TEN YEARS of planning will finally come to fruition here tonight when 400 competitors set out on the Paris-Moscow-Peking Rally. The field of 110 cars, 25 racing trucks, 30 assistants' trucks and 15 motorbikes have ahead of them 10,000 miles and 27 days in which they will cross two continents, 11 countries and three deserts.
The man behind the event is the Frenchman Rene Metge. The veteran organiser of the infamous Paris-Dakar Rally was inspired by the drive of an Italian aristocrat 85 years ago. In 1907 Prince Scipione Borghese won a race between Peking and Paris in an Itala. It took him 60 days, during which he had to dismantle his car to cross mountains, drive it along railway tracks and suffer the intolerable heat of the Gobi Desert.
The trip will not be much easier 85 years on. Even with the most advanced off-road vehicles in the world, the fastest drivers will be able only to halve Borghese's incredible time.
The race is starting 12 months later than originally planned, Metge having had to postpone it last year because of the crisis in the former Soviet Union. In the last three years Metge and his reconnaissance team have travelled the 10,000-mile route four times in an attempt to iron out any potential problems.
Metge is a sucker for coupling adventure and history in his rallies. He has picked some historic spots for the event's overnight bivouacs, the last of which will lie under the most famous part of the Great Wall, 25 miles from Peking.
Veterans of African rally-raids (the term for a long distance rally across more than one continent) such as the Paris-Dakar or the Paris-Cape Town will be in for a shock. Unlike the Dark Continent, there will be no Novotels or Intercontinentals dotted between Moscow and Peking. Tents will be the bedroom, one huge marquee will be the dining-room and Portakabins the bathroom for a month. Adventures are rarely comfortable.
Understandably, the thought of driving a pounds 200,000 machine, capable of the speeds of a Formula 3 car, over terrain a tank commander would think twice before crossing does not appeal to everyone, especially as the rewards are much smaller than in some other areas of motor sport.
Yet among the drivers setting off from the French capital this evening will be the Finn Timo Salonen, world rally champion behind the wheel of a Peugeot in 1985. A larger-than-life character, Salonen likes the good life. Five-star hotels, first-class travel and fine food are his trademarks. . . but not this month.
Salonen has been signed up by the multi-million pound Citroen rally team to add some fire to a previously lacklustre outfit which was beaten unceremoniously in January's mammoth Paris-Cape Town rally.
This is his first attempt at a rally-raid. He is in for a shock and knows it. 'It's going to be a big surprise for many people', he said. 'I joke when I say I won't go (on a rally) unless there are five-star hotels. We had some testing and slept in a tent. . . it's not too bad.'
The first of 20 timed special stages does not take place until this weekend outside Moscow, with the section from Paris to the Russian capital being untimed.
Even if the terrain does not catch out the experts at Citroen they will have to watch out for their rivals at Mitsubishi, whose drivers include Erwin Weber, the leader of the European Rally Championship, Kenjiro Shinozuka, an experienced rally-raid driver, and Bruno Saby, a lightning-quick Frenchman.
The joker in Citroen's team of five will be Hubert Auriol, who, in a rival Rothmans Mitsubishi, beat the French equipe almost single-handedly in the Paris-Cape Town event last winter, mainly because the route through the African jungle left little room for overtaking. Dumped by Mitsubishi, the Parisian has been snapped up by Citroen.
The route from the Trocadero in Paris to Tiananmen Square in Peking will allow for much more competition than in the Paris-Cape Town rally. It will take 11 days to cross the Commonwealth of Independent States. The terrain will vary from fast tracks across the steppes of Russia and the open plains either side of the Ural mountains to treacherous mountain crossings and the deep sands of deserts in Kazakhstan.
In China, rocky desert in the western province of Xin Jiang will wear out cars and drivers. There is then a brief respite before crossing the Gobi Desert. The final four days will be a test of navigation around human obstacles as the rally enters the more populated provinces close to the capital. Metge is expecting more than 60 per cent to reach China.
Predicting a winner is difficult but it is likely to be one of the four Rothmans Mitsubishi or five Citroen drivers.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies