Auriol shines in China victory
Sunshine burst through almost on queue as Frenchman Didier Auriol completed a brilliant victory in the 555 China Rally yesterday in a performance reminiscent of his best drives in 1994 when he won the world championship.
The runaway 55.8-second victory in his Toyota Team Castrol Corolla also catapulted him into joint leadership in the World Rally Championship driver's title with Finland's Tommi Makinen. The reigning champion's Mitsubishi Lancer Evo came to a sudden halt on the final stage of the second day when the car's front suspension gave way after hitting a rock.
Regarded by many to be beyond his best at 41, Auriol silenced his detractors with a stellar performance in atrocious and often dangerous conditions during the past three days in this mountainous lake resort region, 70 kilometres north of Beijing.
Asked if it was the toughest rally he has ever contested, Auriol said: 'Yes, the conditions were the worst I have seen. It was a good result for me. You get a feeling with your car and in your mind.' The victory broke a 17-month drought and moved Auriol to an aggregate 19 wins in the WRC, third on the all-time list behind Finland's three-time world champion Juha Kankkunen (23) and two-time champion, Carlos Sainz of Spain (22).
Rising talent Richard Burns was left to lament a wrong choice of tyres on his Subaru World Rally Team Impreza after he was poised to overtake Auriol after trailing by only 10.7 seconds overnight.
As early morning rain gave way to overcast skies and finally sunshine, Burns found himself on a set of tyres that were good in the mud but progressively harder to handle as the stages dried out.
'You had to be psychic to know what tyres to use. In half an hour the stages had gone from mud to dried, compact earth. I almost needed to swap my [tyre] choices.' Sainz finished third in the second Toyota Castrol Team Corolla, one minute, 23.6 seconds in arrears. Kankkunen, driving the second SWRT Impreza, was fourth.
The rally took a huge toll on the field with only 25 cars officially finishing from a starting field of 68. In most rounds of the WRC, a 50 per cent attrition rate is average.
It was particularly hard for the Ford factory team, whose two entries came to grief with suspension failure after hitting the same concrete culvert only two kilometres into the event on the first day.
Lead driver, Scot Colin McRae, was on a plane back to Britain as the rally entered its second day while the team's second driver, Thomas Radstrom took his Ford Focus back to the scene of the cars' demise to try to replicate the mishap with a strengthened front suspension crossmember.
He burst four tyres in an attempt to break the suspension for a second time, also hurting his arm.
One competitor equally as happy as Auriol was Japan's Katsuhiko Taguchi in his Team Mitsubishi Ralliart Malaysia Lancer Evo XI.
Driving a Group N entry, Taguchi finished ninth overall but more importantly swept top honours in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, of which the 555 China Rally is the final round. He is the overall Asia Pacific champion plus the Group N winner.
'I can hardly believe that we have done so well,' the 27-year-old said. 'We were just aiming to win Group N this year.
'To win the overall title as well is the best moment of my career.' The 555 China Rally's first female team of Sabrina Shaw and Xu Shouli, driving the Champion Racers Rally Team Peugeot 106, defied the 320 kilometres of special stages to finish an amazing 25th overall.
Shaw, who only turned 18 last month, nursed her car through the final two days of the rally after a string of mechanical problems threatened to end her challenge.
The event was blighted by bad weather and two stages were cancelled on the first day before competitors reached the first timed stage. Organisers were also forced to cancel a starting ceremony at the nearby Huairou Sports Ground as rain continued to fall.
Many of the international competitors expressed concern that the poor weather conditions would ground helicopters, which were necessary to evacuate injured drivers on inaccessible mountain stages.