Derick Allsop looks at the race, the route, the drivers and the cars in a refreshingly cavalier world.
Colin McRae knew exactly how he intended to relax in the little spare time he had before the World Championship decider. He would have a bit of fun on his motocross bike. "You must be joking," his boss, David Richards, exclaimed.
But he would be fine, he would do nothing stupid, the Scot protested. And besides, he had invited Tommi Makinen, his rival for the title and another motocross freak, to join him. "That's not what I want to hear," Makinen's boss, Phil Short, exclaimed.
Short, manager of the British-based Mitsubishi team, was relieved to learn his driver could not make the extra-curricular duel because he was attending a wedding. Richards, principal of the British-based Subaru team, was relieved to learn his driver had emerged from his recreational jaunt unscathed.
McRae was exhilarated, Makinen frustrated. "I would love to have been with Colin," the Finn said. "I'm sure we would have had a good time."
Spend just a little time in the company of the world's best rally drivers and you quickly realise that this is a very different environment from Formula One motor racing.
The absence of wheel-to-wheel combat is cited as an explanation, the lower profile another. Whatever the cause, the effect is refreshingly healthy. And do not be deluded; the competition is no less earnest.
That will be evident over three days of the Network Q RAC Rally, starting at Cheltenham race course tomorrow morning. At stake is the world championship.
Makinen, the defending champion, requires only sixth place to retain his title and even that modest target will be unnecessary if McRae, his only challenger, fails to win.
The odds, therefore, are heavily in Makinen's favour, the objective uncomplicated for McRae. As for the pressure, it does not show on either of them. McRae is a phlegmatic character at the best and worst of times. He has no truck with false modesty, such as expressing surprise. He has won the last two rallies, forcing the season to an all or nothing finale.
"I'm not really surprised because of the way the season has gone," he said. "It's gone up and down and I've got to believe that, having arrived at this situation, I can do it. Tommi should win it, of course he should, but you can never tell in rallying."
McRae, champion in 1995, does tell you he believes he probably should have had a second title sewn up by now if his Impreza had not been hindered by engine problems early in this season. "I wasn't happy and everyone says things in the heat of the moment, but that's motor sport."
McRae's self-assurance is justified. He and Makinen are generally acknowledged as the best, having assumed command from Juha Kankkunen and Carlos Sainz. McRae's impetuosity has given way to reason, yet the propensity for lightning strike has been retained.
He said: "I have changed, even since '95. I'm more methodical. Tommi and Juha are probably the only other two like me in terms of temperament. But you still have to go flat out and, when it comes down to it, as with any top sportsman, you have to have that bit extra in your locker.
"You tend to find on various stages a point where one driver will have more confidence than another. It's just having a good feel for it. Courage doesn't really come in to it. This is about confidence."
His confidence, as Makinen is aware, will be soaring on his home rally, although McRae attributes the "extra lift" to the volume of support rather than familiarity with the terrain. In fact, he would be more confident of outright success if the rally had not been diverted away from the notorious northern stages, such as Kielder, to the "deep south" and its new Cheltenham base.
McRae said: "There would be more chance of Tommi making a mistake if we were up in Kielder, and especially if there was sheet ice. I'm not saying there wouldn't be more chance of my making a mistake, but I've got nothing to lose. Tommi's got everything to lose. The pressure is on him."
It appears to have been taken virtually for granted that McRae will complete a hat-trick of RAC victories - he won in '95 and '95 - a danger he senses and has endeavoured to counter by making diligent preparations with his navigator, the Welshman, Nicky Grist.
"Everybody thinks it is automatic I am going to win the rally, but they seem to be forgetting not only the possible hazards, but also the strong competition. There are a number of guys, perhaps five or six, who are capable of winning and most of the others don't have the championship to think about. Carlos and Juha, for example.
"Nicky and I have been training hard, particularly cycling. I'm not keen on jogging. With these long days now, it's important to have the stamina and also the concentration. It keeps you more consistent and more alert. You make fewer mistakes."
Logic suggests that only a mistake or mechanical fault can stop Makinen from retaining his championship. He can patently afford to drive within himself, but would he be more vulnerable if he compromised his natural instincts and settled for a minor place? "That's the question," 33-year- old Makinen acknowledged, somewhat tantalisingly. "I will just try to find the right feeling for it. I know people say I will not be able to go slower than normal, but I don't think that will be too difficult. I will be going at maybe 90 to 100 per cent. Normally you have to go at 120 per cent."
Makinen's record on the RAC - eighth is his best finish from seven starts - scarcely encourages optimism, but again he has an answer.
"I have had the proper car only once before, and then some stupid luck. I have the car now and I also have had a lot of experience in the British championship, so I know the conditions here very well."
Makinen, who has endured bizarre misfortune this season - he retired after hitting a cow in Corsica - is content to hear McRae quoted the favourite for the rally and willingly goes with the flow.
"He is at home and should have the best chance. But we have new stages and we are not going to Scotland and Kielder this time, so maybe he will not be so comfortable. There are also a lot of other drivers who can win, including my team-mate, Richard Burns."
