Spectators at this years Rally of Canberra were entertained on the final day by an intense battle between the eventual winner Cody Crocker and MRF Lancer driver Katsu Taguchi. It was not only an incredible display of driving by both competitors, it may also be a moment we look back at later this year, as one of the defining moments in the championship.
While Canberra is Crocker’s home round, and an event he has now won five times, Taguchi has proven he can match, and better, the speed of the Australian on the dusty forest roads. In 2007 Katsu beat Crocker hands-down during the early stages before persistent turbo problems slowed his progress.
Coming into Rally of Canberra Taguchi sat at the top of the leader board, having claimed the maximum haul of 16 points at Rally New Caledonia in April. With teams scoring points from six of the seven championship rounds, MRF will not make an appearance at the season-ending Rally China. Another good result was imperative for Taguchi to increase his championship lead.
For Crocker, Rally Canberra could well be his last in the highly developed 2007-spec Subaru WRX STi, the MotorImage team having announced they will introduce the all-new 2008 model WRX from Rally Whangarei in New Zealand. With the new car having not turned a wheel, Crocker could not afford to let slip the chance to capture maximum points while he still had the proven ’07 car at his disposal.
And Rally Canberra 2008 certainly proved to be a car-breaker, the drama starting on stage 2 with Taguchi’s Lancer Evo 9 suffering electrical problems and forcing his retirement from the leg. The pressure was off Crocker. He built a 30 second lead over Taguchi’s MRF team-mate Scott Pedder before first service, and then extended that gap by a further eight seconds during the afternoon stages.
Thanks to the super-rally rules, Taguchi was able to rejoin the event on Sunday morning. And while he was out of contention to claim points for the round, he could still capture bonus points, awarded to the fastest three drivers on each day of the rally.
There was nothing to lose and the Japanese veteran blitzed the opening stages, 2.8 seconds quicker than Crocker. By that point Crocker’s closest rival, Scott Pedder, had dropped more than two and half minutes thanks to holed rear differential. That put Cusco driver Dean Herridge into second outright, and with an eye on the Pacific Cup, not the overall series, he had nothing to gain by challanging Crocker.
After the midday service Taguchi was again quicker, adding another 4.4 seconds over the two shortest stages of the rally. For Corcker victory was insight. And as the second-fastest car on day two, there was no need to push; he would claim 15 points for the round compared to Taguchi’s three.
But push he did. On stage 15, the Australian not only erased the deficit, he gained a one second margin. And he repeated it on the next test, the gap now 2.7 seconds in Crockers favour.
The intensity of the battle even surprised their teams, MRF team boss Lane Heenan camped in the service park results room during the final two stages, watching as the times arrived from the stages and calculating who would win the day.
The final 14 kms were re-runs of the two short stages. With more than 60 cars having already passed three times over the roads large rocks were now being exposed and had already claimed their victims, a split in Pedder’s sump draining engine oil from the Mitsubishi.
Had Taguchi gone too hard, too early and left nothing in reserve? With one last burst, the he won stage 17, Crocker second but only point-4 adrift.
Just the 6.3 kms of Old Depot to run. First car on the road and Crocker set an astonishing time, 2.6 seconds quicker than Taguchi’s previous effort. But was it enough? Crocker and co-driver Ben Atkinson would have to wait two minutes for Dean Herridge to clear the stage, and then a further two minutes for Taguchi.
And Taguchi was again quicker, setting the fastest time over the stage, slicing another 1.3 seconds out of Crocker, but falling short by just a single second.
The series two leading drivers. The championships two leading teams. A day of intense competition across 110 kms of forestry roads. And just one second the difference.
It was a relived Crocker who brought his MotorImage Subaru back to service park. “What an event. It’s been so tough. I thought this event might be a bit…not to say easier. But I thought we might be able to take care of Katsu in this event, being our home event. Gee…he put on a good fight today for that one extra bonus point. But what a fight, and what good way to start the championship for us. We were really focused on the job, and that’s the thing. You’re really got to knuckle-down…and just make sure you’re absolutely on it”.
But while it was all smiles at MotorImage, it was more down-beat atmosphere in the MRF service area, Taguchi having given his all. “All day it was really close, but little bit not enough to get three points today. Our car is much improved from last year, so now I think we are equal with him.”
There’ll be many more battles in the APRC this year. And Crocker and Taguchi will do battle again, just a few weeks to go before the New Zealand round of the series. And time will tell whether 2008 APRC crown will hang on one second, and one bonus point.
Photos courtesy of www.linear-photographs.com