McRae determined to rally

Andrew Baker talks to a former world champion who has had a rough ride this year
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The Scottish rally driver Colin McRae, world champion last year, started the 1996 season in circumstances that have been denied to Damon Hill: with the opportunity to defend his title in the car in which he won it. He was bullish, confident of back-to-back titles and aiming for an unprecendented hat-trick. "In many ways," he said in February, "I think the pressure on me this year will not be as great."

In fact the pressure, largely self-generated, has been too great, with destructive consequences not just for McRae's confidence, but for the cars that he drives. So far this season he has written-off four of them, developing a line in barrel-rolls that would be better suited to the Red Arrows than his own 555 Subaru team.

But last week in Italy McRae rediscovered his old form and won the San Remo Rally, fending off a strong challenge from his old rival and former team-mate, the Spaniard Carlos Sainz. The victory came too late to protect his title, which he has already relinquished to the Finn Tommi Makinen, but for McRae the sense of relief was almost overwhelming.

"I needed this," he said moments after receiving the trophy. "It's about time I got a good result. Carlos really came back at me, but above all I had to make sure I got the car to the finish to score some points for the team. I was really pushing hard, and it was difficult because I really could not afford to make a single mistake."

David Richards, McRae's long-suffering team manager, was naturally delighted - not least, one suspects, to get his car back in one piece. "We have seen a very interesting psychological battle today," he said. "This is a very significant victory."

Richards has not always been such a keen fan. In August, after McRae had destroyed his fourth car of the year, taking his accident damage bill above pounds 500,000, the forthright manager described his leading driver as "incompetent". Last week, though, Richards was in a diplomatic mood.

"There are times this year when we have had fraught words," he admitted, which is Richards-speak for an almighty bollocking. "Colin does occasionally have a somewhat cavalier approach. But with any young, talented sportsman there will be peaks and troughs in a career. As he matures they will smooth out."

McRae, normally as emotional as the gravel under his wheels, revealed that his disastrous run had depressed him. "After Finland I must admit that I was quite disappointed and really a bit down," he said. What did he do about it? "I did what I had to do.

At the next rally, in Australia, I drove carefully for a finish, and got one."

Throughout his career McRae has been accompanied in the cockpit by his co-driver, Derek Ringer. But after nine years Ringer has decided to call it a day, and the Subaru team have found a replacement, the Welshman Nicky Grist, who they feel might freshen McRae's approach. "Nicky is a young, lively character," Richards said, "who is good in areas that Colin finds difficult, like the PR work. I think he'll take a distinct amount of pressure off him."

McRae denies that there was any animosity between himself and Ringer, and says he is looking forward to working with his new partner. "After San Remo," he said, "all my confidence has come flooding back." Richards, too, is confident that his driver can regain his title next year. "Colin will be back at the top," he said. "Where he belongs."