The weatherman didn’t get it right. But Team MRF’s Esapekka Lappi did!

With the picturesque route swathed in bright sunshine for most part of the day, the Finn (co-driver Janne Ferm) dominated the opening day of the Rally of Whangarei, the inaugural race of this season’s Asia Pacific Rally Championship, here on Saturday.

The 22-year-old drove his Skoda Fabia 2000 with purpose to win five of the eight stages to return an overall timing of 1:23:13.6s, 33.3 seconds better than teammate Gaurav Gill (co-driver Glen Macneall).

Gill, the second to start the race after Lappi, won the other stages to gladden the hearts of fans of the ‘Red and White’ team.

In fact, the champion Indian driver took the two Super Special Stages of the day.

The morning session saw Lappi take the odd-numbered stages and thanks to Gill’s engine stalling in the third, the European driver could build up a 19.7-second lead by the time the cars returned to the Service Park.

Speaking to this correspondent at the break, Gill did not seem unduly perturbed and indicated a change in the suspension to help him close the gap on the leader.

He added that he was getting into the groove, after being away from the machine for seven months, and was keen on driving sensibly without pushing himself too much.

The latter half of the day saw the drivers reprise the first four stages with the eighth being Super Special.

Best times

Continuing his good show, the Finn steered his Fabia adroitly over undulating roads, that criss-crossed the picture postcard-perfect lush green pasture, to return the best times for Stages five to seven.

“I had a good rhythm from the first stage and kept going. The good weather also helped a lot”, was Lappi’s pithy reply when queried about his first day of competitive driving at a rally outside his native continent.

When asked about being dubbed ‘God’ in Finland for his sublime rallying skills, the boyish-looking blond could only blush saying that he could live with that moniker and did not mind it much.

Lappi signed off by indicating his strategy for Sunday would be similar.

After perusing the first day’s display and timings, it would be no surprise if he leads Team MRF to a 1-2 finish under conditions predicted to be akin to Saturday.

The standings (APRC drivers after Day 1):

1. Esapekka Lappi & Janne Ferm (Team MRF) 1:23:13.6s; 2. Gaurav Gill & Glenn Macneall (Team MRF) 1:23:46.9, 3. Hiroshi Asakura & Takumi Takahashi (Cusco Racing) 1:37:48.0; 4. Michael Young & Daniel Willson (Cusco Racing) 1:40:43.7; 5. Sanjay Takale & Sean Gregory (Sanjay Takale) 1:42:06.9.

(V.V. Ramanan is in Whangarei on the invitation of MRF)

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