Top FIA officials on mission to assess China's global pedigree
A posse of international motorsport (FIA) officials arrived here yesterday vested with the task of deciding whether the 555 China Rally will make its debut on the international stage next year.
The FIA-approved 'cloverleaf' rally was staged for the first time last year, also under the watchful gaze of international rally officials, and received top marks from rally commission president, Shekhar Mehta.
'When I came to look at your event last year I was encouraged by the standards achieved in such a short time,' Mehta said.
In the intervening 12 months, organisers have fine-tuned the event's 22 special stages totalling 383 kilometres in an effort to get the balance just right. Watching the event will be FIA technical delegate Jacques Berger, press delegate Piero Sodano and former rally commission president Guy Goutard, now an honorary FIA member.
Their reports will be tabled at a meeting of the rally commission in October where a tentative calendar for the 1999 season will be ironed out.
A ceiling of 14 events has been mooted by the FIA, which means an existing event may have to go to make way for the 555 China Rally.
FIA president Max Mosley is a strong supporter of China's presence on the international motorsport stage which strengthens the case for inclusion next year.
But first, Clerk of the Course Wan Heping and the Federation of Automobile Sports in the Peoples' Republic of China (FASC) must satisfy the visiting officials that they are equal to the challenge of staging a round of the World Rally Championship.
This year the event organisers will be without much of the supervisory support they enjoyed from the Hong Kong Automobile Association (HKAA) and Rally Australia, plus the services of New Zealander Willard Martin, the then Clerk of the Course.
The 36-strong field of starters face the scrutineer this morning before a ceremonial start at the nearby Huairou Sports Ground.
Only one starter failed to arrive in this resort centre, Indonesian entry, Johny Pramono and his co-driver Komar Johari in a Kia Sephia.
A rally official said last night the recent economic and social turmoil in Indonesia prompted the pair's withdrawal.
Headlining the field is former world champion Colin McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist in a 555 Subaru World Rally Team Impreza.
The Scot arrived here on a high after victory in the just concluded Acropolis Rally in Greece. The emphatic win catapulted the 1995 world champion to the top of the 1998 World Rally Championship standings with 36 points, five clear of Spaniard Carlos Sainz of Toyota.
While McRae, who is also the defending champion, will start a raging favourite, his teammate, Piero Liatti in an identical Impreza, will be hard on his heels.
Strong challenges will also come from Japanese drivers Yoshio Fujimoto (Toyota Celica) and Yoshihiro Kataoka (Mitsubishi EVO3).