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The PROTON Motorsports team begins the defence of five of its seven* 2011 FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship titles on next week’s Brother International Rally of Whangarei (New Zealand).
 
After a super-successful season where PROTON won everything it entered in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship, the Malaysian manufacturer has redoubled its efforts to maintain that dominance of rallying in the Asia-Pacific region. And last year’s hero, flying Scot Alister McRae (co-driven by Bill Hayes) is back to lead the 2012 attack – joined for the first time in the APRC by Sweden’s P-G Andersson (co-driven by Emil Axelsson).
 
Running earlier in the year than in 2011, the now season-opening Brother International Rally of Whangarei holds good memories for PROTON, with the Malaysian manufacturer taking a one-two APRC finish on last year’s event.
 
The Satria-Neo S2000, which has become the benchmark machine in what is one of the FIA’s most technically challenging and tough regional championships, has undergone significant development since the end of the 2011 season.
 
Alongside its APRC commitment, PROTON Motorsports is also contesting the FIA Super 2000 World Rally Championship and the success achieved on the first two SWRC rounds is a reflection of the hard work put in through the winter. Had it not been for a freak under-bonnet fire, while seven minutes ahead on Rallye Monte-Carlo, Andersson would have dominated both S2000 WRC rounds to date. As it is, a comfortable victory, on round two in the snow at home, made up for any disappointment in the principality.
 
This year’s APRC will take the crews through six of the most challenging rallies anywhere in the world. Starting from the smooth and fast stages of New Zealand’s North Island, PROTON Motorsports and its title challengers will move on to New Caledonia, Queensland, Malaysia, Japan and China where they will face some of the hottest, wettest and roughest roads around.
 
But next week, it’s all about New Zealand’s Northland and an event which runs through the beautiful Whangarei and Kaipara districts. The heavily cambered roads make these stages among the best-loved anywhere in the world, inviting the drivers to attack the apex while delicately balancing the car on the crown of the road. Stunning to watch from the outside, the rhythm from the inside the Satria-Neo S2000 will be mesmeric as McRae and Andersson power their way through the southern hemisphere autumn.
 
The event itself consists of two loops of eight stages. Among those eight are classics such as Waipu Gorge, Bull and Cassidy – all legends in the world of rallying. Central service is run out of Whangarei, New Zealand’s northernmost city. Briton McRae, will feel at home in Whangarei – safe in the knowledge that his countryman and explorer James Cook was the first European to sail into the harbour. Yorkshireman Cook is most famous Down Under for being the first person to circumnavigate both islands which constitute Aotearoa, Maori for the land of the long white cloud.
 
The Brother International Rally of Whangarei, which starts from the centre of the city on Friday (March 30) at 1700, is also the first event for the PROTON team and DMACK Tyres. Chinese firm DMACK will be supplying the Satria-Neo S2000s throughout the APRC season.
 
Close to 300 years after Cook’s departure from Whangarei, McRae will arrive and look to conquer all in chapter one of his APRC title defence next week.
 
Quotes:
Alister McRae said:
“Last year the pressure was on to win the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. With that done, the pressure this year is on keeping the title. It’s really exciting to be going back as defending champion and it’s a championship we know pretty well now – this will be our third year in the APRC. One of the great things about this series is its wide variety of events and the diversity of the roads we get to drive on, it’s fantastic. And it’s absolutely fantastic to be driving those roads in the PROTON Satria-Neo S2000. The car has really come on from last year. The biggest gain, for me, is in the engine, which has got more torque lower down in the rev range; you can really feel the driveability in the medium-speed corners. There’s going to be a great fight in this year’s championship. The main competition, I’m sure will come from P-G [Andersson, team-mate]. P-G might not have been to these rallies before, but that’s really not going to slow him down. He will be quick everywhere. The MRF boys are probably going to be quite quick as well, we’ll have some fun with them…”
 
P-G Andersson said:
“People tell me the APRC series is a lot about experience, which is a bit tough for me as New Zealand is the first time I’ve ever competed on one of these rounds. But I’m not going to let that slow me down. I’ve got a hugely competitive spirit – as all drivers have at this level. I want to win every rally and championship I enter and this is no different. The benefit I have this season is some great seat time in the PROTON. I’ve done two rounds of the SWRC already this year and we’ve gone really well on both of them; winning my home round of the championship [Rally Sweden] meant a lot to me. The Satria-Neo S2000 was absolutely faultless there. While this might be a new championship for me, I do have some idea of what to expect from round one next week; I have competed in New Zealand before and on some of the roads we use next week. They are the best stages in the world, without a doubt and I can’t wait to get the PROTON on them.”
 
Chris Mellors (team principal) said:
“The whole team has been working towards this moment through the winter, we’ve really pushed on with the development of the car and we can already see the fruits of our labour. There’s no doubt this year’s championship is going to be more competitive with the MRF team switching to Super 2000 cars, but we relish that challenge and we look forward to what I’m sure will be some fascinating battles in the next six rallies. For us, this year is all about defending the titles we won last year. We have a great car that has even more potential and is getting faster all of the time – and we have two fantastic drivers for the year ahead. The team has taken a great deal of confidence from the SWRC results we’ve already achieved this season and from our new agreement with DMACK Tyres for the APRC year ahead.”
 
Event data:
Round: 1/6, FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship
Based: Whangarei, New Zealand
Stages: 16
Liaison distance: 539.46km
Competitive distance: 283.28km
Total distance: 822.74km
Shakedown: Pohe Island (Friday March 30, 1000-1200)
Pre-event press conference: Media centre, Whangarei (Friday March 30, 1430)
Time difference: New Zealand is GMT+13hrs/+12hrs from April 1.

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