Thailand’s domination of the four-wheel drive and Japanese excellence on two wheels marked the 2014 Asia Cross Country Rally (AXCR), which ended in Phnom Penh on Friday after the 2,200km event was flagged off on August 9 at the Thai beach resort town of Pattaya.
Cambodia’s Koun Phandara put up a sterling show on his KTM 350cc to finish second behind Japan’s Keisuke Maeda riding a KTM 450cc in the motorbike rally that was run concurrently with the car rally. Japan’s Tadao Ezure on a Yamaha ended up third in a field of 16 starters.
Two other Cambodian debutants Touch Thatch on a KTM and Chea Lykheang on a Yamaha were classified fifth and seventh, respectively.
“My previous experience came in handy. I lost some precious time in the first two legs in Thailand – I never could quite make that up, though I managed in the end to be within five minutes of Maeda,” Phandara told the Post.
“Overall I am very happy with the result. The bike was excellent. There was no trouble at all at any stage. Just the usual maintenance” added Phandara, who clocked 7:20:37 to Maeda’s winning time of 7:15:16.
One of Thailand’s top rallyists, Nattapon Angritthanon, and his co-driver Peerapong Sombutwong in a Toyota Hilux Vigo they have faithfully stuck to in the past seven years, pulled off one of the biggest wins of their career.
The Thai pair handled the dry and dipping Cambodian sections of the rally better than others after leaving their familiar home terrain for the first two legs.
“Winning the AXCR is indeed a big achievement for me in 13 years of my rally experience. I had absolutely no problems with my vehicle and my navigator was fantastic,” Nattapon Angritthanon told the Post after his victory was officially announced at the finishing point near the Independence Monument on Friday.
“Driving through the muddy sections of rural Cambodia was very tough because we always had to be alert for people, vehicles and animals straying on to the roads,” added Nattapon.
The triumphant pair returned with an overall timing of 10:06.35, well ahead of their Thai compatriots Wichawat Chotiravee and Athikij Srimongkhol in an Isuzu at 10:51:32. Completing the Thai trifecta was Vorapot Bunchuayluea and Chupong Chaiwan behind the wheels of another Isuzu in a time of 10:57:06.
Japan’s Takuma Aoki, driving a modified Isuzu in the company of Ittipon Simaraks of Thailand and Katsuhiko Shiine of Japan, finished a creditable fourth. A former motorcycle Grand Prix racer, Aoki was paralysed below the waist after a spinal injury from an accident in 1998. He bravely switched to a modified four-wheel drive and has been taking part in many rallies since, including the AXCR and Dakar Rallies.
Cambodia’s first team to take part in a four-wheeler rally earned plaudits from experts for completing the course, though they were way out of depth competitively. Driver Ho Sittikun with co-drivers Sun Sothea and Som Sokosal completed the course in their Toyota Thundra and are all the richer for this thrilling experience.
“In fact, I used the services of a Thai professional, Vong Kim Huoth, as my navigator. It was very good experience for me. The first two legs in Thailand were really tough for us with so many turns that left us confused. I was really happy with the Battambang-Phnom Penh section and that was probably the best I did the whole way,” Ho Sittikun told the Post.
“This is an eye opener for us and I am sure there will be more Cambodians taking part in the future.”
Though the six-stage rally was generally trouble-free, the last year’s winners from Thailand were involved in a major accident near Siem Reap. They lost control of their car while negotiating a narrow bridge.
Both the driver and the co-driver miraculously escaped injury, but the car was badly damaged. Elsewhere, a Japanese driver hurt his arm and a Thai driver his shoulder in minor mishaps.
Unlike the previous editions when the rally ended in Siem Reap, it was extended to Phnom Penh this year to enable the rallyists to see more of Cambodia’s rural areas. The major routes covered in the Cambodian section of the rally were Siem Reap, Battambang, Pursat, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu and Phnom Penh.