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Team MRF have started the 2013 Asia-Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) in dominant fashion, claiming first and second places in New Zealand’s International Rally of Whangarei.

In a pair of Race Torque-prepared Skoda Fabia S2000s, 22 year old Finnish Champion, Esapekka Lappi, finished four minutes clear of his Indian team-mate, Gaurav Gill, on the challenging two-day event north of Auckland.

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.

The Team MRF crew was joined by technicians from Skoda Motorsport for the event, with small changes to the Fabias seeing a gain in speed over 2012.

On some of the stages used in last year’s World Rally Championship event, Lappi was quicker than the fastest S2000 driver in 2012 – despite this being his first visit to New Zealand.

“I’m very happy with the way the event went,” Lappi said.  
“The times (over the stages) have improved the second time through. There was much more loose gravel on 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.”

Gill finished second to his team-mate in last year’s APRC, and hadn’t driven a rally car for seven months heading into the Rally of Whangarei.

However he showed incredible speed, beating Lappi on some stages, before a rear suspension problem saw him settle for second place, and a good haul of championship points.

“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,” Gill explained.

“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”

Team MRF boss, Lane Heenan, was thrilled with the perfect start to the season, but knows that the team may not have it all their own way for the remainder of the year.

“It was a brilliant debut for Lappi, who has only been rallying for three years,” Heenan said.

“His pace was very strong, and Gill also set some incredible stage times that will ensure he’s a threat to the title as the year progresses.

“We haven’t made any major changes to the Skodas since last year, and we hope that our reliability will enable Team MRF to claim back-to-back APRC titles.”

Round two of the APRC will be held in New Caledonia from June 15 to 16, before the series heads to Australia for the International Rally of Queensland on July 13 and 14.

With rumours that Proton could return to the series, the competition looks sure to get even tougher as the year progresses.

2013 Rally of Whangarei, Asia Pacific Rally Championship round one
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.

Photos courtesy of: APSM TV (Asia Pacific Sports Media and TV)
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