Ten straight wins for Crocker, while others faulter

Just to make it to the finish of the Malaysian Rally is an accomplishment and Motor Image driver Cody Crocker won convincingly for the 2nd year in a row and at the same time racked up his 10th straight win in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship.

Crocker didn’t have it all his way as after the first two stages the event was led by Finnish driver Jussi Valimaki in the MRF Tyres Mitsubishi, but Valimaki’s challenge quickly faulted on Stage 3 when an error in reconnaissance resulted in the Finn having to drive most of the stage with no pace notes “we made a mistake during recce at the first junction and missed out over 2 kilometres of the stage. We lost over a minute to Cody..It’s a pity because I was ready to fight for a win on this rally” said a dejected Valimaki afterwards.

But at least he was still in the event unlike Hiroshi Yanagisawa who crashed off 18 kilometres into stage 1. “Its quite a difficult stage and maybe I was little frustrated and going too fast, I hit a palm tree on the left rear side and although I tried to continued eventually the rear wheel came off and I had to stop and retire – we’ll get the car repaired and return for Indonesia” , said Yanagisawa back at the service park.

At the lunch time service break Crocker was already leading APRC by just under a minute on Taguchi, with a gap of two seconds back to Valimaki. Sungkar and Kumar were continuing their season long battle constantly swapping times and places between 4th and 5th in APRC.

But the talk at mid-day service was all about rain. As the competitors left stage 4 it began to fall in bucket loads, but back at service 10km to the north it was more a heavy shower. The big question was: what was it doing in the area for the next stages – 5 and 6 – located very near service? In Malaysia it can rain heavily on one corner and remain bone dry at another.

As the cars left service there was radically different thinking on the correct type of tyre even within the teams – Taguchi went for full muds, while Valimaki went for complete dry tyres. Amazingly at the end of stage 5 and 28 kilometres the MRF pair were separated by only 1 second, but both were slower than Crocker whose team had opted for a dry cut tyre. On stage 6 Valimaki won by 1 second from Crocker and as the cars returned to service Valimaki and Taguchi were tied for 2nd, but were exactly 1 minute behind Crocker.

The open stages dry quickly but the final set stages 7 and 8, were under a canopy of Palm Oil trees and it was this area that had had the most rain at lunch-time. Stage 7 was 28 kilometer long and even in the morning run had some slippery patches. Taguchi describes the conditions “The last 2 stages were 70% in the wet .. very difficult to have complete confidence in those conditions, especially for braking.

The conditions were so slippery, treacherous and slow that Crocker even adjusted his mirror because he felt sure that team-mate Toshi Arai was going to catch him!! But he need not have worried as the rest of the competitors were having just as many problems in the conditions, Arai 7 seconds slower on SS7, while Taguchi was 37 seconds off Crocker’s pace.

The Australian seems to revel in these conditions and not even Arai had an answer to Crocker’s speed – in the overall positions Crocker lead Arai by 30 seconds at the end of leg1. The Japanese driver was competing in Malaysia as a guest of the Motor Image team and while not eligible for APRC points his experience in world rallying is enormous and extremely valuable for a new team such as Motor Image.

Kumar and Sungkar had continued in their feud over 4th and 5th with the Indian coming out tops for the moment, while Gaurav Gill in the third MRF car was 6th and Brian Green 8th.

The second day of an APRC event is usually uneventful, half a day of rallying and then the finish podium. At Malaysia Rally it all happened on the final morning – albeit behind Crocker. On the first stage of Leg 2 all three drivers in the Motor Image team were equal fastest – Crocker, Arai and Sungkar all on 6 minutes and 50 seconds. However 1 kilometer into the 2nd stage, Sungkar’s Subaru suffered a puncture and he was forced to stop and change mid-stage – dropping over 4 minutes to leader Crocker.

Sungkar’s 4 minute loss was nothing compared to the disaster that faced the MRF Tyres team – all three cars were in trouble. Taguchi and Valimaki both retired from the event after SS10 with rear diff problems – both within 10 kilometres of each other. Gill in the 3rd MRF car was struggling with a similar problem – although he did make it through the stage and onto service. Team owner Lane Heenan commented after the event, “Something we’re going to have to investigate, both cars retired with a rear diff problem, both (diffs) with the same amount of life… maybe we’ve found the end that life. Gill’s problem was slightly different it was the front diff and a broken short shaft”.

