From the publishers of THE HINDU

Vol. 24 :: No. 47 :: Nov. 24 - 30, 2001



Sagar, Sandeep going strong


IT could be his frequent jokes and casual demeanour. Or probably because he keeps pulling people's legs a bit too often. Well, whatever the reason, Sagar Muthappa has never been taken seriously in the Indian National Rally Circuit.

Team MRF's Sagar Muthappa (left) and Sandeep Rao, the overall champions of the Chandrika Popular Rally.

Even his national driver's title (in unmodified cars class) three years ago failed to convince many. That's not the big league, they argued. And when he failed to pick a single point in the first three national championship rallies this season, critics were ready to slay him.

"Why don't you drive the media van in the next rally?" one wise wag said in Mumbai after Sagar's third successive misadventure a few months ago.

Under the circumstances, victory in the Chandrika Popular Rally in Kerala tasted all the more sweeter for the Coorg ace. "It's good beating these guys, especially on tarmac," said Sagar, who had won his maiden overall title, the X-Presso Rally, on the dirt tracks of Coorg just a few weeks earlier.

With Asia Zone champion V.R.Naren Kumar, international Arjun Balu, former six-time national champion N.Leelakrishnan and the talented Vikram Mathias in the fray, the field was indeed strong in Kerala. And it made Sagar's triumph all the more creditable.

For a man who was out of the big picture after the first three rallies, it sure has been a heady climb in the next four rounds. For victory in Kerala raised Sagar to the second spot in the national championship standings, just nine points behind Leelakrishnan.

Things, however, appeared to go awfully wrong just days before the Chandrika Rally. Sagar's co-driver Sandeep S. Rao lost his father and the death upset the team's preparations and plans. "But at the last minute, we decided to compete in Kochi," said Sagar. "We dedicate the victory to Sandeep's father," he added.

Sagar is a multi-faceted personality. He was a good cricketer - spin bowler and middle-order bat - in school and college and a decent golfer. He was also a Bangalore Turf Club racing commentator for five years till 1994. But motorsport is his first love.

The 31-year-old is lucky to have his close friend Sandeep as his co-driver. "He's my childhood buddy. We've been sitting together since the fourth standard. He understands me very well. And he's a fantastic navigator, keeps me in check ... in control," said Sagar. "He is also extremely sharp, very good with numbers," he added. Sagar and Sandeep are civil engineers and are with the same firm, Bangalore-based Vasoo Builders, Sagar's family concern.

The two came together in 1997 and the combination clicked almost instantly. They won the Group 'N' national championship in 1998, in their first full season.

"1998 was our best year... we won five rallies on the trot," said Sagar. "This season should be our next best," he said.

From unmodified cars, the duo moved to the glamourous and powerful Group 'A' (modified cars) last year and finished fourth overall. This year, it was back to Group 'N' with the Motorsport Association of India removing Group 'A' from the national rally circuit, to make the sport more affordable.

"I've never ever had a good car, but this season, after some teething problems, Honda City has been good. And it's all thanks to J.Anand who has tuned it nicely," said Sagar who competes in the top class, the 1600 cc.

The 380-km, two-leg Kerala rally was mainly run through two basic stages, a 15-km stretch at Bhoothathankettu and another 10-km run at Edamalayar, near Idukki District.

Sagar had a superb run through the five special stages of the first day and though he had just a two-second lead over two-time National champion Naren Kumar after the first leg, it gave him a big psychological edge.

With Naren going all out on the second day, Sagar lost the lead after the seventh special stage. But clutch problems forced Naren to slow down considerably in the penultimate stage and pull out midway through the last stage, the ninth. It was Sagar all the way after that. Though Naren won the Asia Zone, things have not clicked for him in the domestic circuit.

Arjun Balu, last year's winner, finished runner-up while Leelakrishnan, despite finishing second in the special stages, slowed down considerably in the transport sector and took the third sport. The top three finishers were competing in the 1600 cc class.

Team MRF's husband-wife combo of Jagat and Anita Nanjappa topped the 1400 cc class and also finished fourth overall. "We were put off initially because we did not have the powerful MPFI Esteem. But we kept doing our best and when Vikram Mathias and Karandip Singh dropped out late in first leg (with gearbox and suspension problems) our job became easy," said Jagat. "Slow and steady wins the race," he added. The title helped the Coorg couple topple Vikram Mathias and take the lead in the 1400 cc national standings.

Kerala's Bikku Babu (co-driver Bonnie Thomas) clinched his maiden title when he topped the Rally Star Cup event for novices. It was Bikku's fifth rally.

The two-day event was sponsored by Chandrika Soaps, which has former Popular Rally champion C.K.Jinan in its management team.

Final placings (overall): 1. Sagar Muthappa/Sandeep Rao (Team MRF, Honda City, 1 hour, 26 mins, 24 secs), 2. Arjun Balu/ K.R.Kumar (MRF, Honda City, 1:28.44), 3. N.Leelakrishnan /Farooq Ahmed (MRF, Honda City, 1:29.05), 4. Jagat Nanjappa/Anita Nanjappa (MRF, Maruti Esteem, 1:31.16), 5. Vijayant Chaudhary/Moosa Sherif (MRF, Maruti Esteem, 1:33.44).

1400 cc class: 1. Jagat and Anita Nanjappa (Team MRF, 1 hr, 31 mins, 16 secs), 2. Vijayant Chaudhary/Moosa Sherif (MRF, 1:33.44), 3. George Antony (1:35.43).

Rally Star Cup, for novices: 1. Bikku Babu/Bonnie Thomas (Q-wait Oil, Maruti Esteem, 1 hr, 35 mins 01 secs), 2. Rahul Kanthraj/ Vivek Bhatt (Maruti Esteem, 1:38.02), 3. J.Manju/K.Prasad (Maruti Esteem, 1:38.21).

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