Our first international rally was leaving up to its billing as one of the toughest rally in the world. The 1986 555 Hong Kong Beijing Rally’s had already lost almost a third of its 50 plus participants through accidents and dirty fuel even though it was only half way through the 6 day event!
One of the biggest victims was Toyota Team Europe’s Lars Erik Torph. His Toyota Celica Turbo suffered engine problems because of the dirty fuel including erstwhile leader 555 Audi Team Stig Blomquist, who fell down to 2nd place. 555 Audi driver Andy had a big accident that tore off his front right suspension and American Pierre Honniger in an RX7 flew off the road. At the halfway point, it was Toyota’s Bjorn Waldegaard who led the rally by only a few seconds.
Our fellow Filipino driver Mandy Eduque/Jun Espino also had an accident and damaged his Nissan 240RS’ rear differential. We saw their car on the side of the road and thought it was only a minor problem because they didn’t flag us down for help. It was now up to my navigator Jojo Estrella and I to uphold Philippine honors!
Every time we would start a leg of the rally, we would wake up around 4am. Jojo and I would talk on how we would approach the coming stages ahead. We were already in the top 15 standings and so far, had only a minor incident with a rock that damaged our front left bumper. We were able to cure the dirty fuel by straining it before putting it in our Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo.
Thus we decided to go a little faster in the 4th day and see if we could catch up to some of the guys in front. There was a Nissan 280ZX that was having suspension problems and some that were damaged like the Mitsubishi Lancers of the Hong Kong Team. This will bring us into the top 10 and we would be happy with that.
However, when we were about to leave, we saw one of our service cars, the Isuzu Pick up, still parked in the lot and all the others were gone. The guys, led by Larry Mangubat and Manuel Martelino, overslept after helping our stricken team mate Mandy. They left with only few minutes to spare and we knew they wouldn’t make it to the service point after the 1st special stage.
There goes our brilliant plan to go faster because we now have 1 less vehicle in our 2 barely-coping service teams. It was back to survival mode and we would have to preserve the car and consume less fuel before the second stop. The good thing that happened was Larry was able to take great action shots with his camera inside the stage! At least, we didn’t look slow in the pictures they took. Hehe.
What we didn’t know was that Mandy’s team of 2 service vehicles was now going to service us full time. We saw them along the way and hurriedly asked for some fuel. It was a real blessing because I don’t think we could have made it to the next fuel stop since it was hundreds of kilometers away.
Another blessing was when we saw the special stages we used going up last night. When it was covered in darkness and people, it looked fairly easy to drive on and we didn’t have any problems with it. When daylight came, it exposed drops of more than hundreds or even thousands of feet on both sides!
The Chinese made a road on top of the peaks and we were using them whole time. I can say that I have big enough balls when it comes to rallying but that time, it must have shrunk to 1/10th its size. It was just a shocking experience, as we never had those roads in the Philippines.
Luckily, no cars caught us while we were just cruising down the mountain peak and we guessed that no one really wanted to risk it with 2 more days to go. We even moved up to the top 10 in the standings after day 4.
It ain’t over
The last 2 days of the rally were definitely going to be the killer in this rally. There wasn’t going to be any rest halt in between days 5 and 6, and we still had to travel 600+ kms to reach the final stages at Beijing’s Great Wall.
That was like going to the end of Luzon in Matnog, Sorsogon from Manila. Usually, we would do that in 12 hours for our Toy Run, with stops in between. We would be fully rested before we do our Toy Run and never did 4 days of rallying before it! If that doesn’t make you quiver at the thought, then you understand what rallying is all about.
So after a good 5th day of rallying, we already hit our target of getting into the top 10 for the rally. We were now preparing ourselves for the long haul. Mandy told us before the event about this nerve-wracking combined leg and we equipped our Lancer with a powerful sound system and a lot of cassettes of disco music.
Cross-eyed, black and blue
Since the rally was held in September and we were about 3,000 kms up north from Hong Kong, the nights were longer and colder. The biting cold didn’t help to keep us awake as you felt like you were in an air-conditioned car. Our sound system was no match for the long kilometers and I think we replayed the tapes at least 3x each.
This was the first time that I experienced my eyes turn cross-eyed from the lack of sleep and severe exhaustion. I was almost 25 years old but my young body just couldn’t take the abuse I was subjecting it to. My face even became a punching bag when I had to literally slap it every time I felt I was falling asleep.
The worst time was when we came across a long, straight road; with tress lining it and the lower half of the trunks were painted white. This just hypnotized us to close our eyes and sleep. I didn’t remember that I even let Jojo drive after he noticed that I was already swerving left and right. That was how wrecked I was!
Even our service teams had a hard time catching up as they didn’t even rest the day before and went on regardless. The same sleep deprived symptoms as what I experienced was recounted by Larry and they had a lot of near collisions with the trees and barriers along the way. It was safe to say that we were black and blued after the trip.
Great Wall here we come!
Our endless driving was as blurry as my vision. I could only recall that we finally got to the regrouping area with less than half of the field that joined. We knew we achieved something monumental after we conquered the worst challenge anyone can go through in a rally!
After a delayed start that led to a long wait for all, we didn’t mind it as we were taking photos and congratulating everyone that survived. We even had good pictures taken with my rally idol, Stig Blomquist, who won the rally in the 555 Audi Quattro. The lone Toyota of Waldegaard was nowhere in sight including some cars that were in front of us.
What we thought would be 2 easy, tarmac stages turned out to be 2 very long, tarmac stages! These lasted for more than 1 hour and 27 minutes just to finish and we were no longer in attack mode. The guys in front and behind us were far in terms of overall time and we didn’t want to wreck our chance of getting to the Tiananmen Square where the ceremonial finish would be held. I believe those were the slowest stages we ever drove in the rally!
After our convoy arrived at the Square, it suddenly dawned on me that this was a very historic and memorable rally for us all. We had no international rally experience, we were just moving up the standings in the local rally scene and we weren’t 100% prepared for this rally. Somehow, God was truly blessing us as He made us finish this rally.
In the official Awarding ceremony, we were all ready to just watch our idols up there. However, our service crew called our attention that we got 2nd in Class A6 and 8th overall! I couldn’t believe our luck, as this was truly more than we ever imagined. Jojo and I were able to go on stage to get our trophy and prize money of US$500. I still have the envelope with me and kept it for prosperity’s sake.
There was much celebration after the event in our hotel room and I know the boys really deserved it. Even that memory escapes me as I must had been really drunk or just passed out from exhaustion!
After we all boarded our plane for the four-hour trip back to Hong Kong, we were forever thankful for all the blessings we received. The cars would be shipped back to Hong Kong by train and we could pick them up there after a week or 2. However, we received a call after 2 weeks that our winning Mitsubishi Lancer Turbo 1800 Intercooler was missing in the garage of the organizer, the Hong Kong Automobile Association.
We flew right away to Hong Kong and heard the investigation. HKAA settled the issue by paying what we claimed for the car. However, the Lancer was already priceless in my view. Thus, we lost one of the luckiest cars we ever had and we hope to make a replica in its honor soon.
That is how our Toughest Rally came out and it will never be duplicated again. We had more international events before and they will be our topics in the coming weeks. Till then, Godspeed to all!