With the two MRF cars dropping out of 2nd and 3rd, Kumar and Sungkar were promoted up the order, Kumar easily holding onto 2nd after Sungkar’s puncture, with Brian Green in 4th and Gill now 5th.

However the Malaysian Rally still had one more sting in it’s tail. A large number of supporters and spectators in the event were from Singapore and many were guests of Motor Image. At one of the biggest spectators locations hundreds watched as the cars came through – all seemed in order except that Sungkar was missing.

On the 2nd to last stage of the event the Indonesian went into a right hander a little too fast, slid wide hitting a palm tree and concrete drain, causing extensive damage to the left rear and breaking the left front steering arm. However the Subaru was still drivable just…. and the Indonesia pair set about getting to the end of the test, through the final 4.5 kilometer stage and back to service. By now the left front tyre was completely gone and the wheel just broken spokes, but they made it back to service with 30 seconds to go, where the team repaired the suspension and sent them onto the finish ceremony. Sungkar was obviously disappointed to have lost a podium finish for the team, but can equally be proud of not giving up and bringing the car home 4th in APRC, ” I’ll do what-ever it takes to get to the finish-line and we still collected 5 points’ he said afterwards.

Back at the Danga Bay official finish it was a delighted Reece Jones Motorsport team that watched two of their cars cross the finish-line in podium spots. It was a near perfect finish for Naren Kumar, finishing 2nd in front of his wife and his main sponsor Sidvin’s Mohan P.N. – a just reward for the consistency the Indian champ has shown throughout the year. ‘We drove pretty hard right through without making any mistakes and just hanging in there. We knew that 2nd or 3rd was going to be difficult, but then suddenly the MRF teams bad luck, was our good fortune, fantastic result for us”.

Brian Green felt fortunate to finish, let alone stand on the podium ‘In the 2nd stage this morning we ran off the road into a drain and got stuck. Some-how we managed to get going again and at the end of the stage found ourselves in 5th with the MRF team out, then two guys in front both had problems, one with puncture and another with a crash – suddenly we’re up to 3rd “.

In 5th place was the sole remaining MRF Tyres Team driver Gaurav Gill a great result for the young Indian, who started the APRC in round 1 but wrote off his car early in the event and had to wait till Malaysia to return the championship.

Once again Crocker and co-driver Ben Atkinson survived all the drama behind them, their 10th APRC win a row!! Their form in 2007, driving for the Singapore-based Motor Image team, has been nothing short of sensational. They have collected the maximum 16 points in all four events this year – in Canberra, New Zealand, Japan and now Malaysia.

Crocker sits on top of the points table with 64 points, a perfect score, and only needs to accumulate another four points across the final two events – in Indonesia and China – to secure his second straight APRC crown. The Victorian driver is now 28 points ahead of Katsu Taguchi on 36 points and 31 clear of Jussi Valimaki, on 33 points.

“Making it ten straight wins was really important to us, so it was a relief to get to the finish line. It’s been extremely difficult, right from stage 1 cars starting dropping out and we managed to stay out of trouble. The championships not about winning individual stages or even events, its all about consistency and my focus is holding that trophy again at the end of the year ” Crocker said.

“We’ve had a great battle with Toshi and he brings a new level of competitor to the event. Usually we can beat him in Canberra or Australia and he’ll always beat us in Japan, we got him here, so we’re pretty happy about that.”

The penultimate round of the 2007 APRC is Rally Indonesia which takes place from September 7th to 9th.

Final Results: Ancom Malaysian Rally 2007 – APRC Round 5
1. Cody Crocker – Subaru – 02:49:46
2. Naren Kumar – Mitsubishi – 02:55:43
3. Brian Green – Mitsubishi – 03:05:56
4. Rifat Sungkar – Subaru – 03:11:48
5. Garav Gill – Mitsubishi – 03:18:56