Vatanen on verge of second Beijing triumph

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 October, 1996, 12:00am

Finn Ari Vatanen stands a mere 14 kilometres, or two special stages, away from claiming an historic second 555 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally triumph after another absorbing duel with teammate Richard Burns. The two Mitsubishi Ralliart drivers have been locked in a four-wheeled game of oneupmanship in their identical Lancers. Briton Burns, 19 years the junior of 44-year-old Vatanen, launched yet another assault for the lead yesterday and even though he hauled back 34 seconds on the overnight lead of 1:27, it was too little too late. Vatanen still holds a seemingly safe buffer of 53 seconds.

'There are too few stages left for me to mount another challenge,' Burns conceded last night. With Japan's Kenjiro Shinozuka holding station in third place, the Mitsubishi Ralliart Team are poised to complete a one-two-three after this morning's two short tarmac stages. A visibly weary Vatanen could still raise a smile as he headed for bed and a well-earned rest. 'The pressure has been relentless over the past two days since I took the lead but I handled it in a ruthless manner,' he said. The first three stages yesterday were pivotal to Vatanen's fortunes - they were new to the rally and the Finn didn't do the recce this year, leaving that job to son Kim while he was winning the Paris-to-Beijing Rally.

Burns seized his opportunity to pull back 14 seconds on stage 21, and then another nine on 22 but as has been the pattern over the past two days, Vatanen responded by winning the next. Burns also took the final stage of the day but by then the young Briton knew his bold charge was over. 'It was all down to my accident on stage 12 when I hit a tree when I was leading by one minute.

'Ari didn't make a mistake and I did,' a disappointed Burns said. The rally reaches its climax at 10.30 am in Beijing's Tiananmen Square where barring mishap, Vatanen will be crowned champion for the second time in the seventh and final 555 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally.