Vatanen wins second title after late scare

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 October, 1996, 12:00am

Finland's Ari Vatanen won an historic second 555 Hong Kong-Beijing Rally yesterday when the 3,800-kilometre race finished at the Ming Tombs in the Chinese capital.

His teammates Richard Burns and Japan's Kenjiro Shinozuka finished second and third, giving the Mitsubishi Ralliart team a clean sweep of the top positions.

But a time miscalculation almost cost the Finn the title.

Comfortably clear of Burns, Vatanen only had to motor to the final time control to have the rally in the bag.

But a time error had co-driver Christian Tilbert thinking they would arrive at the control late, which would have incurred a three-minute time penalty and effectively cost them the title as Burns was only 43 seconds behind.

A relieved Vatanen put the error down to a 'misunderstanding'.

It was an ironic twist to the 3,800-kilometre, seven-day odyssey which began at Stonecutters Island on October 19.

Vatanen had an unwanted brush with officialdom only one kilometre into the first stage at Stonecutters Island when he went around a barrel the wrong way and faced a two-minute penalty.

Rally stewards later ruled that he had received no advantage from the manoeuvre and his time stood for the stage.

'The rally began with a possible time penalty and nearly ended the same way,' a relieved Vatanen said.

Burns was sympathetic to Vatanen's post-rally drama when he said: 'I wouldn't have wanted to win the rally that way, I wanted to win it on the road.' The seventh edition of the rally was a fitting finale to a great tradition that has straddled two decades. Three drivers led before 44-year-old Vatanen seized his opportunity on day four after the 12th stage when Burns paid for a minor second-gear miscalculation and hit a tree.

He saw a one-minute lead turned into a 92-second deficit and even though he recorded fastest times on 10 of the remaining 14 stages it was just not enough for the 25-year-old Briton to turn the table.

Burns summed up the rally succinctly when he said: 'I made a mistake on stage 12 and Ari didn't make any.' Andrew Cowan, motorsport director of Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe said: 'I am very proud of the whole team.

'They were asked not to take any chances and understood they were achieving a result for Mitsubishi. 'I feel sorry for Richard [Burns] but he understands the situation well.

'He will get his chance . . . I will make sure he does.'