A CONVOY of battered, mud-daubed vehicles rumbled into Tiananmen Square yesterday, for a ceremonial finish to the 3,800-kilometre 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally.
The 19 cars and 131 support vehicles were greeted by Chinese sports officials, several dozen Chinese mini-skirted models shivering in a sharp wind, and hundreds of curious onlookers.
The three winning drivers burned rubber performing their post-rally rite, the pirouette on wheels they call a ''doughnut'', on the square where Chinese authorities normally insist on decorous behaviour. Black smoke billowed into the air.
Gaudy pennants fluttered in the chilly breeze as Finn Ari Vatanen was handed the victor's laurel as he quaffed a glass of milk with co-driver Bruno Berglund of Sweden.
Runner-up Colin McRae of Scotland and New Zealander Possum Borne opted for the more traditional champagne shower which sent bystanders scurrying in all directions.
It was a triumph for the Subaru team, the three top finishers all drove Legacys.
The Chinese, still smarting from their failed Olympic bid, spared nothing in making the end of the rally worthy of the biggest and best they could muster in the heartland of the country.
And there was also a touch of glamour as international actress Gong Li joined the celebrations. While the 41-year-old Vatanan basked in the glory of outright victory by just 19 seconds, Hong Kong driver Michael Lieu and co-driver Samantha Haldane of New Zealand were revelling in their own remarkable achievement in the smallest car in the field, a 660 cc Subaru Vivio.
Teaming up for the first time, Lieu and Haldane finished sixth - fifth if a Japanese driver loses an appeal over a passing incident at the finish.
They took top place in Group N for partially modified cars.