Motoring: You may not have heard too much about him, but Colin McRae - the 1995 world rally champion - is Britain's finest driver

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE RAC Rally is Britain's most popular spectator sporting event. I define popular as being watched, live, by spectators - although the way many rally spectators behave, it is a wonder that many of them stay alive for very long. On last year's RAC Rally, more than two million people came, saw and were captivated.

I have just returned from the Monte Carlo Rally, the world's most famous rally. As with the RAC, most spectators watch by finding their way to out-of-the-way rural places and then see their heroes blast by in a splash of colour and engine noise and tyre squeal and turbo whistle. And then pack up and move onto the next stage.

Top rally men are probably the world's greatest drivers. They have to drive at breakneck speeds down narrow, unknown roads, for three or four days, testing their speed, precision and endurance. Ask most Brits to name this country's best driver and most would plump for Damon Hill or David Coulthard. I would say they are probably wrong.

Our best is Colin McRae, 1995 world rally champion, and currently the world's pre-eminent driver. His lack of widespread public recognition in this country is bordering on a national shame. McRae's following is probably largest among kids, who play "Colin McRae Rally" on their Sony PlayStations. Their dads, scanning the sports pages of the national newspapers or watching the TV news, will find the Scot largely ignored.

He was at his brilliant best at this year's Monte Carlo Rally. Two fastest times on the very first day of the rally in a brand-new and largely untested rally car, the new Ford Focus WRC, is a mark of greatness. McRae went on to score two more fastest times, before finishing third overall.

Mind you, he had a bit of a problem with the crowd. A photographer friend relayed how he ran slightly wide on the exit of one hairpin bend. The tail of his car clipped a spectator who, foolishly, was standing on the outside of the corner. The man fell, causing 10 or so people standing next to him also to fall, domino-like. The first chap was okay although his leg must now have an almighty bruise.

I watched one of the first-day stages from a hairpin between Gap and Sisteron, high in the mountains behind the French Riviera. Like most of the spectators I arrived about two hours before McRae and mates came storming through. I stood high, well away from the line of a spinning rally car, yet hundreds of spectators stood on the outside of the bend, unprotected by any crash barrier. An official car, sweeping the course before the first rally car arrived, urged the spectators, by loud speaker, to leave the outside of the bend. The spectators, in turn, assailed the car with snowballs, booing loudly. Few moved. Those who did immediately returned to their vantage points when the official car left.

A half hour or so later, a helicopter joined in the entreaty for people to leave their spots. It too was snowballed and, soon after, flew off in disgust and to great mocking cheers from the fans.

It was the most marvellous spectacle, as these cars sped down that narrow, slippery, snow-bordered D-road at impossibly high speeds, engine screams bouncing off the pine trees and the snowy banks, drivers' arms flailing energetically, spectators cheering and blowing klaxons and waving national flags.

If you haven't been to a top-flight international rally, I really would urge you to do so. Watch McRae and Makinen and Sainz and Britain's new young star, Richard Burns, and marvel at the men who are probably the best wheelmen in the world, driving superfast cars that, unlike F1 machines, at least look like the sort of vehicles that you and I use everyday.

Join in one of the world's most popular, but under-reported, sporting events! But don't double as a crash barrier. Otherwise, you may get rather closer to Colin McRae than you'd had in mind.