Top teams set to rally for HK to Beijing run
By BRUCE MACDONALD
THE leading manufacturers contesting the World Rally Championship - Toyota, Ford, Subaru and Mitsubishi - are all likely to have factory-backed teams taking part in the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally in October.
The Subaru-Prodrive team which last year completed an unprecedented one-two-three with Ari Vatanen, Colin McRae and Possum Bourne aboard Legacys will be back again with Kiwi Bourne and rising young Briton, Richard Burns.
But with Mitsubishi-Ralliart mounting their biggest challenge to date with top-notch European Group A drivers Armin Schwartz and Kenneth Ericsson, it's on the cards that Subaru-Prodrive will again mount a three-car campaign which could see McRae return or even feature former world champion, Carlos Sainz of Spain in the line-up.
Last year's winner, Flying Finn Ari Vatanen, also a former world champion, has been dumped by Prodrive to make way for Sainz in this year's World Championship campaign but Vatanen has since set up a deal with German outfit, Schmidt Motorsport (SMS).
SMS took Schwartz to victory in the German Rally Championships of 1987 and '88 in Audi Quatros.
Vatanen begins his World Championship season with SMS behind the wheel of a Ford Escort in the Acropolis Rally in Greece and is also planning to do the New Zealand Rally, The 1,000 Lakes in Finland and Britain's RAC event.
In addition to the four World Championship legs, the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing event is the next major priority for the SMS team which along with Mitsubishi and Subaru, realise the importance of the burgeoning Asia market.
The 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally is a leg of the Asia-Pacific series for the first time this year which is an added incentive for the factory-backed teams to become involved.
Organisers estimated that over 300 million people in China alone saw the rally last year.
If Subaru, Mitsubishi and Ford all have a significant presence for the 3,800-kilometre straight-line event to the Chinese capital, Toyota, the current World Manufacturers' Championship holders, may well be obliged to take part.
That would be a huge boost for the event with the prospect of the sport's most successful driver, four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen of Finland at the vanguard of Toyota Team Europe's campaign.
Also driving a Toyota Celica for the world championship team is talented Frenchman Didier Auriol and Japanese Yoshio Fujimoto.
Fujimoto did the Hong Kong to Beijing last year in a Group N Nissan Pulsar and underlined his talent by keeping pace with the Group A cars in many of the 26 special stages.
The first route survey for this year's event, which is scheduled for October 22 to 28, was completed by officials last week.
Chief safety officer Klaus Doerr, Paul Ma, rally manager Willard Martin, who flew in from New Zealand, and Hong Kong Automobile Association chief executive officer Kendy Chan all surveyed the route - paying particular attention to safety and service routes plus medical and hospital facilities.
The team which also featured representatives of joint organisers, the Federation of Automobile Sports of the Peoples' Republic of China, were happy with the condition of the route and most of the 26 stages will remain pretty much as they are.
This year organisers are investigating the possibility of aerial support in the more remote stages. Last year's rally highlighted the necessity for air support in some stages which featured steep drops in mountainous areas with poor access.
Regulations for the event are close to completion and team entries open on June 1 and close on August 26.
A ceiling of 60 cars will be allowed to compete because of the logistical problems associated with staging the event.