Colin McRae and Nicky Grist's valuable experience of competing in China has been put to good use by the Ford Martini team as it prepares for the FIA World Rally Championship's first visit to the country for the China Rally (16 - 20 September). The pair won the non-championship event in both 1997 and 1998 and have more specialist knowledge of the intricacies of competing there than any other leading driver.
The event has evolved from the Hong Kong - Beijing Rally, on which McRae finished second in 1993. In only its third year in a new format, the China Rally has been included in the championship for the first time - introducing an element of the unknown into the series for most other teams and drivers.
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson acknowledged the advantage of a driver in the team with previous experience. "It might not be so crucial on the special stages, as it is in Finland, but it's an advantage in planning for the rally. Colin's understanding of the roads means he's been able to advise us on the event and the specification we should use for the Ford Focus World Rally Cars. He and Nicky have also been invaluable in other areas by explaining what we can expect in terms of different cultures, language difficulties, food and making the team function in the usual fashion."
Wilson, aware of the team's recent record, admits his goal is to ensure both McRae and the second Ford Focus of Thomas Rådström and Fred Gallagher reach the finish in the shadow of the Great Wall. "Thomas will test the car for two days in China before the recce and we're confident the engine trouble which brought about Colin's retirement in Finland will not re-occur. Mountune, our engine builder, identified the problem area and modifications have been made."
Thirty-one-year-old McRae will probably start the four-day rally, 11th round of the championship, as favourite but the Scot believes his knowledge of the gravel roads in China is not so much of an advantage. "It helps but it isn't the type of event where experience counts for much from a driving point of view. The roads are narrow, hilly in places and quite similar to Portugal and it's a rally where a first-timer can go and win.
"We've had difficulties in the last few events, which can only be expected with a car which is competing in its first season, but all those things have been addressed and we've never had the same problem twice. Looking at the last four events, the Focus has been quick. We've led two of them so the pace is there for all to see and now we must concentrate on developing the reliability to match the speed," added McRae.
Rådström, like many, will be visiting China for the first time and he too has sought McRae's advice. But co-driver Gallagher has knowledge of the country, if not the stages to be used on this year's rally. He competed on the Hong Kong - Beijing Rally three times, winning in 1987, and the Paris - Beijing rally in 1992.
"Because there's been little motorised traffic in China until relatively recently, there's no real signposting and when there are signs, they are obviously in Chinese. Away from the major towns nobody speaks English so stopping to ask the way is impossible. I think it will be an adventure, in some ways a throwback to the old days of the sport and I just hope the organisers will allow the character of the country to come through so that it doesn't appear like just another European round," said Gallagher.
The China Rally requires more preparation for Ford Martini team chef Pamela Brise than any other championship round. The near 50-strong team knows what satisfies its taste buds and it is Pamela's job to ensure their diet is a familiar one in an area far removed from western influences.
She has shipped around £1500 of provisions to China, including trusty favourites like baked beans, corned beef, tea and biscuits and De Cecco pasta, as well as 780 litres of bottled water. Much of it was bought in Auckland during the Rally New Zealand and sent on to China by boat, topped up by a second batch of supplies forwarded from Britain.
"The main problem is that I just don't know what to expect," said Pamela. "If we can buy eggs, bread and fresh vegetables to supplement what we're taking, all well and good, but if not then at least I know that we will be self-sufficient with what we have. An army marches on its stomach and it's important for everyone that we have food on hand with which we're all comfortable."
The event is based in Huai Rou, around 60km north of Beijing. The stages are located to the north of Huai Rou and the overnight halts at Hongda. The opening leg, based around Ba Dao He, is due north while the second day is centred on Nian Ze, close by in the same region but slightly further west. The final leg is based at Jin Shan Ling, much further to the east. The stages are not especially distinctive, many running along valleys with short stretches over nearby hills but the environment is - particularly the layered mountain ranges seemingly visible on every horizon.
The rally format is very simple. On each of the three days of competition, drivers face a group of stages in the morning which are repeated in the same order during the afternoon, providing eight stages during the first two legs and six on the final day. The competition is preceded with a ceremonial start from Huai Rou on the evening of 16 September and ends by the Great Wall at Jin Shan Ling. Drivers face almost 386km of stages in a total route of 1423km. The event is only the third world championship rally to be held in Asia.
ROUND 11 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP, 16 - 19 SEPTEMBER 1999
Thursday 16 September: Leg 1 Huai Rou - Hongda Start Huai Rou 18.30 Finish Hongda 19.00 Totals 0.00km 11.66
Friday 17 September: Leg 1 (cont) Hongda - Hongda Start Hongda 06.30 SS1 Qi Dao He 1 9.03km 08.19 SS2 Zhuang Hu 1 33.07km 08.44S S3 Da Xi Shan 1 26.46km 10.42 SS4 Tou Dao Xue 1 7.00km 11.31 SS5 Qi Dao He 2 9.03km 12.44 SS6 Zhuang Hu 2 33.07km 13.09 SS7 Da Xi Shan 2 26.46km 15.07 SS8 Tou Dao Xue 2 7.00km 15.56 Finish Hongda 18.34 Totals 151.12km
Saturday 18 September: Leg 2 Hongda - Hongda Start Hongda 06.30 SS9 Si Dao Dian 1 15.94km 08.48 SS10 Di Shui Hu 1 12.47km 09.13 SS11 Dao De Gou 1 19.78km 11.29 SS12 Hei Niu Shan 1 25.88km 12.05 SS13 Si Dao Dian 2 15.94km 13.45 SS14 Di Shui Hu 2 12.47km 14.10 SS15 Dao De Gou 2 19.78km 16.26 SS16 Hei Niu Shan 2 25.88km 17.02 Finish Hongda 19.52 Totals 148.14km Sunday 19 September: Leg 3 Hongda - Jin Shan Ling Start Hongda 06.30 SS17 Cha Dao Kou 1 7.41km 09.00 SS18 Bei Gou 1 19.15km 09.51 SS19 Wu Ying Zi 1 16.67km 10.19 SS20 Cha Dao Kou 2 7.41km 12.16 SS21 Bei Gou 2 19.15km 13.07 SS22 Wu Ying Zi 2 16.67km 13.35 Finish Jin Shan Ling 14.39 Totals 86.46km