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Winning start by Team MRF in Australia

The first round of the 2005 Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) that was run as the Subaru Rally, Canberra, Australia kicked up plenty of dust in more ways than one. When the dust and din settled, debutant Jussi Valimaki (co-driver Jarkko Kalliolepo) from Finland, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII for Team MRF Tyres (India), emerged winner. However, the 30-year old Finn, nicknamed "Fast Jussi" had to wait the several hours that it took the Stewards to conduct scrutiny and then exclude first placed Toshi Arai of Japan.

Valimaki, with plenty of experience of the World Rally Championship under his belt, was among the most impressive of the drivers on view in Canberra. He began the event rather conservatively and after getting accustomed to the specially developed MRF tyres, the terrain and the car itself, picked up the pace.

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In fact, from the start, it was quite obvious that this APRC event would be a straight fight between Arai and Valimaki, especially after the second Team MRF entry, Katsuhiko Taguchi (co-driver Mark Stacey), also in an Evo VIII retired after hitting a tree branch on SS-3. Arai, the current leader in production class of the WRC, set the early pace on Saturday but was helpless once Valimaki began his charge.

Valimaki turned back a sizeable deficit to front-running Arai with a blistering drive on the 19.2 Kms long SS-9 (Kowen South-II) where he made 6.1 seconds on the Japanese ace to get in front by 4.7 seconds. Arai hit back in the day's concluding stage (Kowen North-II, 15 Kms) to whittle down the deficit to just 1.8 seconds going into Leg-2 on Sunday.

Valamaki put in a strong performance in the Kowen South Special Stage that was run twice. In the first run (SS-4), Valamaki made 6.4 seconds that helped him to narrow the gap to Arai from 7.3 (after SS-3) to less than a second. Towards the end of the long day, on the repeat run (SS-9), Valamaki pulled off 6.1 seconds that put him in the lead for the first time.

Taguchi, the 1997 APRC champion and second Overall last year, retired 1.3 Kms into Special Stage 3. Caught in the lingering dust, Taguchi, who was hounding Arai in the first stage, hit a branch alongside the track damaging his radiator, prompting him to stop the rally.

There was plenty of drama in store on Day 2 that began with Arai yet again setting a hot pace. The Japanese ace threatened to run away with the title until he suffered a puncture on the 30 Km-long Mineshaft stage, losing 30 seconds. However, Valimaki had his own problems to deal with. A stuck fourth gear and a bent steering arm kept him in the shadow of Arai. Though the Finn made considerable ground on the Mineshaft stage, bringing down the deficit from 55 seconds to just 7.2, he wisely decided to take it easy and settle for second position in view of the problems he had with his car.

At the end of the 20 Special Stages spread over two days, Arai topped the APRC time charts, sparing nearly 19 seconds to Valimaki. However, Arai's exclusion saw Valimaki being promoted to the top of the podium.

Such was the pace that Valimaki and Arai set, that the other APRC contenders, notably Geoff Argyle of New Zealand, also in an Evo VIII, struggled in their wake. Argyle had to resign himself to the third slot before being elevated to No.2 upon Arai's exclusion. Veteran Brian Green filled the other position on the podium.

The loss of points put Arai in a fix. He had earlier decided to skip the second round of APRC at New Caledonia (May 20-22) in view of his P-WRC commitments and now, he might reverse his decision. Also expected in New Caledonia is the 2004 APRC champion Karamjit Singh of Malaysia who did not take part in Canberra.

The final standings (APRC):Round one-Canberra,Australia.
1. Jussi Valamaki/ Jarkko Kalliolepo (Team MRF, Lancer Evo 8) (2hrs, 58mins, 15.0secs)
2. Geof Argyle/Jeremy Sinclair (Silverstone Competition Tyres, Evo 8) (3:02:32.0)
3. Brian Green/Fleur Pedersen (Silverstone CT, Evo 8) (3:13:33.8)
4. Dermott Malley/Steve Smith (M Rally Team, Evo 8) (3:19:17.1).
5. Mitsuhiro Kunisawa/Simone Bachmann (Subaru) (3:22:43.3).

Points after Round 1 (APRC): Valimaki 16 points; Argyle 12; Green 8; Malley 5; Kunisawa 4.