed his way to a 33.2-second lead in the International Rally of Whangarei which is also the first round of the 2017 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship, here on Saturday that marked by heavy rains in the afternoon.
Gill (co-driver Stephane Prevot), the reigning APRC champion and Veiby (Stig Rune Skjærmoen) were locked in a thrilling and close battle through the morning. Delhi-based Gill, winner here last year, led Veiby by just 1.7 seconds on completion of four of the day’s eight Special Stages, one of which was cancelled in the afternoon following an accident that blocked the route.
On the second loop of the same Stages in the afternoon, Gill encountered problems with the front dampers that led to lack of grip, while in contrast, Veiby had a flawless run that helped him not only move to the front, but also finish the day with a sizeable lead.
With another 108 Kms spread over six Special Stages to be run on Sunday and more rains forecast, Veiby and Gill, both piloting the Skoda Fabia R5, are way ahead of the field. Third-placed Jari Ketomaa (Ville Mannisenmaki), in a Mitsubishi Mirage, trails Gill by one minute, 42.5 seconds as Team MRF Tyres eye a possible 1-2 finish.
Reflecting on his day’s performance, Veiby who started with a 2.5-second deficit following Friday night’s Super Special Stage, said: “We started at a comfortable pace initially, but stepped up the speed in the second loop. I particularly enjoyed the long Stages which were amazing and I could make time on Gill, but he was quicker on the shorter tight and twisty Stages.
“Overall, I am happy as we didn’t have any issues with the car. The last Stage was very difficult as it was raining very heavily and we could barely see. The MRF tyres worked extremely well today in difficult conditions and I have become more comfortable with them.”
On his part, Gill felt that there was still a big battle ahead on Sunday despite the deficit he faced. “I had a good run in the morning though I started first and had to sweep the gravel off the track.
“In the afternoon when it rained heavily, I had problems with the dampers due to which there was no front-end grip. I lost confidence thereafter and couldn’t really push. Also, there was plenty of water on the route and every time I went through at speed, I lost pace while the going was much clear for those behind me. Tomorrow is another day and I am up for the challenge.”
Provisional classification (after Leg-1):
APRC: 1. Ole Christian Veiby / Stig Rune Skjærmoen (Team MRF Tyres, Skoda Fabia R5) (01hr, 31mins, 33.8secs); 2. Gaurav Gill / Stephane Prevot (Team MRF Tyres, Skoda Fabia R5) (01:32:07.0); 3. Jari Ketomaa / Ville Mannisenmaki (Mpart Sport, Mitsubishi Mirage) (01:33:49.5).