The MRF Mitsubishi Ralliart team scored an emphatic victory in the Rally Hokkaido, round four of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. 1999 APRC Champion Katsuhiko Taguchi claimed outright victory and added 15 points to his championship tally , while MRF Tyre team-mate Jussi Välimäki finished second and continues to lead the Championship.
Rally Hokkaido took in 16 stages and 245.16 competitive kilometers in a total distance of 1,021.38 kilometers. Based around the central service park in Kibou Gaoka Rally Park, eight kilometers north of Central Obihiro City in the sub-prefecture of Tokachi, the route proved tricky for the contenders as all but one of the eight different stages was either totally new or run in a different configuration.
While Mitsubishi ended up with first, second and third it was not looking that way on the first day. Five kilometres into the first stage Jussi Valimaki suffered a puncture and with 21 kilometres still to run the championship leader and stand-in co-driver Panu Plosila had to change the tyre in the stage, loosing 4-minutes and dropping to 24th place. In an amazing drive back up through the field by SS2 the pair had climbed to 13th overall and by the end of the 1st leg they were back to 3rd in APRC.
Team-mate Taguchi also had a lucky escape on the first day, bending the steering in one of the first stages. Mark Stacey and Taguchi fixed the problem, but on the run back to Obhira service they nearly lost a wheel on the road section. Luckily the pair lost no time at all and finished the first leg 2-minutes behind rally leader and Subaru star Toshi Arai.
The current P-WRC leader Arai was cruising to what seemed an easy victory. Going into stage 11 Arai had a 2 minutes and 46 second lead over Taguchi and further 3 minutes back was Valimaki. However 700 metres into the stage it seems a surface change from gravel to tarmac caught Arai out and he and and co-driver Tony Sircombe rolled into retirement. Both the crew were un-hurt but the Subaru was badly damaged and a replacement car will be shipped to Malaysia.
Taguchi moved into first place and with his team-mate over 2 minutes behind cruised to his first international victory at home. “It seems that I have finally won!” said Katsuhiko at the finish, “All I want to say to my fans in Japan, who have been supporting me for a long time, thanks for you patience!” .
Team-mate Välimäki, who has claimed two APRC victories so far this season, was relieved to finish second after his earlier troubles “First of all I would like to congratulate Taguchi on his impressive and well-deserved win”, said Jussi. “Also, I am greatly satisfied that the team was able to achieve a 1-2 finish. Overall I think I did a little better than I did yesterday. I am really happy that I was able to maintain my championship position”.
In a fantastic third place was New Zealander Dermott Malley, also in a Mitsubishi. Malley’s decision to enter Rally of Hokkaido,was a last minute one and made the day Rally of Rotorua finished. In the overall rally he was always in the top 10 times and thoroughly deserved his first international podium finish. The only other APRC finisher was Mitsuhiro Kunisawa, the WRC TV commentator for Japanese TV.
Jussi Välimäki still leads the drivers championship with 55 points, equal 2nd is Taguchi and kiwi Geof Argyle on 25 points, Arai on 19, Malley 16, equal 6th on 11 points are Kunisawa, Chee Hong Kan, Brian Green.
The fifth round of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship takes the contenders to Rally Malaysia (August 19-21). The MRF team is not entering this round and therefore the battle for victory will be between Arai, Argyle and Malaysian driver Chee Hong Kan.