Rallying: Citroen's flow threatened by Niva and Volga: Jeremy Hart reports from Kazhakstan on the perils and unexpected successes of the Paris-Moscow-Peking Rally

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TIMO SALONEN, the 1985 world rally champion, suffered minor burns to his face yesterday when his Citroen caught fire on the fifth stage of the Paris-Moscow-Peking rally in Kazakhstan. The fire was so fierce that it destroyed the pounds 100,000 car in less than five minutes.

'I heard a wooshing noise from behind me,' Salonen said. 'When I looked in my rearview mirror I saw a big fire at the back of the car. As I braked there was fire everywhere. I opened the door and it came into the cockpit and I jumped out very quickly.'

Apart from his facial burns, Salonen was unhurt.

During the previous stage Gilbert Richard, of France, was seriously injured when his truck crashed between Saratov and Uralsk. He suffered head injuries and a broken leg and was flown to Paris for emergency treatment.

With the sunset on Monday night, the rally crossed from Russia to Kazakhstan. One country to another, but a border post without passport checks. Just as well, the 130-odd competitors left in the event after a week were doing 120mph as they went through.

Since Saturday morning the rally cars, motorbikes and trucks have been doing battle across the gently rolling farmland of southern Russia. On Saturday, three fishermen sat serenely in their rowing boats on the river Krasivaya Meca, unaware of what was about to shatter the tranquillity.

Hubert Auriol, hunched over a seemingly alive steering wheel, flung his 300 horsepower Citroen this way and that, black mud coating the whole of his car.

The Russian crowd screamed. Auriol was barrelling down the track at over 70mph as a tattered old Volga was trundling up the same track in the opposite direction. It seemed that the Russians watching their first rally were about to see their first rallying fatality, but the Volga driver, who had almost run down a policeman barring the way, pulled off seconds before Auriol would have hit him.

The locals were there to see three very unstandard Lada Nivas take on the might of Citroen and Rothmans Mitsubishi, who together have an estimated joint budget of over pounds 15m. Lada's budget is secret but is thought to be less than one per cent of the French and Japanese giants, yet the lightweight Nivas have been snapping at their tailpipes. They were 17th, 18th and 19th positions after four of the 20 special stages.

The appearance of the Ladas and the huge six-wheel-drive Kamaz trucks, originally built as nuclear missile launchers, has struck a chord with people right across the CIS.

The 27-day event, covering 10,000 miles, was due to have been held last September, but the attempted coup forced the year's postponement. In many ways, its significance now is greater than it would have been a year ago, as it is the first sporting event to link many of the newly formed independent states. After Kazakhstan, the rally will pass through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kirghizia, but its economic and social effects will be felt long after it leaves. There is a hope that it will become a regular event.

Citroen's history includes an expedition from Europe to China in 1931-2, and the company is desperate to win a rally which follows much of the same route, especially after losing the Paris-Cape Town Rally to Mitsubishi.

Leading the rally after Monday's fourth special stage, a 423- kilometre high speed run along the river Volga from Kazachka to Kolokol, was Pierre Lartigue, one of the five Citroen drivers. Second is the 1979 world rally champion, Bjorn Waldegard, also in a Citroen.

The dominance of the Citroens had gone virtually unchallenged by the Mitsubishi team until yesterday when Bruno Saby, of France, won the stage by an impressive five-minute margin from his team-mate, Kenjiro Shinozuka.

PARIS-MOSCOW-PEKING RALLY (Kenkiyak): Overall positions after fourth special stage, 423km from Uralsk: 1 P Lartigue, Citroen, 3hr 21min 21sec; 2 B Saby, Mitsubishi, +1min 33sec; 3 B Waldegard, Citroen, +8:27; 4 H Auriol, Citroen, +18:37; 5 E Weber, Mitsubishi, +23:05.