Just two-tenths of a second separated the two Team MRF drivers – reigning European Rally Champion Jan Kopecky and the defending champion of Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) Gaurav Gill – after the Friday morning shakedown on the eve of The International Rally of Whangarei, the opening race of this year’s APRC.

Kopecky, the 32-year-old Czech who has joined the team this year replacing Finn Esapekka Lappi, clocked a time of 1:00.6s around the 1.25 kilometre (km) track in what is the precursor to the 220.87 km of competition that is spread over the next two days.

The Indo-Czech duo leads a pack of nine international entries this season.

The action starts on the Saturday morning, in the Far North district with six special stages, before returning to the town for the Hella Pohe Island Super Special Stage. Though it is the eighth time the Championship is being run from Whangarei, all six stages are new.

“I am familiar with the conditions” said Gill. “But the roads are completely new. These fast flowing roads are challenging.

“There is lot of gravel and since we are car no. 1, we will be sweeping a lot of it. They are like the winding mountain roads in India, but a lot smoother. Basically a mix of everything. I have never seen anything like this in New Zealand before.”

While last year’s start was plagued by incessant rain, the weather till Friday remained dry. “I am hoping for some rain, though not too much.” said Gill. “With some rain, we can get more grip. We have some forecast for it. So keeping fingers crossed.”

For Kopecky it was his first taste of racing in New Zealand but he was unperturbed.

“The first day seems challenging,” he said. “But it’s new for everyone. I will push from the beginning. It would be nice to beat him [Gill] at some point. But the main target it to help the team win,” he added.

The line-up:

Gaurav Gill & Glenn Macneall (Team MRF); Jan Kopecky & Pavel Dresler (Team MRF); Mark Pedder & Claire Dowling (Team Mark Pedder); Jun Xu & Sheng Liu (Young Motorsport); Tom Wilde & Bill Hayes (Tom Wilde); Michael Young & Erin Kelly (Cusco Proton); Sanjay Takale & Sean Gregory (Cusco Subaru); Rina Ito & Paul Santo (Team M&M Honda); Takumi Masukawa & Yuya Yamagishi (Team M&M Mazda).

N. Sudarshan is in Whangarei at the invitation of MRF.

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