New Caledonia is the traditional start for the Asia Pacific Rally Championship and as always the local organisers had planned a tough event with a true twist in the tail, the gruelling 35 kilometre Katrikoin mountain stage run twice and reserved for the final day.
However with the current economic situation, the bigger international teams stayed away this year and only three APRC competitors entered the Pacific Island event. Former New Caledonian champion Jean-Louis Leyraud driving a Subaru was joined by kiwi veteran Brian Green and current New Zealand Rally Champion Hayden Paddon both in Mitsubishi Lancers.
After a ceremonial start in downtown Noumea the event and championship kicked off with a short 3 kilometre test around Nouville Peninsula very near to Noumea city that was won by Leyraud in a time of 1 minute and 40 seconds. Green and Paddon were equal second 4 seconds off Leyraud’s pace.
Stage two and three were a super-special held in the Noumea Hippodrome and an opportunity for the local rally fans to voice their enthusiasm. Unfortunately Brian Green got a little carried away with the crowd support and biffed a guard rail so hard that he was forced out on the spot. “There’s a new bridge in the super-special and its very narrow. As we were exiting the bridge Brian turned left a little too early and clipped the railing. Initially we thought we’d just broken a half-shaft but then the service-crew found we had broken the axle as well so it was major damage and its forced us out of Leg 1, but we’ll get it repaired and be back to score points in Leg 2″ said co-driver Fleur Pedersen.
Up front Leyraud was in good form and continued to set fastest times, while Paddon was off the pace battling a down on power engine ” The day has not been smooth sailing for us, and have been battling a car well done on power. We are still trying to rectify the problem and get the car back up to full speed, but the car has been very difficult to drive with little power. We are currently in second place behind Jean Louis , 11 seconds adrift “.
However early the next day as the event toured to the town of Poya 200 kilometres north of Noumea Paddon’s Mitsubishi gearbox started to get noisy and gradually as the Team Green crew drove further gear ratios disappeared until finally they were left with only 2nd gear. Paddon and co-driver John Kennard managed to limp into service but the service crew had no time to change the gearbox and so were forced withdraw. The team spent the day working on the gearbox and rectifying the engine power.
Mean-while Leyraud the only remaining APRC competitor was setting fastest times on all stages and easily led the event from countryman Claude Clavel in a Subaru and Alain Dalstein a Mitsubishi. However this was to be easy run home for Leyraud and on the very last stage of Leg 1 his engine blew and the Frenchmen was out of the event. “Its big pity because we setting good times and leading easily, now its made winning the Pacific Cup a little more difficult” said a disappointed Leyraud.
With Leyraud retired that meant no APRC finishers in an event for the time in its long history. However superrally rules would apply enabling all competitors to repair and restart on Leg 2 and go for bonus points, that is until the weather intervened. On Saturday night as the competitors readied themselves to take on Katrakoin the rain got heavier and heavier and the winds stronger. Eventually the roads were made impassable and the organisers were forced to call the event off, declaring Claude Clavel and co-driver Philippe Delrieu the overall winners.
No APRC points were awarded so heading to the next round in Queensland Australia, the points count will start at zero. Queensland is expecting a good entry with confirmation from MRF Tyres they will enter a two car Mitsubishi team for 2009 APRC with Japan’s Katsu Taguchi and Indian driver Gaurav Gill.
Entries are expected from Motor Image for current champion Australian Cody Crocker(Australia) and his new team-mate for 2009 Emma Gilmour from New Zealand. Rally Queensland will also be the first round of the Pirelli Star Drivers Competition. For more information see websites www.sidewaysinthesun.com and www.rallyqueensland.com.au