Final stage falls foul of weather
BRUCE MACDONALD reports from Shijiachuang
ORGANISERS were forced to cancel the third and final stage of the 555 Hong Kong Beijing Rally yesterday as the wet weather conditions finally conspired to slow the march of the event to the mainland capital today.
While half the six-strong team of marshalls who oversee the running of the event were stranded at the rear of the mechanised caravan, Swede Kenneth Eriksson was far out in front building an invincible lead for his Mitsubishi Ralliart Team.
Enjoying his best season on the international rally stage, Eriksson has emphatically demonstrated that his win in the Rally of Australia was no flash in the pan.
He has controlled the race from the front from day one and with only two asphalt stages remaining today, only a cruel twist of bad luck could deny him a deserved victory.
Three stages, including the scenic Grand Canyon, were scheduled for yesterday but Clerk of the Course Willard Martin was forced to cancel it on safety grounds.
A bridge collapse 350 kilometres south of Thursday night's halt at Zheng Zhou stranded a number of rally cars, service crew, three marshall teams and media for more than eight hours.
As the weary stragglers were filtering into Zheng Zhou, competitors, officials and support crew were already leaving for yesterday's first stage.
'In a long distance, straight line rally situations such as this can be expected, but not anticipated,' Martin said.
The bridge collapse denied Martin of half his quota of marshalls who man the special stages checking competitors in and out and taking times.
The unfortunate back-markers were re-routed around the collapsed bridge but found themselves mired in two-kilometre long lines of traffic and helpless to move either forwards or backwards.
But the Mitsubishi team was clearly moving forward at a safe and steady rate toward their first taste of victory since the event returned to the international stage in 1993.
Eriksson was happy to drop time to the chasing pack on both stages yesterday but with an aggregate time of four hours, 31 minutes and 52 seconds after 22 completed stages he has the luxury of slackening off the pace.
He leads teammate Ari Vatanen by 35 seconds with the two chasing 555 Subaru World Rally Team entries driven by Richard Burns and Possum Bourne relegated to virtual spectators.
Burns, who has been sacked by Subaru, made it clear that he wanted to leave the team on a high note with a blistering run in the opening 30-km Grand Canyon stage.
He clocked 22:46, 16 seconds better than Eriksson but more significantly, 38 seconds better than teammate Bourne.
Bourne, who had held third place overnight, slipped to fourth as Burns continued the onslaught in the next stage, taking another 38 seconds off his teammate to wrap up third place.
Burns was the big mover yesterday but it was a case of too little, too late as Subaru faced the near impossible task of pulling one and a half seconds a kilometre off the flying Mitsubishis.
Vatanen, who has done superb job in his first competitive drive in a Group A car since last year, took best time in the final stage to quell the Burns challenge.
With two easy stages on the asphalt this morning before the survivors head to the ceremonial finish at Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital, Burns trails Eriksson by an impossible three minutes and 31 seconds. Bourne is another minute back.
Japan's Yoshio Fujimoto, driving a Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD continues to shade compatriot Kenjiro Shinozuka in the third Ralliart Mitsubishi and barring a mishap, should claim fifth place.
Hong Kong's Michael Lieu, who finished third overall last year, has a mortgage on seventh place overall and continues to dominate Group N in his Mitsubishi Lancer.
Lieu had earlier in the rally mounted a concerted challenge upon Shinozuka's factory-backed Group A Mitsubishi but the gruelling terrain has taken a toll on his car.