reports from Chester
Colin McRae has confounded the forces of nature and management to give himself an unobstructed view of the World Rally Championship today. He embarks upon the last seven stages and 63.8 miles of the Network Q RAC Rally 17 seconds ahead of his Subaru team-mate and only rival for the title, Carlos Sainz.
McRae completed his phenomenal two-day recovery from near despair by regaining the lead in the darkness of mid-Wales. He was a remarkable 22 seconds quicker than Sainz on the final stage before they returned to Chester for the overnight halt. If the Scot sustains the mastery he demonstrated in the mud and mist throughout yesterday, Britain will have its first champion of this tour at lunchtime.
They return to the Principality for the closing scenes of this drama with the theatre to themselves. The last possible threat to their parade was removed when Kenneth Eriksson's Mitsubishi plunged into a stream and he was forced to retire. The Swede's demise promoted Subaru's Richard Burns to third and so bolstered the Banbury-based team's aspirations in the manufacturers' championship.
As on Monday, McRae had to contend with two punctures, but if they had any effect it did not show. His pressure was as relentless and merciless as Chinese water torture. He was the faster of the two drivers on six of the day's seven stages, turning a 39-second deficit into a distinct advantage. While Sainz complained about the conditions, McRae calmly adjusted his stride and went further and further away.
McRae said: "I'm feeling fantastic. I've been driving well within my limits and I'm a little surprised my times have been so much quicker than anyone else's. Perhaps the others are being a little bit too cautious. The car is handling perfectly after Monday's dramas.
"I've been taking it easy where the fog has been particularly bad and where the stages have been very slippery. But to be honest I've not been pushing as hard as I did on Monday."
Sainz will not be comforted by McRae's disarming self-control. He maintained his more cautious approach in the hope that his younger stable-mate would take one chance too many. Sainz, seeking a third championship, said: "I'm trying my absolute maximum - I can do no more. I do not know where Colin is getting the time from."
McRae, driven by a sense of injustice after conceding the Catalunya Rally on team orders and inspired to new levels of excellence following the fiendish intervention of Kielder, was irresistible yesterday. The overnight rest served to reinvigorate him and he lopped 18 seconds off Sainz's lead over the first two stages. The Spaniard bemoaned the slippery conditions and the lack of visibility. "The windscreen was misting up because the heater is not working on my side," he said.
Sainz saw his way through Brechfa without too much difficulty, heralding his course with blasts of the horn to warn spectators and emerged at the other side with his overall advantage increased by two seconds.
McRae, undismayed, said: "I expected Carlos to be quick in there because he went well on this stage last year. I'm not surprised he was a bit faster than me."
The recovery for Sainz was, indeed, only temporary. McRae resumed the attack and reduced the deficit from 23 seconds to five in three more confident strides.
Then, as observers speculated on McRae's tactics in the last stage, he dismissed suggestions he might allow Sainz to stay ahead with a stunning surge. To the dismay of the Spaniard, McRae had been 22 seconds quicker and was now well clear.
McRae said last night: "We had a good run in there to take the lead. I'm feeling very tired now. I haven't been able to relax at all. I don't think we'll have to attack quite so hard tomorrow as I don't think Carlos will get back in front now."
NETWORK Q RAC RALLY Leading standings after 21 stages: 1 C McRae/D Ringer (GB) Subaru 4hr 9min 40sec; 2 C Sainz/L Moya (Sp) Subaru 4:09.57; 3 R Burns/R Reid (GB) Subaru 4:14.45; 4 B Thiry/S Prevot (Bel) Ford 4:15.46; 5 A McRae/C Wood (GB) Ford 4:18.39; 6 A Navarra/R Casazza (It) Toyota 4:34.38; 7 G Evans/H Davies (GB) Ford 4:35.54; 8 J Kytolehto/A Kapanen (Fin) Nissan 4:38.01; 9 R Madeira/N Silva (Por) Mitsubishi 4:39.39; 10 M Kamioka/K Gormley (Japan/GB) Subaru 4:41.47.
Glamour in the mud, page 31