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It’s finally happening! Gaurav Gill is headed for the World Rally Championship – specifically the WRC2 category – and fittingly it is with his long-time backers MRF Tyres. This means an end to MRF’s unbroken 15-year participation in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship that kicked off in 2002 with an all-Indian line-up piloting two Mitsubishi Evo VIIIs. That was quickly replaced by European and Japanese drivers, and factory Mitsubishi and later Skoda support, all adding up to nine championship titles for MRF – three of those bagged by Gaurav Gill.
Gill, a 5-time Indian National Rally Champion has been rallying for Team MRF since 2007 and he has made no secret of his ambition to graduate to the APRC. That he has the talent to take on the WRC is no secret either, the front runners in the WRC2 – Esapekka Lappi, Jan Kopecky, Pontus Tidemand and hot-new-sensation Ole Christian Veiby – all partnered with Gill in the MRF-Skodas at the APRC. And Gill has not only won rallies but three championships against these big names. Heck, Gill’s 2013 APRC title came against Lappi, an official Skoda Motorsport driver, who then went on to win the WRC2 title in 2016 and, last year, graduated to the WRC with Tommi Makinen’s Toyota Gazooo Racing WRC team. Gill not just proved his pace against drivers who are being touted as the next WRC champions but he did it with none of the testing or practice that his teammates got. Over the years Gill has made no bones about the fact that he barely got any pre-rally testing while his teammates were testing the Fabia S2000 and later the Fabia R5, all year in Europe, in addition to doing ten times as many rallies as him. Gill was never a Skoda factory driver and got none of that testing nor even a Skoda Motorsport engineer to fine-tune the setup of his car at every rally. And that is a handicap that he will carry forward to the WRC.
Gaurav Gill and his team are all too aware that results in the WRC will not come overnight and that’s why things are being kept very low-key for now. In fact, the announcement came via a cryptic one-line press release that said, “Team MRF having successfully won 9 APRC titles over the last many years is now foraying into World Rallying by participating in the WRC2 with Gaurav Gill at the wheel.” By keeping expectations in check, both MRF and Gill want to avoid questions about wins and podiums – which are unlikely to come in the first season. What Gill is aiming for are the points, and on that front he has experience. Nine years ago, with the backing of Sidvin, Gill competed in three rounds of the PWRC in a Subaru Impreza, incidentally run by Tommi Makinen’s team, and in Portugal in 2009 he became the first (and to date, only) Indian to score WRC points by finishing seventh.
To be clear, Gaurav Gill and MRF are going to take part in the WRC2 category that runs just behind the WRC cars. MRF’s 2018 World Rally campaign will start with Rally Italy in the first weekend of June and the 4-round campaign will include Wales Rally GB (which he tackled in 2008 in the PWRC), Spain and Australia. Spain might get swapped for Finland though taking part in the “Formula 1 in the forests” will be a trail by fire for Gill in his debut WRC season and maybe a step too far.
For the WRC2, Gaurav Gill will swap the Skoda Fabia R5 for the Ford Fiesta built to the similar R5 specification. And running MRF’s WRC2 entry will be UK-based M-Sport, the same team that took Sebastien Ogier to the WRC title last year. In fact, the MRF car will be in the same pits as the Fiesta WRC cars, right alongside Ogier, Elfyn Evans, Teemu Suninen and Bryan Bouffier – and that should give an incredible amount of visibility for the Indian driver running on Indian tyres.
Yes, Gaurav Gill will run on MRF tyres in the WRC2, taking on the likes of Michelin and D-Mack. If there’s one thing that MRF are steadfast about, is that whatever championship and whatever discipline they are present in – be it 2 wheels or 4, be it race or rally, be it single-seaters or tin-tops – it will only be on MRF tyres. And as MRF have proved over the past 15 years in the APRC, their tyres have the pace to keep up with the best in the world. Having the works Skoda Motorsport drivers running on MRF tyres has also helped immensely in tyre development because on European rallies, the same drivers run the same cars but on Michelin tyres and have been able to give accurate feedback and comparative analysis to MRF. In fact, at the last APRC round in Chikmagalur, MRF had a new development of their APRC rally tyres which both their drivers, Gill and OC Veiby, pronounced to be a big step up (the latter with massive experience of the WRC-standard-setting Michelin rubber) and these tyres will be shod on the M-Sport-run Fiesta R5.
Of course there will be further development of the MRF tyres to suit the nature of the Fiesta R5 and that holds true for Gill too – he will have to adapt his driving style to get the best out of the Fiesta. The Skoda Fabia R5 is a car that’s driven more from the front end, which is why when you watch a Fabia in action or even in the pictures, it is rarely sideways. The Fiesta on the other hand is more oversteery and is quicker when driven sideways. The Fiesta also runs Reiger suspension and Gill will need to learn the behaviour and characteristics of the Ford – and how best to get a stage time out of it, before he heads out to Italy for his first WRC2 outing. It’s not going to be easy but it has been a long time coming, for India’s best rally driver to shine on the world stage.