When Subaru made history on China’s toughest rally

It's three decades since the Japanese brand took a hugely significant victory on the Hong Kong to Beijing Rally

Rally of Australia Perth (AUS) 18-21 09 1993

Thirty years ago this fall, Subaru scored an historic 1-2-3 finish in the fourth running of the Hong Kong to Beijing Rally, which was taking place for the first time in six years.

Ari Vatanen led home team-mates Colin McRae and Possum Bourne on the grueling week-long event being run as a candidate rally for inclusion in the following year’s Asia-Pacific Rally Championship.

In doing so, Vatanen scored his first win on a stage rally since surviving his horrendous Argentina accident some eight years earlier.

For New Zealander Bourne, the event marked a return to competition following the tragic death of his co-driver Rodger Freeth on Rally Australia a month earlier.

Being sponsored by British American Tobacco’s 555 brand meant the event was particularly important for Subaru, which became synonymous with its blue-and-yellow colors. That in turn made it increasingly important for rival Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi.

Rac Rally Birmingham (GBR) 21-24 11 1993

Against the three-pronged Subaru assault, Mitsubishi’s challenge in 1993 was led by two-time winner of the WRC’s Ivory Coast Rally, and rough gravel specialist, Kenjiro Shinozuka in Ralliart Japan’s Lancer Evo I. Yoshio Fujimoto was in a Group N version of the same car, while there were nearly 30 local entrants, mostly in Group N machinery.

A linear route of over 2000 miles made for an incredibly tough rally. After leaving Hong Kong on the first day, crews then tackled four or five stages per day, totaling around 400 miles of competitive running. The final day took in a stage at the Great Wall of China before reaching the finish at Tiananmen Square.

Back-up crews dashed to reach each overnight halt before the competitors whose cars they needed to service. The event was a true adventure in an unfamiliar environment, especially for the European crews.

Largely based on loose and rough gravel, there were roads akin to the Acropolis Rally, some terrain more like the fast, open savanna of the Safari, as well as mountainous sections. It was also an immense logistical challenge that required months of preparation. Teams had to carry everything they required with them. That included food, fuel, tires and a lot of spares.

The works Subarus quickly established themselves at the head of the field, despite electrical problems for Vatanen delaying both him and McRae, who stopped to help.

The 1-2-3 was reestablished by the end of the third leg, with Bourne a minute clear of McRae and Vatanen a further two minutes back. Shinozuka, 45 seconds behind the 1981 world champion, was the only other driver within nine-and-a-half minutes of the lead.

By the end of the week, Subaru’s position was such that it could perform a certain amount of orchestration to ensure Vatanen took the win, despite a late scare when he came across fifth-placed Hiroshi Nishiyama’s Group N Nissan Pulsar GTi-R, which had taken a wrong turn.

Vatanen celebrated his first stage rally win since Sweden 1985 by performing donuts in Tiananmen Square, much to the chagrin of Chinese officials. He finished 25s clear of McRae, with Bourne three minutes down on the winner. Shinozuka in fourth was nearly 20 minutes down.


The event did join the APRC – second only to the WRC in profile back then – in 1994. Bourne led home team-mate Richard Burns that year for a Subaru 1-2 with the Impreza 555s en route to the title. Arch-rival Mitsubishi had stepped up its involvement with entries for Kenneth Eriksson and Armin Schwarz, as well as Shinozuka, but only the Japanese driver made the finish.

Mitsubishi bounced back in 1995 when it prioritized the APRC over the WRC. Eriksson and Vatanen, who had switched camps, took their Lancer E3s to a 1-2 finish on the Hong Kong-Beijing marathon, as Eriksson took the APRC title. Burns was the first Subaru home on the event, in third.

The Hong Kong-Beijing was staged for the final time in 1996, when Vatanen became the only driver to win the event twice. Early leader Burns and Shinozuka completed a Mitsubishi 1-2-3, but Eriksson – now back at Subaru – had already done enough to retain the APRC title despite crashing out of the event.

The event was the final city-to-city marathon rally to count as a round of an FIA championship, being replaced in 1997 by a more conventional China Rally.

Alongside the 1996 Safari, the Hong Kong to Beijing was the subject of a fascinating interview with former Mitsubishi team manager Derek Dauncey in a special edition of SPIN, The Rally Pod some time ago. It’s a terrific insight to an incredible event and well worth a listen.