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Rising Finnish star Esapekka Lappi dominated the first round of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship in New Zealand this weekend, leading home a Team MRF one-two on the International Rally of Whangarei.

Lappi, 22, and his co-driver Janne Ferm were fastest of the APRC competitors at the pre-event shakedown and carried that speed and form into the event. Running first on the road in his Skoda Fabia S2000, Lappi’s only concern was the loose gravel on the roads south of the rally’s base in Whangarei. Heading out to the rally-opening Waipu Caves test, the reigning Finnish Rally Champion was relieved at overnight rain, which helped bind the surface together. Lingering fog, however, added to the challenge of the heavily cambered North Island roads.

Despite making his APRC debut, Lappi rose to that challenge and moved into an immediate lead. His team-mates Gaurav Gill and Glenn MacNeall were quickest in SS2, determined not to let the Scandinavians have it all their own way. Lappi was then fastest on the remainder of the country roads, while Gill remained unbeaten on the two superspecial stages on Pohe Island, close to the rally's host city of Whangarei. Just 33.3 seconds split to two Skodas at the end of the opening day.

Lappi moved further clear on the second day, when Gill struck trouble with the rear of his Fabia S2000. The Indian ace was concerned at the lack of traction from the back of the car and spun twice as a result.

Having started dry, the weather closed in towards the finish of the rally, providing a sting in the tail for Lappi’s first APRC test. The leader never faltered and brought his car home for a trouble-free first.

Gill ensured the perfect result for Team MRF with second place.

Subaru driver Hiroshi Asakura had been running well in third place and looked a safe bet for a podium, until he was caught out on the final stage of the morning and slid off the road in his Impreza.

Asakura’s downfall left Michael Young on the bottom step of the podium – a fine result for the Perth-based Kiwi in his Cusco-run Toyota Racing Developments Vitz RS. As well as third in the APRC standings, Young picked up maximum points in the FIA Two-wheel Drive Cup and FIA Junior Cup.

India’s Sanjay Takale has made the step up from two to four-wheel drive rallying this season and was rewarded with a strong fourth position in his Subaru Impreza WRX in New Zealand this weekend. Takale also won the APRC Group N Production Cup class.

The opening APRC round of the season provided a typically New Zealand challenge, with rain, mist and bright sunshine accompanying the crews through some of the world’s finest rallying roads. From here, the APRC moves to New Caledonia (Rallye Nouvelle de Caledonia, 15-16 June) for the second round of what is certain to be a fascinating, season-long, international fight.

WHAT THEY SAID:
Esapekka Lapp (FIN), first position:
“I’m very happy with the way the event has gone. The times have improved the second time through. There was much more loose gravel today (Sunday), so it was more slippery. I had to stay focused and keep a good rhythm, but it was a lot of fun through these stages. The road is always turning and these roads are really nice.”

Gaurav Gill (IND), second position: “A good result. We have had some problems with the rear-right suspension not working, but there was nothing much that we could do as there was no service – so we lost a few minutes overall, I think. But I love the roads here and I really enjoyed it. We went faster than last year so hopefully next year we will be faster again and hopefully we will be aiming to win. We always love the roads in New Zealand – they teach you new things and I’m glad to have driven through. Next rally we will hopefully have everything the way we want it”

Michael Young (NZ), third position: “Our main goal this weekend was to get used to the new car and get to the finish. The stages were quite muddy at times, so it was interesting to see how the car handled these roads. It was quite slippery on the second day and by then we were really just cruising around to the finish”

RESULTS (after 16 special stages, 288.16 kilometres)
1 Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000 2h51m18.3s
2 Gaurav Gill(IND)/Glenn MacNeall (AUS) Skoda Fabia S2000 +4m03.2s
3 Michael Young (NZ)/Daniel Willson (AUS) Toyota Vitz RS +34m35.5s
4 Sanjay Takale (IND)/ Sean Gregory (IND) Subaru Impreza WRX 39m33.0s

FIA Pacific Cup winner: Esapekka Lappi (FIN)/Janne Ferm (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000
FIA APRC Junior Cup: Michael Young (NZ)/Daniel Willson (AUS) Toyota Vitz RS
FIA APRC Team Trophy: Team MRF

CHAMPIONSHIP POSITIONS:
1 Lappi 39 points; 2 Gill 30; 3 Young 24; 4 Takle 19; 5 Hiroshi Asakura 5. 
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