Team MRF will begin their campaign for a hat-trick of FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championships this weekend, with the running of the Rally of Whangarei in New Zealand.

Using their Race Torque prepared Skoda Fabia Super 2000s, the team clinched the championship in 2012 with Australian Chris Atkinson, and then again in 2013 with Indian star Gaurav Gill.

For the six-round 2014 championship, Gill will be joined by the 2013 European Rally Champion, Jan Kopecky, from the Czech Republic.

Team MRF won five of the six rounds last season, and start clear favourites in 2014.

“In New Zealand I would like to score some points, just to see how fast he (Gill) really is and how fast other drivers are and then we will see,” Kopecky said in a recent interview.

“I would like to win this championship, but it will not be easy. I’ve never been to New Zealand or any of the countries in the championship, but it’s a great opportunity to see different places.

“I believe the character of the rallies will be completely different compared to Europe, so it’s a big challenge.”

Gill was similarly upbeat about his chances this year.

“We had a great season where we created history last year, but now our focus is squarely on this year,” he said.

“I will be working much closer with the MRF R&D team as well to ensure we have the best possible tyres. These guys are capable of developing tyres to match the best in the world and together we hope to achieve this.

“We will not rest on our laurels and will continue to push to ensure that we are fighting for the title again.”

Team MRF’s Skoda Fabias are prepared at Race Torque’s factory in Perth, Western Australia, with a brand new car being built for Kopecky. Gill will use the car that his 2013 team-mate, Esapekka Lappi, drove last year.

“Preparations for this year’s championship have gone very well and we’re confident of a strong showing in New Zealand this weekend,” Team MRF boss, Lane Heenan, said.

“While this will be the first time that Jan (Kopecky) has done any of the Asia-Pacific Championship rallies, he has a tremendous amount of experience at all levels of the sport and we expect he’ll adapt easily to the new stages.

“We’re sure that he’ll enjoy the classic New Zealand stages as well.

“And as a regular driver in the team, we know what Gauvav (Gill) is capable of, having won the title last year, so we enter this season with plenty of confidence.”

As was the case last season, Gill will be co-driven by the experienced Australian, Glenn Macneall, while Pavel Dresler will call the pacenotes for Kopecky.

Along with the Team MRF Skodas, Race Torque will also run a third Skoda Fabia S2000, for Chinese pairing of Jun Xu and Sheng Liu.

2014 will be the eighth year that the Rally of Whangarei has been held on the flowing country roads north of Auckland. This year’s route includes a mix of new roads and old favourites, with a highlight being the Hella Pohe Island special stage, to be run under lights and featuring several prime spectator viewing points, including the adjacent motorway bypass bridge.

The new roads to the north of Whangarei are in fantastic condition, with a great mix of twisting valley climbs and descents, then fast flowing plains. They are real driver’s roads and will take some mastering.

Featuring 14 stages and a total competitive distance of 241.11 kilometres, the Rally of Whangarei gets underway in the centre of Whangarei on Saturday morning, before finishing on Sunday afternoon.

The longest stage of the rally is the 32.60km Pipiwai test, which will be run twice on day one.

Team MRF’s strongest opposition is expected to come from former Honda factory driver and Australian Rally Championship regular, Mark Pedder, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X. Another Aussie, Tom Wilde (Renault Clio), will be battling for the two-wheel drive honours with Kiwi Michael Young (Proton Satria).

2014 Asia-Pacific Rally Championship calendar

  1. New Zealand – April 11-13
  2. New Caledonia – May 17-18
  3. Australia – June 21-22
  4. Malaysia – August 16-17
  5. Japan – September 27-28
  6. China – November 8-9
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