Briton McRae looks cut above rest to retain China Rally crown
Two drivers from different ends of the competitive scale will be bidding to complete unique doubles today in the second 555 China Rally.
World Rally Championship front-runner Colin McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist are raging favourites to successfully defend the crown they won in last year's inaugural three-day event.
The 1995 world champion is expected to leave the other 34 competitors trailing in his wake as his 555 Subaru World Rally Team Impreza looks a cut above the rest, with the exception of teammates Piero Liatti and Fabrizia Pons, who will also campaign a factory-prepared Impreza.
At the other end of the scale is Hong Kong-based husband and wife pairing, Chan Chi-wah and Tang Po-lin, who will compete in an Ericsson Racing Team Mitsubishi Lancer EVO5.
Unlike the Impreza drivers, Chan and Tang are amateurs and will compete in the Group N category for near stock-standard vehicles.
They finished a creditable fifth overall behind McRae last year but, more important, first in their class so like the Scotsman, will be chasing successive victories.
While only mechanical trouble or an accident look capable of stopping McRae, Chan is confronted by a hoard of rivals who are more than capable of wresting his crown.
Mainland China's premier rally driver Lu Ningjun teams up with the Shedian Mitsubishi Ralliart team driving an EVO4 Lancer. He has the distinction of being the only driver to compete in all seven 555 Hong Kong to Beijing rallies plus last year's first China Rally.
His vast experience ranks him as arguably Chan's strongest rival.
British pair Nigel Heath and Jeff Ashfield in a Subaru Impreza rate as dark horses, nobody travels half the world to get here and not push hard to win.
Unlike previous years, McRae and Liatti will not be able to score points in the Asia-Pacific Championship, of which the 555 China Rally is the second round.
That leaves the way clear for Japanese driver Yoshio Fujimoto to sweep maximum points in his Tein Sport Toyota Celica GT4, the same car he drove into third place last year.
Fujimoto has just acquired a Team Toyota World Rally Car Corolla but sadly was unable to have it ready for the 555 China Rally.
'I will have it ready for the next round in New Zealand,' he said.
He added that his aim this year was to win the Asia-Pacific Championship. 'I will also be doing rounds in Malaysia and Australia in the new Corolla,' he said.
McRae said he would be out to enjoy himself over the next three days.
'I'll just get in the car and take it from there . . . but that doesn't mean I won't be going flat out,' he said.