ENTRIES for the fourth edition of the 555 Hong Kong to Beijing car rally next month reflect the tough economic times with only 37 cars listed to tackle the demanding 3,800-kilometre odyssey.
That represents a drop of around 40 per cent on the 60 cars which competed in the last event in 1987.
The inaugural event in 1985 attracted a field of 36 and in 1986, 43 cars faced the starter.
But on the up side, the quality and competitiveness of the entries is by far and away the strongest on record with substantial factory backing, particularly from Subaru and Mitsubishi, the two leading manufacturers in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship.
Even though the Hong Kong to Beijing event is not a leg of the Asia-Pacific series this year, the three leading drivers in the championship will take part.
Points leader Briton Colin McRae and navigator Derek Ringer will spearhead the Subaru challenge behind the wheel of a Legacy in Group A.
McRae's nearest rival, New Zealander Possum Bourne, also driving a Subaru Legacy, will race but he will have a new navigator after the death of his long-time co-driver and close friend Rodger Freeth on the opening day of the Australian Rally Championshipin Perth on Saturday.
Bourne crashed his car during a special stage and escaped unscathed and will definitely line up in the Hong Kong to Beijing event.
Mitsubishi will be represented by Japanese Kenjiro Shonozuka and Finnish navigator Pentii Kuukkula in a Lancer. They currently lie third in the Asia-Pacific Championship.
The great Scandinavian tradition in the event continues with the legendary former world champion, Ari Vatanen of Finland and Swedish co-driver Bruno Berglund teaming up in a Subaru Legacy.
Both have competed in the event before. Berglund won it with compatriot Stig Blomqvist in 1986 in an Audi Quattro and paired up again in 1987 in a Ford Sierra to finish third.
Vatanen, a four-time winner of the world's most gruelling rally, the Paris-Dakar, competed in 1987 but crashed early in the race.
Scandinavians have won the previous three events.
With the experience of Berglund, Vatanen will start a hot favourite to add the Hong Kong to Beijing to his long list of achievements.
Hong Kong drivers have strongly supported the event, accounting for 14 entries which feature competitors from eight countries in 11 different makes of cars.
The territory's top competitor is former national rally champion Michael Lieu who has secured a factory-backed drive in a 600 cc turbo-charged Subaru Vivio. The car is not distributed in Hong Kong but is a big seller in the popular Japanese mini compact market.
A similar car competed in last year's African Safari rally and in this season's Malaysian Rally.
Macau Grand Prix weekend regular Danny Stacy Chau will drive a Mitsubishi VR4 while Hong Kong-based Briton Mark Freeman will team up with Indian Virendra Anand in the sole Lancia Delta in the field.
For the first time, a three-car team from Taiwan has been entered. Brothers Kao Ching-luan and Kao Ching-jung will drive Honda Civics as will teammate Lin Wen-jen.
The Subaru Motor Sports Group has entered a two-car China team with leading mainland drivers Lu Ningjun and Xian Tongchun at the wheel.
Lu, in his debut on the international scene, drove to a brilliant second finish in the 1986 event behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Starion 4WD. This time he will pilot a Legacy.
Japan have entered seven cars spearheaded by Shinozuka in Group A.
The remaining teams will all compete in Group N, which is for only partially modified cars.
Yoshio Fujimoto and Hakaru Ichino in a Mitsubishi Lancer are ranked in the top three in the world in Group N while Hiroshi Nishiyama and Hisashi Yamaguchi in a Nissan Pulsar are also an internationally ranked pairing.
The rally begins in Hong Kong with a ceremonial flag-off at the Ocean Terminal on Saturday, October 23 before competitors travel in convoy to Shenzhen for the first super-special stage at Honey Lake - which will be shown live in Hong Kong and throughout the mainland.
The event finishes with a stage at the Great Wall near Beijing on Friday, October 29.