THE 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally is poised for a thrilling finale as flying Finn Ari Vatenan continues to make inroads into the lead of teammate Colin McRae.
Subaru Legacy drivers Vatenan and McRae have reduced the event to a two-man dogfight after yesterday, pulling clear of the third Legacy driven by Possum Bourne.
Former world champion Vatenan attacked from the outset yesterday, taking four seconds off McRae in the first special stage and another 30 in the next.
McRae fought back in the third of five stages yesterday to claim back seven seconds, but, by the end of the day, Vatenan had eroded the lead from 57 seconds overnight to only 14.
Bourne lost more time yesterday to lie more than 21/2 minutes off the pace.
Fourth-placed Kenjiro Shinozuka, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer, also dropped more time to the trio of Legacy drivers.
Said Vatenan: ''I was quickest through the first two stages then backed off a little. I've completed 80 per cent of the rally now and it would have been silly to take too many risks.
''But I'm poised to strike and I think I can have Colin for breakfast tomorrow.'' McRae was unruffled by Vatenan's steady progress from nearly four minutes off the pace after mechanical troubles on the second day.
''I'm driving with one eye on reaching the finish and one on my rear vision mirror looking for Ari. I've driven to a set plan for the entire race and I'm not changing now.'' The twisting gravel roads continued to take their toll with the field now down to 20.
Yesterday, Hong Kong's Adrian Fu in a Mitsubishi lancer crashed out along with Chinese Xian Tongchun in a Legacy.
Hong Kong's Michael Lieu and co-driver Samantha Haldane of New Zealand, in their tiny 600 cc Subaru Vivio, moved up to sixth.
The rally moves into the Grand Canyon region today before the final two stages tomorrow to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs.
Four rally officials escaped serious injury yesterday when their Subaru Legacy station wagon slammed head-on into a six-tonne lorry south of Zheng Zhou. Barry Lea, Ian Aspinall, David Thain and Chew San-cheung remained in hospital overnight, but were expected to be released this morning.