From the publishers of THE HINDU

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

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INTERVIEW/SAGAR MUTHAPPA

A rage on the rally circuit

KALYAN ASHOK

THE driver who now sends shivers down the spine of his rivals is the 31-year old intrepid Coorgi called Sagar Muthappa. The MRF ace with his navigator, Sandeep Rao, is very much on target for the 'kill' in the National Rally circuit with back-to-back victories at Coorg (Coorg X Presso Rally) and Popular Rally at Kochi within the span of a month. An emphatic victory in the last leg at Mangalore, scheduled on November 24 and 25, will crown Sagar as the National Rally Champion of the year 2001.

K. GOPINATHAN

Sagar certainly has come a long way from the start with a Gypsy in 1993. He was then sponsored by JK Tyres. He came under the MRF wings in 1996. That was the best move, he had made he recalls, because "MRF was the best team in the business". Sagar, showed his prowess with the team over the years and racing in Group 'N' , for unmodified cars he hit a purple patch in 1998, when he won five rallies. Though he moved to Group A' in 1999 itself, MRF asked him to revert to Group 'N', to defend its title. After a forgettable 2000 season, plagued by mishaps, nothing really went right for Sagar in the initial stages of 2001 season, before a hard earned second place in K-1000 at Goa, put him right back in the thick of things. Then came the big wins in Coorg and Kochi and Sagar is right back on top.

Sagar, in the midst of preparation for the Mangalore Rally, spoke at length about himself and the Indian rally scene. Excerpts.

Question: Sagar, you have certainly made a mark on the rally circuit with back-to-back wins and poised to win the overall title. How does it feel?

Answer: I feel great. But mind you, the weather was pretty bad in both the runs. The roads were slippery and it sort of psyches you and most tended to ease off but I kept going. If Kochi was tarmac, Coorg was on dirt and winning on different terrains was all the more gratifying. All along few had been saying that I wasn't so good on tarmac. The Kochi run tarmac segment was narrow and slippery and in rally driving you have to drop a wheel or two and take chances and cut corners and clock a faster time.

You were pretty good in Group 'N' and how was the transition to Group 'A'?

Actually there is no Group 'N' or 'A' as such now. But in 1999, I made a switch to group 'A' to drive faster cars ,much against my tuner J. Anand's wishes. I would have walked with the title in Group 'N' that time, if I had listened to him. In 2000, it was a miserable season with quite a few unexpected mishaps. Somehow, I never managed to have a strong finish. But this year, the first rally at Coimbatore was disappointing. At two stages, the engine packed up with Naren driving and Ajrun Bala, competing in the Asia Zone, the rally was there for the asking. But I ended without a point. The second one at Nasik again was a misery, I had a puncture in the second stage and that put me out of contention when I was in the second position. Again at Mumbai, there was a suspension failure and after three rallies I had nothing to show for it. Things changed after K-1000 Rally, I finished second and in Goa, I again came second. Then came the two victories at Coorg and Kochi. Coorg was really a tough one and I had an exciting battle with Naren Kumar. He is mentally strong and a very skillful driver and what he says off the track, he does it on the track. A real tough cookie and we kept changing leads till the end. He really puts pressure on me and I love racing with him.

You have been racing with Team MRF for quite sometime now, and how has been the experience?

Team MRF is just fantastic. Their commitment to sports is unbelievable. There cannot be two ways about it. Even in such a difficult business scenario, they have stood behind me. I must make a special mention about Mrs. Soman Joseph and Tony Rodricks, who are real professionals and Rodricks knows the nitty gritty of motor sports and it is easy to relate to him.

When it comes to sponsoring teams, only ancillary guys have got into the act. Don't you feel there should be better sponsorship?

Absolutely. It is time car manufacturers get into the act as well. Manufacturers should take up the sport and propel it up, otherwise all of us are going to hang around at the same level.

Any particular reason for manufacturers shying away from the sponsorship?

It is a question as to who should bell the cat. If someone takes the lead, I am sure all car makers will follow suit. Somebody like Hyundai,who have such a good car, should get into it. Now, we have global car makers like Fiat, General Motors, Hyundai and Tata Indica, they should be the ones who should be in the forefront. They can start off with one event, like a race only for Indicas, that will help entry level drivers. And help the brand name as well.

How are you placed in the race for the National Rally Championship title?

It is between me and N. Leelakrishnan. He is up by six points, but a straight win at Mangalore should see me as the winner. I have nothing to lose and the fact that from ground level with no points after three races to the second spot in a matter of few months, gives me lot of hope and confidence. I am going flat and the heat is on Leela.

Do you think this is the best season for you?

In a way yes, because I am in contention for the overall title. But win-wise, I think it was in 1998 that I did extremely well, winning five rallies at a stretch. I don't think anyone had done that before and even JK Tyres drivers were very much in the picture then. It was a very special season and that was the period, my relationship with J. Anand grew.

One has often heard about your constant praises for him. Has he been the major influence on you?

'J', who is based in Coimbatore, has always been a pillar of strength. He has an automobile unit which does pre production tests for Mahindras. He himself had been a good rallyist. He can drive much better than us but the only problem is that cars won't last under him, he is so quick. He is absolutely brilliant and has guided me and taught me about car control and kept my car in perfect condition.

I understand that your family too had been backing you to the hilt, despite your preoccupations with the business?

They have been extremely supportive, my parents, brother Uttam and wife, Kavitha. Uttam is always there when I do the rally and I consider him as my mascot and dad sits in office, taking care of things on business front when I rally around.

Sandeep Rao, your navigator must have had a major role in your successes and how has been the relationship?

We got together in 1997 and except one rally which I did with late N. Chander, Sandeep has been always with me. We combined well as a team. Our relationship goes beyond a rally and that makes it very special. One shouldn't stop with just rallying, there has to be rapport at all levels to make sporting relationship a very successful one. He is a tough guy and puts his personal setbacks behind when he is on the job. Recently, he lost his father and it took a lot of guts for him to race the Kochi leg with me.

Do you plan to go Naren Kumar's way, doing stints at the Asia Zone?

That is for the team to decide later. Normally the top one and two go for such meets. But what I hear from Naren is that Indian drivers are highly regarded in such meets. The competition doesn't seem to be too tough and I feel, our rallies are much better. May be we should think of bigger challenges, like Asia Pacific circuit or Peugeot Cup.

The row between MAI and FMSCI in the country has hit motor sport hard and as a leading driver what is your opinion?

It is bad in the sense that JK Tyres are no longer participating in the MAI run rallies. But with MAI in the picture, the standard of rally organising has really gone up. Rally Commission folks like Asif Haidri, Farad Bathena, Nawaz Bathena and Farokh Commisariat are very experienced and they have raised the level of the sport. MAI has done a lot and under its wings the sport will grow. The Rally Star, a concept for novice drivers that MAI had introduced this season was a huge hit. They are planning more such innovative moves. Rally Star Cup was the success story of the 2001 season and hats off to Nawaz Bathena, who coordinated the whole show. Ninety per cent of all rallies are now done by MAI. FMSCI and MAI almost reached an accord before people with vested interests scuttled it. I hope persons who matter don't stand on egos and join hands for the sake of the sport. It is tough on us, the rallyists and the sponsors don't want to step in such a scenario.

Finally, how do you see the future?

I am 31 now and as long as I am fit and my reflexes are good enough, I will continue to rally. I think I have seven to eight years left, it all depends on how gracefully I grow old. As regards Indian motor sports, it is going to grow in a big way. Of late, it has been purely a MRF show. Even among us, the fight has been very intense.


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