“To Infinity and Beyond!” is my favorite cartoon character, Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear most memorable one-liners. This tagline was also very apt for our 1986 Hong Kong Beijing Rally debut that saw our MP Turbo team going beyond our expectations.
When we started this column, we admitted that we had never done any international rallying experience prior to this and we were just finishing local rallies that time. My trusted co-driver Jojo Estrella and previous year’s 8th placer Mandy Eduque provided the best support for the team. A lot of sleepless nights were done by our team to get our Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo 1800 and service vehicles to the start.
If you added up all the problems, it was a tough rally that would never be equaled! Let us now follow our passionate Filipino Team to the half way stop of this very tough, 5-day, 3,500-kilometer rally.
Right after the start on Ocean Terminal’s roof deck parking lot, all the participants were treated like VIPs by the organizers. When we reached the border after a good drive in the very confusing right hand drive traffic, all documents were processed immediately and there were no problems experienced by any team.
Once we entered Mainland China though, we noticed a big change in terms of the architectural design in the Communist controlled area. With the British culture apparent in the buildings and road networks of Hong Kong, China had its historic Asian culture and the familiar left hand drive traffic flow.
Nevertheless, we were still impressed, as we never saw this in our country; houses were made of red bricks and had good planning of road networks near the border. The police stopped traffic every time our rally convoy passed and the crowds that gathered were so huge that we felt we were the toast of the town!
On our first stop before the first competitive stage, we stopped at an open area near the buildings which was the only free parking space along the road. I noticed a funny smell and wondered what it was. Suddenly, there was this local guy who just dropped his pants and squatted to do the call of nature. The open area was actually an open pit for a community lavatory!
We hurriedly left the area and got the rudest awakening. Those good-looking houses from the outside had no toilet facilities inside for the people to do it privately. When we got close to some houses, we saw there were not much furniture inside and even beds were absent. We felt like royalty with our houses back home with our indoor toilets and comfortable beds waiting for us.
Every time we stopped along the way, there would be like 20-30 people that would gather around our car. Some would ask for our autograph on their notebooks and we would take some time understanding what they wanted since we didn’t know how to talk their language and vice versa.
This was the first time we were asked for our autographs and it felt good. We were soon being mobbed by others and the local police/army would use big clubs and tree branches to push the crowd away. Some authorities were too rough on the people and we took pity on the fans.
What we didn’t know was that this was done to protect us from the huge crowds than anything else! Since the locals never saw foreigners before these rallies, they were in awe to see people that looked and talked differently from them. This sense of amazement could turn ugly if no police were there to control them.
The competitive stages were all covered in a mix of gravel and sand. This surface was very slippery and we never rallied on this kind before. We had to find the right technique and pace to conquer this challenge. If you went flat out, you would find it almost impossible to slow down and turn into a corner. If you went too slow, then you were just wasting precious time to move up.
Luckily, we were able to find the right combination of grit and grace to finish the first day with no problems. It was also crucial that we decided to take it easy for the first few stages to get the feel for the car and the road since it was still a long way to go. We moved up a couple of places from our start position of 20 and we felt very good at our progress after the first halt.
China’s temperature at night would drop to 10 degrees Centigrade during September and we would feel so cold even with so many layers of clothing. Our breadth would always be foggy and we knew the next morning would be worse. We even had to be careful touching metal things, as it would feel very painful.
We pitied our service teams as they would arrive very late in the evening and had to wake up earlier than us to get to their next service point. It would be one of our biggest problems later on during the rally.
Waking up early the next day, we felt very confident that we would go faster as we were getting used to this special surface. However, after filling up with fuel at the service halt, we noticed a bad misfire in one of the stages.
I thought it was the electronic control unit and its related systems. We unplugged the computer and sensors but couldn’t find anything wrong with the connections. When we started the Lancer, the problem was gone! So we headed to the next stage and thought it was all sorted out.
However, after only a few kilometers inside the special stage, the Lancer started to misfire again and slowly grinded to a halt. I turned the key after pausing for a few seconds and the engine roared! I knew it wasn’t the electronics but it was fuel starvation that was causing the car to stop.
We cleaned the fuel filters in the service halt and saw a lot of gel-like substance in it. When we checked the fuel tanks supplied by the organizers, the gel was also present inside the cans. We had found the problem but we couldn’t do anything about it.
We crawled in the next stages of the day and thought we were going to finish out of the top 20. Fortunately, we never had a car overtake us in those stages and knew all of the teams were affected by the same dirty fuel!
Compounding the fuel problem was the amount of people lining the stages. We never saw so many people on the road, with their bikes parked by the roadside, that I became totally disoriented. It was like China’s billion of people decided to watch the rally all at the same time!
There was one night stage that had so many viewers that they almost blocked the roads. The bad thing was that we were number 20 on the road and the people were already going home using the same road we were rallying on. The worst thing was when we would turn our car off to prime the injectors; the Chinese would come closer to the car and just move away when the engine started again.
I thought this was extremely dangerous and the stage should be cancelled. Along with many other teams, we filed a protest during the rest halt but the organizers decided not to cancel it the next day. The reason given was it was not that dangerous as the top teams crossed with no problems.
Half way point
With the dirty fuel and spectator issues destroying a good rally, the organizers advised all to strain the gasoline before putting them in their tanks. They also cancelled some stages the next day when fans were too many and unruly on the stages.
The worst team affected by the dirty fuel was the Toyota Team. The 2 Celica Turbos of Bjorn Waldegaard and Lars Erik Torph could only pray that their highly tuned engines didn’t break down from the lack of fuel. Their prayers were not answered and they suffered engine problems before the halfway point.
The stage accidents were also claiming a lot of participants. There were the 555 Audi Quattro of Andy Dawson that damaged its front right suspension after a collision and the Mitsubishi Starion of the Chinese team of Lu Ning Jun with a collapsed rear suspension after hitting a house.
Our Lancer also clipped a rock in the apex and damaged its front left bumper. Jojo had to calm my driving after that. I was trying to gain lost ground when the car ran well but it was just too risky to go all out when we didn’t have much service teams waiting for us in every stage like the factory teams.
Even our Toyota Hi Ace service vehicle suffered from its driver’s loss of concentration and slid on its side after a sharp turn. Luckily, no one was hurt except for their pride as it was caught by the press and shown internationally. With the help of other service teams, our Hi Ace was righted and a few liters of oil made it roadworthy again.
We arrived at the halfway point in Wuhan Province and crossed the mighty Yangtze River. By this time, there were a lot of retirements and I think only a little more than 30 cars were left in the rally. The event was proving to be a tough one and we were in the top 15 going to the last half.
Stay tuned for the last part of our Hong Kong Rally story next week and there were still a lot more surprises leading to a memorable end in Beijing. Godspeed!