Eriksson homes in on Beijing
SWEDE Kenneth Eriksson, enjoying his most successful season in 10 years on the international scene, spearheaded a Mitsubishi Ralliart one-two in the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally yesterday.
It was Eriksson's third win in the Asia-Pacific Championship and handed him the overall drivers' crown with one round still remaining in Thailand.
He beat Scandinavian teammate Ari Vatanen from Finland in the second Lancer Evolution III by 36 seconds after an epic 3,800-kilometre journey through the Chinese heartland to the mainland capital.
Third some was 555 Subaru World Rally Team driver Richard Burns behind the wheel of a Subaru Impreza.
It was an emphatic victory for Mitsubishi who had been beaten by Subaru in the last two editions of the longest special stage, straight line rally in the world which was watched by an estimated 13 million people who lined the route.
Burns trailed Eriksson home by three minutes and 12 seconds with last year's winner Possum Bourne in the second 555 Subaru WRT a distant fourth more than six minutes off the pace.
The final two stages through the Great Wall of China to the Ming Tombs provided an exciting finale to the gruelling event which saw only 27 cars from a starting field of 44 finish.
Burns, though out of contention, set records on the two asphalt stages in a cavalier display of driving.
His car had been specially set up to attack both records and he did it in style lopping 10 seconds off the first 5.12-km stage and then 13 seconds of the 8.86-km 26th and final stage.
While Englishman Burns was scorching the bitumen, New Zealander Bourne had a battle to finish the race in fourth place.
He detected a noise in the motor after special stage 20 on Wednesday and it became progressively worse during Thursday's three stages and again yesterday.
'It was an internal problem that couldn't be fixed at the service stages,' Bourne explained.
'I simply had to nurse the car to the finish,' he added.
Dogged by bad luck this season it nearly returned to haunt him at the end of the final stage.
He had checked through the final time control when the car stalled and then the starter motor jammed.
He and co-driver Tony Sircombe had to push the car out of the final control area and when clear, enlisted the help of spectators to jump start the engine.
The car stalled again at the ceremonial finish in Tiananmen Square when mounting the official stage.
Police were quickly drafted in to jump start the car again.
He finally reached the last time control at Parc Ferme a relieved man.
'The fact that we reached the finish finally means we've turned the bad luck around,' said Bourne who has failed to finish at his last two starts.
Never really comfortable in the limelight, Eriksson was full of praise for his car which ran faultlessly throughout the event.
'This is the culmination of a major development of the car throughout the year. This is the best car I have ever driven at this level,' Eriksson said.
'I am confident there is even more development to come,' he added.
For his teammate Vatanen it signalled a return to the international stage reminiscent of the days in the early 80s when he wasthe hottest property in the rallying world.
Never one to waste an occasion, Vatanen said: 'A star is reborn.
'I was given an opportunity to drive in a first-class car and I'm delighted with my performance.' Vatanen, the 1993 winner when driving for Subaru, produced the drive of the rally when he eclipsed his own record on stage 14.
The performance took on even greater significance because he ripped the exhaust system from the car only one-third of the way through the stage.
Hong Kong's Michael Lieu further enhanced his reputation as one of the finest drivers in the Asia region to run away with the Group N class for near stock standard cars.
Driving a Mitsubishi Lancer he won his class by over 17 minutes and finished seventh on the road beaten by only the factory-prepared Group A class cars.
Lieu's performance wasn't without its difficulties.
The unforgiving special stages took a toll on his car.
Cracks developed in its frame and he was forced to back off, just to finish.
'I'm pleased with my performance and would have loved to push harder against the Group A cars but the first priority was to finish,' he said.
Eriksson led a convoy of 150 vehicles into Tiananmen Square for the ceremonial finish.
Roads along the route were blocked off as thousands of curious Beijing residents cheered the cavalcade on its way.
Event sponsors, British-American Tobacco (BAT), confirmed at a packed press conference that they would exercise their option to sponsor the event again next year subject to no change in sponsorship legislation.