Champion crashes out as Vatanen takes control
The ultimate challenge turned into the ultimate debacle yesterday when Subaru World Rally Team driver and defending champion Kenneth Eriksson crashed out of the 555 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally on stage 12 - the longest in the event.
Dogged by bad luck from the start last Saturday, Eriksson rolled his Subaru Impreza about 21 kilometres into the 43.9-kilometre stage.
The car cartwheeled 30 metres down a slope after the front wheel dropped into a small drainage ditch and flipped.
The Swede and co-driver Staffan Parmander were both unhurt in the crash which wrecked any chance the Subaru WRT had of winning the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship manufacturers' title. That honour goes to the Mitsubishi Ralliart Team, who are now poised to complete a one-two-three via Ari Vatanen, Richard Burns and Kenjiro Shinozuka.
'I was so motivated to do well today,' Eriksson said.
'It was the most unexpected roll in my life. I had spun the car a kilometre before and thought the differential had gone so was driving carefully.
'Normally I would have slid the car around the bend and the wheel would have gone right over the ditch. It was because we were going so slowly that it dropped in the ditch.' Stage 12 proved the undoing of not only Eriksson but Japan's Yoshio Fujimoto, who went off in his Tein Sport Toyota GT4, and overnight leader Burns in his Mitsubishi Lancer.
Unlike Eriksson and Fujimoto, Burns remains in the hunt in second place, one minute and 32 seconds behind Vatanen.
Burns was 23 kms into stage 12 when he hit a tree on a tight left hand bend, damaging the front of the car.
He had to reverse back on to the stage and then nurse the car for the next few kilometres in the hope that he had done no serious damage.
'I was watching the oil and temperature gauges closely and didn't speed up again until I was certain there wasn't any serious damage,' a despondent Burns said.
'It [the car] just came around on a second gear corner and I just kept my foot in and there was a tree and we hit it. We were lucky not to do anything else,' he said.
Realising that Vatanen, who trailed him by about one minute at the stage, was closing fast, he slowed again and let the Finn through on his way to the fastest time of 31:28. It was a stunning turnaround for the veteran Vatanen, who was quickest in all but one of yesterday's five timed stages.
'Pure fun,' a beaming Vatanen said at the final service point yesterday.
'I was fastest in the first stage today and that set it up for me. I was disappointed that Kenneth went off, I was deprived of the chance of beating him on merit.' The Finn is poised to create a unique chapter in the history of the 555 Hong Kong-Beijing rally, which is being staged for the final time. No driver has won the race twice in its previous six editions.
Two support crew from the Tein Sport Team who were involved in a head-on collision with a tip truck on Monday were evacuated to Hong Kong yesterday. New Zealander Jodie Hooker has a fractured pelvis and will require surgery, while compatriot Henry Schellinghout has bruises and a suspected broken ankle.