Japanese rally ace, Kenjiro Shinozuka, is still favourite to lift the FIA World Cross Country Rally Championship crown after finishing second in the Optic 2000 Rally of Tunisia, driving his PIAA Mitsubishi Dealer Team Pajero Evolution.
Shinozuka, co-driven as usual by Henri Magne, led the championship going into the third round in Tunisia, a 3,357 km event run over 10 days with 1,886 km of competitive driving split into eight sections. He had planned to increase his lead with a victory, but bad luck struck twice, and he ended up second overall behind Jean-Louis Schlesser's prototype buggy.
Shinozuka won four of eight stages. After the prologue in Nice and two special stages in Sardinia, the Japanese driver held a comfortable lead going into the hot and hazardous desert sections in Tunisia. Once amongst the towering sand dunes, a little gamesmanship came into play, with Schlesser pretending to stop and check his tyres, putting Shinozuka first on the ad and therefore first find the traps. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the Mitsubishi star became stuck between two sand dunes on the fifth leg, and Shinozuka's 6m 41 s lead going into the stage transformed into a nine minute deficit.
Later on the event, to everyone's puzzlement, Schlesser suddenly extended his lead by a full 20 minutes. Two days after this apparent stroke of good fortune for the buggy driver, the truth was revealed as the Frenchman admitted he has found a shortcut. All perfectly legal, of course, as he had passed all the official passage controls, but desperately frustrating for Shinozuka who was forced to settle for second, despite being clearly competitive.
It has been one of the toughest cross country rallies so far this season, a point clearly demonstrated by the tragic death of five participants in the event, who succumbed to heat stroke and dehydration in the 50 degree Celsius heat. All were beginners, and their demise was blamed on inexperience. As well as the extreme heat, the competitiors also had to contend with clouds of sand blowing through the dunes, which reduced visibility to near zero in places.
Said Shinozuka, after the event : "There was a lot of sand, but it was a good event and the fight for the title is becoming quite tough. The Schlesser buggy has got faster. He has done a lot of testing here, all of which contributed to his win."
As anticipated, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Strugo won the T1 class for standard cars in his Mitsubishi Pajero.
Now holding second place in the championship, Shinozuka now prepares for the fourth round, the Atlas Rally which starts in Morocco on May 9, Shniozuka promises : "I won't let what happened on the Tunisia Rally happen again !"
Copyright 1998 by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.