The Brazilian pairing of Reinaldo Varela and Gustavo Gugelmin earned a stunning victory in the Italian Baja, round one of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies, in northern Italy on Sunday.
The duo were running with the Belgian Overdrive Racing team for the first time and emerged on top by just 12 seconds after a fascinating battle with Poland’s Krzysztof Holowczyc and Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser over 11 timed stages, near Pordenone. “For me, this is a dream come true,” said Varela. “To be able to win a round of the FIA World Cup is just amazing. Gustavo did a great job and the mechanics and the car that Overdrive prepared for me was just amazing.”
Poland’s Adam Malysz and Rafal Marton brought their Overdrive Toyota Hilux home in a fine fourth position behind Varela, Holowczyc and Schlesser.
Russian team debutants, Ruslan Misikov and Sergey Lebedev, were classified sixth in their Toyota Hilux and the Venezuelan duo of Nunzio Coffaro and Daniel Meneses finished ninth to ensure Overdrive Racing had all four cars inside the top 10.
“I could not have dreamed of a better way to start the year, winning the race and to have four cars in the top 10 is fantastic,” said a delighted Overdrive team manager Jean-Marc Fortin. “All the crews did a fabulous job and a big thanks goes out to all my team for the hard work that they put into getting the cars ready for the race. The cold temperatures in Pordenone have really made their lives hard, but they have proved that they are the heart of Overdrive. A big thanks also goes out to Hallspeed who have designed and created amazing race cars.”
The race got underway when Holowczyc won the short 7.75km super special stage on Friday afternoon and the Overdrive Toyotas completed the timed test in second, third and fifth positions. Varela finished eight seconds behind the Pole and Misikov and Malysz were 15 and 19 seconds in arrears. Coffaro was classified in 16th of the 44 starters in the international car category.
Heavy rain in the area meant that race officials were forced to make some route changes to the Mosaico and Rauscedo specials, but it did not stop Varela from setting the second quickest time behind Russian Boris Gadasin who was racing under appeal in the opening 38.26km of the Mosaico A selective section. The performance catapulted the Brazilian into second position. Malysz, Misikov and Coffaro were ninth, 12th and 16th and held sixth, 10th and 18th in the overall standings.
Mosaico B ran for 28.43km and Varela set the quickest time and moved six seconds in front of Gadasin and gained the lead. Malysz climbed to fourth overall and Misikov and Coffaro held 10th and 19th.
The Russian regained a 19-second advantage on the second running of the A section of the selective section, but Varela was not to be denied and the Brazilian regained a 37-second overall advantage on the fourth stage, despite losing the stage win to Holowczyc by nine seconds.
The two timed tests were repeated a third time on Saturday afternoon and Holowczyc was again quickest and reduced Varela’s overall lead to 27 seconds after the first one. The Overdrive driver hit back in the sixth stage and the fastest time earned the Brazilian an overnight lead of 33 seconds.
Holowczyc and Jean-Louis Schlesser held second and third places and Overdrive’s Malysz was fourth. Misikov and Coffaro were sixth and 13th in their Toyota Hiluxes.
Two runs through the 28.49km and 38.00km Rauscedo stages were on the agenda for Sunday and Varela set the fastest time to extend his outright lead to 38 seconds through the first one. He ceded five seconds to Holowczyc through the longer second stage and headed to the two final runs through the specials leading by 33 seconds.
Gadasin was quickest through the penultimate stage and Holowczyc reduced Varela’s overall lead to 31 seconds, as Malysz, Misikov and Coffaro held fourth, sixth and ninth heading to the final 38km of the event.
Varela held his nerve through those final kilometres to set the third quickest time and secure a stunning victory by the margin of just 12 seconds after a late push by rival Holowczyc on the last stage.