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The third round of the Chinese Championship has me taking four planes to get to the border of North Korea, to an area known as Changbaishan.  This area is famous for the crater lake which is an extinct volcano that has a lake over 3000 metres above sea level.  We were there for the first snow of the season and, while totally unprepared for the cold, I did improvise by wearing  Sparco flameproof undies and balaclava...and yes, while I did look like a dork wearing it, I still have my ears.  The Oakley race boots were the wrong shoe choice for the ice, however!

John Allen reports on his Chinese adventures ......

I will spare you the episode of Getaway and concentrate on the rally.  My first super special stage in the Chinese Championship found us tearing up a local school’s soccer pitch, to the delight of the local school kids, before heading out the following day for 180km competitive (which is almost an ARC distance in one day!) run over six stages.  Tony Green and I really wanted to put in a strong effort on the first day, particularly as David Higgins was away competing in the fourth round of the British Rally Championship, so we went out hard, only to puncture after 6km in to the stage. I’m sure we didn’t hit anything!  With 24km to go, there was no option but to change it and after two cars had passed us while we sorted out the wheel, we arrived at the end of the stage around 40th.  Fumio Nutahara, (who replaced David Higgins), also punctured here, so this left the fight between Finland’s Juha Salo and Australia’s Dean Herridge.

The following stage was another 30 kilometre pass which included two flat out passes through villages, passing only metres from the front doors of bewildered locals who have never seen a rally car before (see the video).  In Australia, with our workplace health and safety policies, the stage would have finished a couple of kilometres before the village, but this is China and it is perfectly acceptable to be flat in fifth between barns and houses!  Amazingly, the locals all have their safe vantage points and the only obstacles were a dog and a couple of chickens that we had to dodge.

Juho Salo had an uneventful run, finishing a comfortable first for the day after Herridge also succumbed to a flat tyre, but he still maintained his second spot after completing the stage without having to change it.  Local Chinese driver, Wei Hongjie, finished third; Japan’s Nutahara was in 4th and we were in 10th after two flat tyres for the day.

Starting 10th on day two, our plan was to step it up to fifth for the day.  This was made easier when Dong inadvertently disqualified himself after driving straight through the three minute technical zone into service (it was early in the morning), and Fumio Nutahara didn’t show up.  His team remained very tight lipped on why he failed to show, however service park rumour and innuendo pointed to a dispute between personnel and team sponsors, which prevented him from competing on Sunday. Benefiting from other peoples misfortune, we now found ourselves in 8th before leaving the service park.

Sunday’s stages were completely different from the hard packed dirt stages through open countryside and villages, and, in places, were more like a beach to drive on.  In only Tony’s 12th rally and our fourth together, Tony was really starting to commit to the notes and setting up the car perfectly based on the information I was feeding him.  We decided to be aggressive on the first stage of the morning and were rewarded with the second fastest time, only four seconds behind the newly crowned Finnish rally champion, Juha Salo.  It was one hell of a ride!  It got even better when, on the following stage, Tony took out his first ever stage win on dirt.  He was ecstatic! I have the ruptured ear drums to prove it.  While Tony and I have set fastest stage times in Shanghai on the tarmac, we all know the dirt is what it is all about.

I know the first stage win on the dirt is a real key point in a driver’s career and so we decided to step it up and take the heat win, as we were only three seconds off the lead.  In a repeat of the morning stages, we came out even more aggressively to try to make up the difference.  There is no doubting Tony’s talent and he had the car on maximum attack as we tried to claw back those few precious seconds.  Five kilometres into the stage, a fourth gear left hander ends our dreams of a stage win when we hit a hidden stump or rock, and this ripped the steering wheel from Tony’s hands. After gaining control of the car, we discovered the steering wheel had moved 90 degrees and the front driver’s wheel has been pushed back into the guard.  After another four kilometres this had flattened the tyre, and while the Pirelli XR7 holds on for another five k’s, we had to run the rest of the stage on the wheel rim, dropping two minutes to the leaders. 

Getting the wheel off minus the tyre was easy, however putting the new wheel/tyre on was near impossible.  With the suspension bent, the wheel would not fit back in the wheel arch as it was pushed back against the guard.  Tony then decided to try to straighten the bent steering arm with the wheel brace, but slipped while using all his strength, which resulted in him head-butting the Ohlins springs.  For ten seconds he didn’t know where he was!  Once he came to, it was decided to improvise and turn the steering wheel hard to the right and fit the tyre. This worked and looked good, however the wheel would not straighten up as the tread was resting against the guard. 

Tony was reluctantly ready to call it a day as he was worried about damaging the car further due to the small amount of spares we have.  The car refused to go forward as the wheel was wedged against the guard, so this required drastic action. Much against Tony’s mechanical sympathy, I begged him to employ anti-lag and launch control to rip the tread off the wheel.  The look he gave me, I swear he would sooner cut off his own thumb, (or preferably mine for that matter), before inflicting such painful treatment on a Prodrive Subaru.   Anti-lag on, launch control engaged and 5000 rpm dialled up, followed by a clutch dump. It is a real nasty sound, (the automotive equivalent to cutting your thumb off I guess), where the tyre meets inner guard and includes an indecent amount of smoke.  We did make it back to service with a groove Pirelli never intended should be there, and gave the boys some unwanted practice to repair the damaged suspension before we headed to the finish in fifth.    
While we have had a charmed run for the first two rounds of the Chinese Championship finishing second and third outright, this result of fifth is actually more rewarding as, for the first time, we had to fight to drag the car home after flat tyres, broken wheel rims and bent suspension, and still snatched a decent result from not giving up. It is also some reward for our team owner, Mr Chen, who took some rare time out of his work schedule in the financial district in Shanghai to see his car cross the finish line.

After destroying a Lancer Evo9 in the previous round, Juha Salo had a trouble-free run to comfortably finish first, ahead of Dean Herridge and Chris Murphy.  It is an exceptional effort by Dean who has been working with Subaru Team China to develop the new-shape N14 Impreza.

Rounding off the podium position was local driver, Wei Hongjie.  These results were subject to a protest on the Evo9s of Salo and Hongjie, with their engines being pulled down after the event, however nothing irregular was found by the Chinese scrutineers.

The next round in Longyou will having us mixing it with the Asia Pacific contenders so Tony and I will have to bring our “A” game to this event.  I will keep you posted!

- John Allen



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