Team MRF was well aware before the start of the rally that it was always going to play catch up with its rival from Malaysia. But a stunning turn of events has suddenly thrown the Asia Pacific Rally Championship wide open.

A brilliant start by the two Proton drivers in Special Stage 2, eventually ended in disaster in the closing stages of Leg 1, here on Saturday.

Katsuhiko Taguchi kicked off SS2 at Ashoro Long, but it was APRC leader Chris Atkinson and Alister McRae who set the initial pace. The two kept outpacing each other, leaving the MRF team way behind in the process.

Atkinson was 3.2 seconds ahead of McRae at SS5, while India's Gaurav Gill was further 35 seconds off the pace before bad luck struck the Protons.

McRae suffered first when a tyre puncture at a crucial stage on Stage 6, dropped him to fifth in the timings. Team MRF cashed in and set a fiery pace.

In the blink of an eye Gaurav Gill was up to second, with the gap closing on the front runners. It was more than what MRF could have asked for. But in fact, there was more joy to follow. In what could be described as the turning point in this year's title race, Chris Atkinson was left devastated after an engine failure on Stage 9.

Atkinson out

This has most certainly put Atkinson out of the race as FIA rules prohibit engine change during a race. It has given his rivals the much-needed advantage heading into the final leg.

Now, it was MRF's turn to have some fun in the gravel as new race leader Gill and Taguchi blazed away at the top.

Towards the end of the stage, Gill's luck ran out with a puncture, losing close to 50 seconds. But it did not cost him much as he still rejoined comfortably ahead of McRae.

There was still some more excitement left for the fans as Taguchi, who was heading the time charts at the end of the day's action, incurred a penalty from the officials for delaying his exit from the service area.

So Gill returned as the leader overnight with Taguchi eight seconds behind and Alister McRae a distant 36.

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