RAC Rally; McRae and Makinen eager to end psychological sparring

Tommi Makinen goes into the Network Q RAC rally, which starts tomorrow, needing only sixth place to retain his world title. Colin McRae, his only rival, must win his third RAC, with Makinen out of the first six, to deprive the Finn.

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."

THE CONTENDERS

TOMMI MAKINEN

Nationality: Finnish

Age: 33

Car: Mitsubishi

World rally championship record

Starts: 55

Wins: 10

Champion: 1996

1997 wins: Four

Best RAC finish: Eighth (1992)

COLIN McRAE

Nationality: British

Age: 29

Car: Subaru

World rally championship record

Starts: 49

Wins: 12

Champion: 1995

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

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