From the heat and humidity of Hong Kong, through the most spectacular countryside in China with millions of people lining the route, to the cold but sunny weather in Beijing, the leading players in this year's event battled for seven days over 26 high-speed special stages totalling 484km. The focus was on the fight between Team Mitsubishi Ralliart and Subaru, but by the half way point Mitsubishi's opposition had crumbled under heavy pressure from the Lancers of Burns, Vatanen and Shinozuka.
The first to fall was early leader Pierro Liatti, who crashed his Subaru out of the event on stage five, letting Burns' Lancer into the lead. Last year's winner Kenneth Eriksson chased the leading Mitsubishis from behind, but he too was pushed to the brink and left the road on stage 12. By the end of that section, the leaderboard had changed again. At 44 km, the longest stage of the event also claimed Toyota's Yoshiro Fujimoto and very nearly sucked Burns and his Lancer into retirement. Pushing his Lancer to the limit, Burns clipped a tree and damaged an intercooler pipe, robbing him of boost from the turbocharger until the end of the section. But he survived, still in second place as Vatanen moved past to take the lead.
For one more day the battle progressed through Leg five, but Burns, unable to respond to a superb time set by Vatanen on stage 18, agreed with his team mate that caution would be the better part of valour, and they resolved to hold station until the end of the event to protect Mitsubishi's Championship hopes.
After the final two stages around the spectacular Great Wall of China and the Ming Tombs, the victorious Lancers cruised into Beijing and Tian An Men Square to a rapturous welcome from the millions of Chinese citizens who turned out to watch.
Said Vatanen: "I can't put into words what this means to me personally. And for the team, for Mitsubishi, this is a great result and I am very happy to have contributed. This is no ordinary rally - very special, and this being the last of its type makes it a very important moment for me."
Vatanen's co-driver "Tilber" added: "This is the last great rally adventure and it is an honour to win it with Ari."
Richard Burns, while slightly disappointed not to have won, added: "We all had to drive hard from the word go and keep the pressure on Subaru, and it worked. I am happy to be second, and delighted that we have once again won the Manufacturer's Championship."
His co-driver Robert Reid said: "The competition was very fierce. We are just happy that the Mitsubishi team worked very well together for such a great result."
Kenjiro Shinozuka had yet another trouble-free day and was equally delighted to have completed the winning Mitsubishi trio on one of his favourite events. "I knew it was important to drive carefully on such a long event and our strategy was good. I am very happy with this result for Mitsubishi," said the Japanese star.
"This was my first Hong Kong - Beijing Rally and I have to say it was very tough," added his co-driver, Fred Gocentas. "We worked hard, and it was a great result."
Team Mitsubishi Ralliart Manager Phil Short commented: "It's a dream result. Our plan was to put the opposition under pressure from the start and it paid off. The cars have been perfect, requiring only routine maintenance, and our tyre choice with the Michelin Z80s and Z90s was perfect for the conditions. We couldn't have asked for a better rally."
Andrew Cowan, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart Director, added: "Although the talk of beating our competition is important, from Mitsubishi's point of view this was an important demonstration of our philosophy. The most important part of this is our wish to do every single rally with sincerity, with every single person putting in maximum effort for the benefit of the team. Then the good results come automatically."
Mitsubishi also enjoyed success in Group N, the class for standard production cars with Japanese driver Yoshihiro Kataoka finishing second in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution III, this result being enough for him to lift the FIA Asia-Pacific Group N title. He said: "It would have been nice to win the rally, but it means much more to me to win the championship so I am very happy." His co-driver, Satoshi Hayashi declared: "It was a great way to finish off a great season for us."
With 134 points to Subaru's 128, Mitsubishi is now the Asia-Pacific Champion Manufacturer for the second year running. With the season now over in the region, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart has one remaining goal this year, to perform well on the Catalunya Rally, the next and final event in the World Rally Championship calendar which starts on November 3, 1996.
With a trio of Group A Lancer Evolution IIIs, Mitsubishi stands an excellent chance of repeating the victory that clinched last year's Asia-Pacific title. The crews will be Britain's Richard Burns/Robert Reid - the winners of the Rally of New Zealand and the 1981 World Champion, Ari Vatanen Team Mitsubishi Ralliart, one of the most charismatic figures in motorsport, Vatanen won the event in 1993 and will be amongst the favourites this October. He will be co-driven by Christian Tilber, a former French Champion Co-driver.
The vastly experienced Japanese-Australian combination, Kenjiro Shinozuka/Fred Gocentas of the Mitsubishi Lancer Dealer Team will again contest the rally in their Lancer Evolution III. The team will also be assisted by 5 mechanics chosen from thousands of Mitsubishi dealer mechanics from across Japan after a rigorous selection process.
The Lancer Evolution III has become the standard by which other rally cars are judged, with five major international victories this year, including four wins at World Championship level. Its enviable record means that all of the three drivers must be regarded as potential winners.
The Hong Kong-Beijing Rally is an adventure and a trial that stretches team's resources to the limit, but it is also the supreme prize in the Asia-Pacific Championship, with almost limitless promotional and commercial value. As Phil Short, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart's Team Manager, says, "It is the jewel in the crown".
Covering some 3,800 kilometres in seven days, it is a rally on an epic scale. In place of the compact, three-day formula to which most contemporary rallies adhere, it spans huge distances and startling changes of terrain, from the tropical heat of Guangdong, on stages that Vatanen compares to the 1000 Lakes Rally in his Finnish homeland, to the Grand Canyon test in Henan Province and the final stage close to the Ming tombs and Beijing itself.
Despite extensive damage to roads in southern and central China as a result of serious flooding, the organisers are planning 28 stages, making up just under 500 kilometres. This is owed partly to the assistance of local people in repairing some of the worst damage.
Meeting the challenge posed by such a long event is a logistical nightmare, far more daunting than any round of the World Rally Championship.
"It's difficult because of the straight-line route. We would need to take two to three times as many people as we would take to a World Rally Championship event. At the moment, the head count is 81 people and around 30 vehicles," Short explained. It would be an impossible challenge if it were not for Mitsubishi's strength across the globe, since Ralliart Europe draws invaluable support from Ralliart Hong Kong and Ralliart Australia.
Up to 13,000,000 people watch the rally, making it perhaps the greatest live spectator event in the world. As there is a distinct possibility that a Chinese rally joins the World Rally Championship in future, Team Mitsubishi Ralliart believes the enormous effort needed to secure victory is worthwhile on all counts.
The rally starts in Hong Kong on October 19. The finishers reach Beijing on October 25. It will be a special occasion, for this is the very last Hong Kong-Beijing Rally. It could just as easily be a historic moment for Team Mitsubishi Ralliart.
Copyright 1996 by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.
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