China Rally can become one of world's great events
China's road to the forefront of international motorsport is a long way from complete, but on Saturday a major bridge is crossed with the staging of the 555 China Rally.
And it is expected that if the three-day 'cloverleaf' format event goes without a hitch it will be only a formality for it to get the blessing of FIA (world motorsport's governing body) and become part of the World Rally Championship next year.
FIA supremo Max Mosley and Formula One Constructors' Association boss Bernie Ecclestone are committed to the rapid development of motorsport in the world's most populous country.
Already an F1-standard track has been built at Zhuhai in Guangdong Province and good judges are betting that the track hosts a round of the World Championship before 2000.
The China Rally replaces one of the world's great straight-line events, the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing event first held in 1985 and stopped last year because of FIA rule changes and spiralling costs of taking part in the 3,800-kilometre odyssey.
FIA sanctioned the old event and as a consequence it was a round of the Asia-Pacific Championship, a role the new event also fills this year.
Sponsors BAT, who manufacture the 555 brand, and the Federation of Automobile Sports of the People's Republic of China (FASC) were both eager to see the event retain international status but in doing so ended one of the most colourful periods in the mainland's brief motorsport history.
In its place has emerged the China Rally, which organisers believe has the potential to become one of the world's great rallies.
Ideally located just 65 kilometres north of the capital in the shadow of the Great Wall, the 21 special stages will provide a unique challenge for drivers and navigators alike against the backdrop of picturesque mountains and rustic villages nestled in the valleys.
The hunt for a site for China's premier 'cloverleaf' rally has been going on for many years, with sites near Shanghai, Tianjin, Ghuanzhou and Hainan Island considered and discarded for a wide range of reasons.
Arguably the biggest problem facing FASC officials was providing an infrastructure for drivers, their back-up crews, marshals and visiting media, as well as finding accommodation for the host of VIPs and sponsors' guests.
The Yanxihu Lake area of Huairou County features eight hotels and will double as rally headquarters.
The FIA's Rallies Commission chairman, Guy Goutard, has taken on the challenge of overseeing the creation of China's first international-standard event, and its inclusion in the WRC next season would be a fitting swansong for the Frenchman, who is to retire.
Determined to create a world-class event, the FASC has drawn upon the expertise of individuals and organisations from around the world.
Officials from Rally Australia have assisted with communications, New Zealander Willard Martin, who was clerk of the course for the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing event, continues to lend his expertise as deputy clerk this year to Wan Heping, while Hong Kong Automobile Association executive officer Kendy Chan heads a 60-strong team of officials from the territory who have already played or will play a role during the event.
Prodrive, who campaign the 555 Subaru World Rally Team, sent senior official Andy Moss to Beijing several times in the past eight months to assist with logistical and technical problems related to providing the right facilities for factory teams.
Prodrive team manager John Spiller believes the event has the right stuff to become a WRC highlight.
Realising the event will most likely be a part of the WRC next year, Prodrive are bringing their two top drivers, Scotsman Colin McRae and Swede Kenneth Eriksson to compete in the event.
They are hot favourites to run away from the remaining 31 teams, barring mishaps.
Neither of the Subaru Imprezas finished last week's Acropolis Rally in Greece and Spiller will no doubt be impressing on his drivers the importance of finishing this time for 555, who sponsor not only the event but also the team.
The cash-strapped Ford team completed a remarkable one-two in Greece with Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen but will have no presence in the China event.
Mitsubishi, long-time supporters of the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally via the RalliArt Team, have entered neither of their WRC drivers, Tommi Makinen or Richard Burns. But they will have a presence in Japanese driver Yoshihiro Kataoka, who will pilot a Lancer Evolution Three.
Kataoka won Group N of the Asia-Pacific Championship for only partially modified cars last season and is a driver with great potential backed by a professional team.
Toyota will have a presence in the form of Yoshio Fujimoto who will drive a Celica ST 205 for Tein Sport. Japanese Fujimoto is an experienced campaigner and a past winner of the Safari Rally in Kenya.
Even though organisers could have handled up to 60 cars, the smaller field of 33 affords them plenty of latitude to deal with problems if they arise.
A dress rehearsal was held last month when the site was used to host round one of the China Rally Championship.
The event was won by Lu Ningjun, who has the unique distinction of competing in every 555 Hong Kong to Beijing event.
But his long association with the 555 Team has ended, maybe partly due to the big crash he suffered last year in the Hong Kong to Beijing event, which completely wrecked his vehicle.
Instead, he is now driving a Mitsubishi Lancer for the Shedian RalliArt Team in Group N, the same vehicle in which he won last month's race.
In all, drivers from nine countries will take part in the event, which begins on Saturday with a 25.94-kilometre stage at Nian Zi and ends on June 23 with a fast, winding mountain stage of 19.05 kilometres at Wu Ying Zi.