Photo-Shoot: Sport's biggest secret society meet for annual mud fest

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It is impossible to be sure precisely how many of them were out on the circuits, in the parks, and along the forest trails, but they reckon at least two million. That figure should be more than sufficient to convey the scale of this annual growling, sliding, bobble hat and mud fest. The Network Q RAC Rally is the biggest spectator event in British sport.

Yet it remains a world of mystery to those outside the exclusive if enormous circle, a peripheral activity still out of television's remote control and therefore beyond the comprehension of the armchair masses.

Inroads have been made, of course, and the packaging moguls yearn for the day when they can squeeze it all into their small screen. The introduction of a "super special" stage, a Scalextric-style, side-by-side whizz round a short track is, at best, an irrelevant side show, and, at worst, It's a Knock-Out reincarnate.

The long player rally has been reduced to a compact disc. The purists lament the anaesthetising of the old beast, the passing of the all-night vigils and, this year, the journeys to the Great North Roads that intimidated and often terrified rallying's greatest drivers.

Yet even in its condensed format, the RAC Rally has provided the elements of challenge, drama and danger. Away from the artificial arenas of Sunday, or the "Mickey Mouse" stages as the drivers call them, deep in the forests of Wales, the demands took their toll, stretching the endurance of man and machine.

The stars of the forest tracks were two Britons, Subaru's Colin McRae (pictured above), the eventual winner, and Mitsubishi's Richard Burns, who finished fourth. McRae missed out on the world championship by a point but is generally acknowledged as the most gifted driver today. Burns, at 26, three years his junior, has the potential to become a genuine rival.

Their feats are unlikely to dominate conversation in the pubs and clubs of urban Britain, but deep in the forests they talk of little other than their speed, style and car control. It is the language of sport's largest secret society, a language they are content to keep to themselves.

Copies of these photographs - and any others by the Independent's sports photographers David Ashdown, Peter Jay and Robert Hallam - can be ordered by telephoning 0171-293-2534.

-Derick Allsop