If MRF are smart, they will soon expand their international rallying program to Europe because in newly crowned, two-time FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) champion Gaurav Gill, they have a talent that deserves a bigger stage.
For those who can think back far enough, 2009 was the year that India got its first points scorer on a FIA World Rally Championship event when Gill finished seventh in the Production WRC (PWRC) category at Rally Portugal. There was fortune involved but no one, including those at Team Sidvin India – where Gill had replaced former national rallying champion Naren Kumar – denied that the then 27-year-old made his own luck with his driving style that one could, at the very least, describe as spirited.
An accident and a mechanical failure had caused retirements in the last PWRC round of 2008 and the 2009 Cyprus Rally, respectively. But those who had tracked his progress in the APRC – where he first got a taste of rallying machinery at international standards – knew that this was Gill’s way of learning his and his car’s limits so that he could ultimately push them as much as he could.
The fallout of the global economic crisis at the time – as well as a dispute with MRF Tyres, with whom Gill was contracted – meant that Sidvin and Gill could not sustain their PWRC involvement and Gill also had to restrict his involvement to a rallying championship where he could get MRF’s generous support.
EVOLUTION OF A CHAMPION
Times have changed a lot since then and costs have only risen in global motorsport with the WRC seeing the mass withdrawal of factory teams from Japan – soon to be changed with Toyota’s return in 2017 – and seats hard to come by without sufficient backing.
Gill too has changed. From missing out on the 2010 APRC crown by just three points on account of an accident in the season’s final round in China to difficult (but still evolutionary) campaigns in 2011 and 2012, the 34-year-old (35 in December) has not one, but two APRC titles to his name.
After his fifth consecutive win of the 2016 season, Gill has an unassailable lead over Team MRF Skoda teammate Fabian Kreim, a 24-year-old who is this year’s German rally champion. Gill’s last championship win came in 2013 when he bested Esapekka Lappi who was the Finnish rally champion at the time. The Delhi native has also previously had a WRC podium finisher, a European rally champion and a junior WRC champion as teammates.
He has had to overcome team orders, a difference in machinery as well as a huge deficit in experience in high-level rally cars (Super 2000 and R5) to his teammates and given the circumstances, has done India proud.
Very proud, in fact. One can rightly point out a relative lack of competitiveness since when he first took part in the APRC and even following the 2012 season, but overcoming his reputation as a crasher and beating those far more prepared than him is no mean feat.
THE NEXT STEP
Gill has maintained that MRF’s tyres are good enough for the company to viably compete in either the FIA European Rally Championship or even the WRC-2 category of rallying’s top championship.
Which begs the question that is MRF willing to move out of their comfort zone a little and do a bit more than just be a means for Volkswagen Group company Skoda’s motorsport division to test updates on their Fabia and to give the drivers who compete for them in Europe some extra seat time?
There have been slight hints that MRF’s priorities lie elsewhere than rallying – outside of motorsport, even – and that Gill may have to eventually chance it as a privateer. But then that is hardly the kind of foundation needed to give an attempt at the higher echelons of global rallying a proper attempt.
It’s time that MRF sit down seriously and consider giving Gill the stage that he is more than willing to stake his reputation on as well as find and groom the next rallying talent to eventually take his place.
One hopes that this becomes even more apparent to them as the APRC makes its final stop of 2016 in Chikmagaluru, Karnataka for the Rally of India.