Mitsubishi success spoils Subaru boss' birthday party
555 Subaru World Rally Team manager John Spiller celebrated his birthday yesterday but he wasn't in any hurry to blow out the candles on a cake after arch rivals Mitsubishi dominated the opening day of the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally. Mitsubishi Ralliart drivers Kenneth Eriksson and Ari Vatanen made the right choice with tyres for the 21.8-kilometre second stage from Nam Kwan Mountain to here and reaped a big reward after being shaded on the concrete at the super special stage on Hong Kong's Stonecutters Island in the morning.
Persistent rain yesterday afternoon made the quick gravel stage a handful for any driver who didn't opt for wet-weather tyres. Spiller succinctly summed up his team's first-day performance by saying: 'We got it less right with tyre selection.' Eriksson recorded a time of 15 minutes and 44 seconds for yesterday's two timed stages, 10 seconds ahead of Vatanen with Subaru driver Richard Burns a distant third, 20 seconds in arrears. Defending champion Possum Bourne in the second Subaru Impreza lies fourth, 35 seconds off the lead.
Mitsubishi's third Lancer driver, Kenjiro Shinozuka failed to keep pace with his two teammates to lie seventh overall. Hong Kong's Michael Lieu underlined his growing reputation as one of Asia's brightest rally prospects after finishing the day in sixth place in a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III. Lieu is giving away huge amounts of horsepower to the five turbo-charged Group A cars ahead of him but still returned the excellent aggregate time of 17:16 to lead Group N for near stock standard cars.
An upbeat Eriksson, the points leader in the Asia-Pacific Series, clearly put his success down to the selection of Michelin wet weather tyres. 'The stage wasn't as slippery as we had originally thought. It rained for only about one and a half kilometres and by the time we reached the finish it had stopped,' he said. Teammate Vatanen, another Scandinavian hailing from Finland, echoed Eriksson's words when he said: 'The tyres performed well even though sections of the stage were quite slippery.' A winner of this rally in 1993 behind the wheel of a Subaru, Vatanen has been rallying for Ford in recent months. He was drafted in to the Mitsubishi team to strengthen the team's bid to end Subaru's two-year domination of the event. Burns and Bourne both tallied 1:56 for the opening 2.1-kilometre super special stage, one second clear of Eriksson and six better than Vatanen.
But it all turned sour on the second stage when Eriksson clocked 13:47, five seconds clear of Vatanen and a whopping 21 seconds better than Burns to lead on aggregate by 20 seconds. It was a day better forgotten by Bourne who gave Eriksson a whopping 36 seconds on the second stage. Bourne summed up his frustration when he said: 'We chose the wrong tyres. They didn't work under brakes. You just didn't have any confidence with them.' Three cars failed to complete the first day, among them Malaysia-based Australian driver Russell Palmer in the Silverstone rally Team Suzuki Swift which blew a head gasket.