McRae keeps command to make history

RAC RALLY: Scot masters the tracks of North Wales to pull away from Spanish rival and become Britain's first world champion
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reports from Chester

Colin McRae held his nerve and his ground through the most important stages of his career yesterday and then cruised into Chester to take his place in sporting history - as Britain's first world rally champion.

The final, tense examinations of the Network Q RAC Rally, through North Wales, were negotiated with the assurance that had distinguished McRae from the rest and, in particular, from his Subaru team-mate, Carlos Sainz, the one man who stood between the 27-year-old Scot and the title.

McRae completed his mission in the manner of a champion: fast, decisive, imperious; he extended his lead to the last, eventually reaching here 36 seconds clear of the Spaniard. He won 17 of the 28 stages, shrugging off the handicap of a puncture that cost him almost two minutes on the second day.

Having achieved the breakthrough of winning the RAC 12 months ago, the first British winner for 18 years, McRae was favourite to repeat that feat this week. This time, however, the championship, the ultimate landmark, depended on the outcome. Expectation and pressure were heaped on his shoulders. He had conceded the previous rally, in Spain, to Sainz on team orders and arrived here level on points with his stable-mate but behind on wins.

He had to beat Sainz and had to finish. There was no margin for error. McRae met the challenge with unflinching self-belief, making light of the daunting forests stages, the mist and the mud, and gradually wearing down what remained of Sainz's resolve.

All Sainz could do was maintain his own pace in the hope that McRae would overstretch and come to grief. Early in his career he might have done so, but not now. McRae, the authentic champion, has arrived.

After stepping from his car at the victory ramp at Chester racecourse, McRae said: "This has been our goal and it's a great day not only for me but the whole team. This has made it all worthwhile.

"We had that problem with the puncture and for a while it was looking doubtful, but then I was able to keep up my speed and I was always quite confident. In some rallies you just click, and this is one of them for me . I've been quickest here for four years. Two minutes in a world championship is a lifetime but I wouldn't let it beat me.

"Now we've done it, we've got to look ahead. Maybe it will be even easier next year, because you become more confident and I'll certainly be as hungry to win it again.

"Hopefully this will raise the stature of rallying in this country, as championships have in other sports. I believe rallying is on a par with Formula One and the attention of media coverage should be on the same level as Formula One."

Sainz, twice winner of the championship, looked like a man who had been dragged through the forests of Britain for four days. In a sense, he had been. "All season it has been difficult for me, especially after injuring my shoulder in a mountain-bike accident and having to miss a rally. All I could do was try my best and think perhaps Colin would make a mistake," he said. "But he got a little luck and to win you always need that. He drove a superb rally. We tried to the last stage, but I always knew it was going to be difficult here."

David Richards, head of the Prodrive team that run the Subaru operation, and the man who decided Sainz had to win the Catalunya Rally for "commercial reasons," might have felt relief as much as elation. He said he did not, but admitted: "I'm happy for many reasons, and that has to be part of it. But I don't want to dwell on that.

"You couldn't have written the script better for us or Colin. This is his first championship, but by the looks of it I'd say it won't be his last.

"Colin was quite clearly taking risks and Carlos knew one mistake could hand it to him but in the end it is a very special day for Britain."

McRae, having regained the lead in Tuesday's final stage, resumed his course yesterday morning with utter conviction. A 17-second advantage became 38 in four more leaps of the North Wales tracks and the contest was effectively over. Subaru's manufacturers' championship triumph was completed with Richard Burns' third place and Alister McRae gave the family a little more to be proud of with fourth place in his Ford Escort.

Both McRaes prepared themselves for a appropriate celebration. Colin had already discussed in his car with co-driver Derek Ringer, the matter of who would be paying.

McRae added: "One thing I do know, it's going to be the biggest party of all time."

NETWORK Q RAC RALLY (Chester) Final standings: 1 C McRae/D Ringer (GB) Subaru 5:09.19; 2 C Sainz/L Moya (Sp) Subaru 5:09.55; 3 R Burns/R Reid (GB) Subaru 5:15.58; 4 A McRae/C Wood (GB) Ford 5:20.34; 5 B Thiry/S Prevot (Bel) Ford 5:21.11; 6 G Evans/H Davies (GB) Ford 5:42.07; 7 R Madeira/N Silva (Por) Mitsubishi 5:44.04; 8 J Kytolehto/A Kapanen (Fin) Nissan 5:45.19; 9 M Kamioka/K Gormley (Japan/GB) Subaru 5:50.21; 10 A Oreille/J Boyere (Fr) Renault 5:50.40.

Final World Championship standings Drivers: 1 McRae 90pts; 2 Sainz 85; 3 K Eriksson (Swe) 48; 4 F Delecour (Fr) 46; 5 T Makinen (Fin) 38. Selected: 9 R Burns (GB) 16. Manufacturers: 1 Subaru 350; 2 Mitsubishi 307; 3 Ford 223.

McRae's self-control, page 30

How the championship was won

Monte Carlo: Carlos Sainz, twice world champion, wins first of eight rallies that make up world championship. Colin McRae retires after two crashes.

Sweden: McRae and Sainz both retire through engine failure - put down to blocked oil pressure valves. Kenneth Eriksson wins for Mitsubishi.

Portugal: Sainz's second win. McRae picks up first points in third. Mitsubishi absent because of budget problems

Corsica: France's reigning world champion Didier Auriol wins event for sixth time. Sainz fourth, McRae fifth.

New Zealand: McRae's third successive New Zealand win. Sainz absent after injuring shoulder riding mountain bike at home.

Australia: McRae second behind Eriksson. Sainz retires with radiator problems. Four-times world champion Juha Kankkunen's third place leaves him seven points clear of the Scot.

Catalunya: Most controversial race of season. Kankkunen and Toyota team- mate Auriol disqualified - drivers and team thrown out of championship for using illegal turbo restrictor. Sainz wins to draw level with McRae at top of championship, but only after furious row within Subaru. McRae finally obeys team orders to let Spaniard win home rally.

Britain: McRae successfully defends his RAC Rally title to become Britain's first world champion.