MICHAEL Lieu can lay claim to being the most successful rally driver ever to slip behind the wheel of a car in Southeast Asia, but like so many Hong Kong sportsmen and women, he is torn between pursuing his career and making a living. Lieu has chosen the middle ground, driving when and where he can while keeping the bank manager happy with his car-importing business. Next Saturday he sets forth on a 3,800-kilometre odyssey into mainland China in the fourth 555 Hong Kong to Beijing Rally, one of the most rigorous tests of car and driver. Born in Hong Kong and educated in Canada, 33-year-old Lieu realises his dilemma is indicative of many talented sporting people in the territory. ''My position leaves me unable to give 100 per cent to rallying and that's probably the reason there are so many non-professionals playing sport here. ''Hong Kong is about making money, not playing sport.'' But Lieu has split his energies with amazing success since he took up rallying seriously in 1987 after beginning as a circuit racer. Earlier this year Lieu became the first Southeast Asian to win a stage in a World Championship event when he took a remarkable 17 of 36 in the New Zealand Rally. That was good enough to give him third place in Group N (for stock standard cars) and 12th overall against the world's top professionals. The race was won by Colin McRae in a Subaru Legacy. The Scot will be among the 37 competitors taking part in the Hong Kong to Beijing event, which was spawned by a spirit of co-operation between the China Motorsport Association and the Hong Kong Automobile Association in 1985. Lieu is a self-taught racer who began his competitive career in sensational fashion in 1981 at the annual Macau Grand Prix meeting. He entered a BMW 323i in the ACP Trophy race and duly took top honours. He was signed by Mitsubishi in 1984 and had the distinction of becoming Hong Kong's first fully professional racing driver. Lieu ended his circuit racing career in 1987 but dramatically made his mark on the rallying scene in the same year. Driving a Mitsubishi Galant VR4, Lieu finished 10th overall in the Olympus Rally in the United States. The event was then a leg of the World Championship and Lieu's finish still remains the best achieved by a Southeast Asian. ''After the Olympus I was hooked on rallying. It takes so much more skill, both mentally and physically,'' Lieu says with enthusiasm. His abilities have not gone unnoticed by the leading manufacturers on the world rallying scene. He is driving a factory-backed Subaru Vivio in the Hong Kong to Beijing event, a compact sedan not available on the Hong Kong market. It will be the smallest car, both in size and horsepower, entered in the Hong Kong to Beijing but Lieu still remains confident he will be the first of the 15 territory drivers to finish. ''I'm giving away power but I will start off slowly while I learn about the car and then step up the pace.'' Lieu's frustration at being a part-time competitor is exemplified by his drive in the Vivio. The car won't be out of Customs until tomorrow with the rally beginning only five days later. ''Monday and Tuesday, I will check it out mechanically so that I can make running repairs if needed during the rally. Then I will have to set it up to suit my driving position, and with any sort of luck I'll get a chance to drive it for an hour or two before the rally starts.'' While Lieu obviously remains frustrated with virtually practising during a rally, he is realistic about what would be required of him if he were a professional. ''As a professional I would have to face unnecessary dangers to either win or hold my place in a car with wheels that might fall off at any time. As a pro I'm the property of the team,'' Lieu said. Pursuing his chosen sport, even on a part-time basis, is costly. The car in which Lieu did so well in New Zealand, a Mitsubishi Lancer, cost him HK$500,000, fully rally-equipped. And there is always the inherent risk of a crash, which, unfortunately for Lieu's pocket, came in his very next appearance in the Lancer which had less than 3,000 km on the clock. He hit a tree stump, twisting the floor pan and other panelwork which cost HK$150,000 to repair. Add to that HK$80,000 to cover costs of competing in an event and rallying is not cheap. Injury is also an ever-present risk. Lieu didn't escape the crash unscathed; he cracked a rib and has only just recovered. ''I was told by a doctor not to do the reccie (for the Hong Kong to Beijing) and spend a week in bed instead. Of course I did the reccie but it was painful,'' Lieu said. Lieu accepts that he faces the risk of injury and must carry the costs of competing but will continue to drive towards his dream - to win the Group N section of a World Championship rally event. ''I hope to pick up some personal sponsorship in the future and maybe cover 50 per cent of my costs,'' he says confidently. But the fact remains that as long as his car-importing business thrives, so will Michael Lieu's driving career. Like his driving career, Lieu has made a mark importing Japanese cars not sold in Hong Kong. ''Most people probably don't realise it, but less than 20 per cent of the cars and models available in Japan are on the market here,'' he said. Lieu began by importing the Nissan Skyline, a constant four-wheel-drive turbo-charged beast that blitzed its rivals in the 1990 edition of the Guia Race in Macau. While business fortunes continue to come his way, Lieu will keep chasing success on the international rallying scene well into the 21st century, such is his passion for his sport.