As widely expected, Thailand’s experienced combination of Rattapoj Bunchuayluea and co-driver Somkiat Noichard emerged triumphant in the Yokohama Asia Cross-Country Rally 2011 after finishing third in the seventh and final leg between Tani village and Bayon temple, in Siem Reap province, yesterday.
The Thai pair’s Isuzu D-Max rally car was the first to be sent out from Tani, the site of the famous Angkor Ceramic Museum, at 10:30am for a 54-kilometre special section full of sharp curves, dips and muddy puddles.
But it was the Japanese duo of Kinya Morikawa and Masayuki Fukano, driving a Toyota Land Cruiser 80, who excelled in the rugged conditions with a time of 36 minutes, 47 seconds.
Another Thai pair, Krittasa-run Boonyatanaset and Thanyaphat Meenil, were second in 41 minutes, six seconds.
Rattapoj and Somkiat could manage a stage time of only 42 minutes, 54 seconds, but took top honours overall with a lead of six minutes over Morikawa and Fukano, who in turn were nearly 33 minutes faster than compatriot Takuma Aoki and his team.
As rally winner Rattapoj celebrated his championship victory yesterday in the spectacular setting of the Angkor Wat complex, he noted a “happy coincidence”: he had also won a smaller rally in 2002 that was jointly organised by Thailand and Cambodia.
“This is a lot bigger and better. I had a good car, a reliable team-mate, and we pulled it off,” Rattapoj told the Post after the finish.
“Some of these routes were familiar to me. I love challenging routes, but some sections here were full of potholes.”
The 1,800km rally, from Pattaya in Thailand to Siem Reap, included nearly 900km of sel-ective sections.
It suffered its only major crash just kilometres from the end when an Isuzu D-Max driven by Takuma Aoki with Thai-Japanese co-drivers Ittipon Simarraks and Katsuhiko Shiine flipped over after dipping into a large, water-filled hole.
Although the crew escaped unhurt, their vehicle suffered significant structural damage to its roof.
Fortunately for the Japanese team, Thai pair Wichai Wattanawisuth and Chisin Narkban, who were not far behind at the time of the accident, rushed to their rescue and managed to tow the damaged car back to the finishing enclosure.
“I just couldn’t see anything. Water splashed as I went down and the next thing I know is that the car had rolled over,” Aoki told the Post through an interpreter.
“Thank God we had the next car helping us. After all that, we still finished third overall, and that’s what matters.”
After the last of the 10 remaining cars had finished the stage, all the participants were awarded special medals by Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.
“The response to this rally has been very good from the local people, and I think rallying will grow bigger [in the Kingdom],” Vath Chamroeun said.
Tadayuki Sasa, managing dir-ector of R1 Japan Inc and the rally director, shared his enthusiasm for future events.
“There is good potential in Cambodia for cross-country rallying. Next year, we would love to incorporate more mountainous routes in the event,” Sasa said.
“I am sure there will be more cars, and we are planning to have a motorbike rally alongside them.”
Later yesterday, in a colourful closing ceremony at the Goldiana Angkor Hotel, which served as rally headquarters, Tourism Minister Thong Khon presented trophies and cash prizes to the podium finishers.