Flying Finn sets his sights on victory in Beijing
From BRUCE MACDONALD in Shi Jia Chuang
FLYING Finn Ari Vatanen demonstrated in devastating fashion yesterday that he was still a force at the highest level when he stormed to the lead on the penultimate day of the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally.
The world champion in 1981, Vatanen put a frustrating year of bad luck behind him to grab the rally by the scruff of the neck in the opening stage through the picturesque Chinese Grand Canyon area.
He powered his Subaru Legacy through the 32-kilometre stage in a cavalier show of driving skill to turn an overnight deficit of 14 seconds into a lead of 33 seconds over Subaru teammate, Colin McRae.
Scotsman McRae, who won a leg of the World Championship in New Zealand earlier this year, had no answer to the Flying Finn's charge.
Vatanen led the event after the first super-special stage in Shenzhen but surrendered the lead to the third Subaru driver, Possum Bourne of New Zealand, on Sunday when his Legacy developed a fuel pump problem which relegated him to fifth, nearly four minutes off the pace.
But in a sustained performance of consummate skill, the 41-year-old clearly demonstrated that the years had not diminished his skill.
Vatanen showed he will be a driving force on the World Championship scene next season by also shading McRae on the second stage - the roughest of the rally - yesterday.
He again demonstrated that when the going gets rough, the tough get moving by pulling a second off McRae in the second stage to end the day with a 34-second lead with two stages remaining at the Great Wall and Ming Tombs.
Both stages today are tarmac, and, barring mishap, Vatanen looks set to score his first win in a rally since his last Paris-Dakar triumph in 1990.
''I really gave it the 'welly' in that first stage today,'' a smiling Vatanen said last night.
Bourne consolidated Subaru's claims for a one-two-three in the event with a steady drive in the opening stage and a scorcher in the second. He shaded both Vatanen and McRae by 20 seconds to take a mortgage on the number three slot.
Japanese Kenjiro Shinozuka again gave away time to the three Subaru drivers. He could not get the power on the ground in his Mitsubishi Lancer due to suspension set-up problems.
Hong Kong's Michael Lieu and co-driver Samantha Haldane consolidated sixth place in the tiniest car in the field, the 660 cc Subaru Vivio.
Apart from Vatanen's heroics, Lieu's effort in the Vivio has been the taking point of the rally.
The elements intervened to force organisers to cancel the last two special stages yesterday. Starting marshalls assigned to the two stages were caught up in heavy traffic and fog, delaying their return until 3 am, their assigned departure time to reach yesterday's stages.