This weekends Rally of Canberra (8th-9th May 2004) is the opening event of the 2004 FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship and the series looks set to be another thrilling battle for the teams and drivers. Rally of Canberra is a firm favourite with drivers and spectators – 14 gravel stages and 262.72 competitive kilometres that are based in the forests around Canberra, Australia’s national capital – a beautiful purpose-built city, sited between the larger commercial centres of Sydney and Melbourne. After being ravaged by bushfires in 2003 the areas where the rally will go are completely devoid of trees or greenery and with no rain for several weeks dust may become a problem for the drivers.
Last year’s APRC champion, German driver Armin Kremer, returns with the MRF team and will be competing in a brand new Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 8. After claiming the 2003 APRC title at the final round in India where four drivers could have become champion, Kremer is well aware that retaining his crown will be no mean feat in one of the world’s most hotly-contested series. “I will fight for the title again.” Armin said, “It is my goal to retain this, the new car has a nice feeling and we had a good test.” Kremer is a previous winner of the German Rally Championship for Drivers in 1996, 1998 and 1999 along with the title for FIA European Rally Championship for Drivers in 2001.
Former double Asia-Pacific Rally Champion Karamjit Singh from Malaysia heads the provisional entry of 31 crews in a Proton Pert. Singh continues a busy 2004 rally schedule competing in the Production World Rally Championship plus various rounds of the Malaysia championship.
New Zealander Geof Argyle was one of the four drivers who had a chance at the 2003 title and has entered the championship with a brand new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8. Argyles New Zealand based team comprises two other kiwi drivers, veteran Brian Green also in a Lancer Evo 8 and Dermott Malley in a Mitsubishi Lancer 6.5.
1999 FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Champion Katsuhiko Taguchi is team-mate to Kremer in a similar Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8. The Japanese driver and the MRF team are likely to be a dominant factor in the 2004 championship. “I am going to be contesting all the APRC events this year and plan on giving it my best,” said Taguchi. “My goal is to become Group N Champion. I am especially looking forward to the fourth round, the Rally of Japan, which is also a round of the WRC”.
Italian driver Nico Caldarola as been an avid supporter of the Asia Pacific series since 2000, winning the Group N championship in 2002 and taking several overall victories in a Mitsubishi. This year his Top-Run team have switched to Subaru Imprezas and Caldarola will drive the latest Group N version. Italy is also represented by Norberto Cangani in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 7.
Suzuki have entered the Super 1600 class with a two-car team with last years driver Australian Chris Atkinson returning and this year joined by Vesa Mikkola, the son of one of rallying great legends, Hannu Mikkola. The Suzuki Ignis with its normally aspirated 1600 engine is hugely popular with the crowds and are identical models to those run by the factory team in the Junior WRC in 2003.
Other drivers entered in the championship are Japanese drivers Atsushi Masamura (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 7) and Haruo Takakua (Subaru Impreza). Another young driver with a famous rallying Dad is Nick Marshall in a Peugeot 106. His father Mike Marshall competed against Hannu Mikkola in the 1973 Heatway Rally in New Zealand
Changes to the championship this year include a 2-day format and all cars in the leading class will be FIA Group N specifications. The APRC is run using the SUPERally format, a concept planned for the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship – enabling a competitor who fails to finish any leg of a rally being permitted to restart the next leg, assuming the competitors rally car is technically eligible. For the first time in several years the APRC will run alongside the World Rally Championship at Rally of Japan.