The psychological sparring is a feature of their relationship. They trade points with as much relish out of the car as in it. But each considers the other a friend.
Makinen said: "We do have a good relationship and why not? This is not Formula One. If we want to do something together, we can do that. Rally drivers like to have fun. But we are big rivals behind the steering wheel. That is the way it should be - I think."
McRae concurs: "We don't see it as a big deal to go riding or whatever between rallies. It doesn't make the competition any less keen or winning any less satisfying."
World rally championship record
1997 wins: Four
Best RAC finish: Eighth (1992)
World rally championship record
1997 wins: Four
Best RAC finish: Winner, 1994 & 1995
CHAMPIONSHIP TABLE Pts
1 T Makinen (Fin) Mitsubishi 62
2 C McRae (GB) Subaru 52
3 C Sainz (Sp) Ford 47
4 K Eriksson (Swe) Subaru 28
5 P Liatti (It) Subaru 24
6 J Kankkunen (Fin) Ford 23
7 R Burns (GB) Mitsubishi 18
8 A Schwarz (Ger) Ford 11
9 F Loix (Bel) Toyota 8
10 G Panizzi (Fr) Peugeot 8
MANUFACTURERS' CHAMPIONSHIP Pts
1 Subaru (champions) 104
2 Mitsubishi 82
3 Ford 81 Spa town, regency architecture, home of National Hunt racing and the Gold Cup, and now the headquarters for the Network Q RAC Rally. Dickens is not alone in having rarely seen such a place that so attracted his fancy.
The organisers of the British round of the World Rally Championship selected this elegant watering hole as their base for a new-look event. To hardy veterans of the early winter classic, it may prove a culture shock.
There has long been a lobby to bring the annual forest spin further south and this compact disc will resound to the accompaniment of an anticipated two million enthusiasts over three days. The shorter route - 1,100 miles - effectively limits the rally proper to two days in Wales after tomorrow's spectator stages.
Abandoned for now are the legendary tracts of the north, considered as the ultimate challenge or ogres, depending on your point of view. If your view is from a ditch in Kielder you might be inclined to advise them what to do with their ultimate challenge, but the purists fear the teeth have been extracted from the old RAC beast.
Those in the "let's take the show on the road'' camp argue snow and ice and calamity are not unknown in mid-Wales. Rocks and slippery tracks and the unexpected are pretty well guaranteed anywhere, and the organisers are confident that the unfolding drama will confirm they have not gone soft and the contest has not been devalued.
An intriguing innovation for the RAC is the presentation at Silverstone tomorrow of a "super special'' stage based on a concept pioneered at Langley Park, Australia. Cars compete in pairs, effectively racing side by side around the 1.2-mile gravel circuit. We might even witness one or two Formula One style comings- together.
Again it may irk the traditionalists, but Richard Burns, the British Subaru driver, is among those who welcome the shift towards customer-friendly spectacles.
Burns said: "I think the spectators will find it very exciting and that cannot be a bad thing. It may not be pure rallying, but it is just one short stage over three days and I think you can afford one.
"My only reservation is that the track is a bit narrow and it could be very interesting if people start sliding. But they've shown at Langley Park what can be done and I'm sure the organisers will learn from their first year at Silverstone and, if necessary develop and improve it in the future.''
The wind of change blowing through the RAC Rally is about to carry away a star assured a permanent place in the annals of the event. But not before one more breath of its fresh air.
The Skoda Felicia, third last year for Stig Blomqvist, is in the Swede's hands for a farewell outing before giving way to the Octavia.
Skoda have collected 25 class wins in 25 years on the RAC alone. Blomqvist is intent on maintaining the success rate, giving the Felicia a suitable send-off.
He said: "It would be great to end the Felicia's career with another class victory. Last year we won not only our class but also overall Formula Two honours. That was a bit special."
Showroom versions of the Czech car will be driven by RAC Rally debutants, Melissa Heijink and Anna Tait, winners of the Skoda-backed LadyQuest competition. Tait said: "Melissa and I believe that we're up to the job. It won't just be Stig's performance we'll be celebrating at the finish."
THE CLAN McRAE
Family business (left to right): Alister, Jimmy,
mother Margaret and Colin McRae Photograph: Empics
Whatever the outcome of the RAC, the clan McRae already have a piece of history to celebrate. For the first time, all three famous Scots are competing on the same RAC.
While Colin heads the cast in pursuit of outright victory and the world championship, younger brother Alister and father Jimmy joust for honours in the two-litre class. Alister drives a Volkswagen Golf and Jimmy, five times British champion, and Hyundai. Alister, British champion two years ago, said: "I just hope dad isn't too competitive. I'm sure he won't be far off the pace."
Apart from Stig Blomqvist's Skoda, their competition will include Mark Higgins' Nissan, the Renaults of Robbie Head and Martin Rowe, and a quartet of Seats led by Gwyndaf Evans.