reports from Chester
So far so good for Colin McRae. The 27-year-old Scot steered a steady course to third place at the end of the first day of the Network Q RAC Rally, sufficient to keep him ahead of Carlos Sainz, his only rival for the world championship.
The opening stages are regarded as little more than sparring for the main event, which will unfold in Kielder and similarly unforgiving northern tracts today, but as an exercise in control and concentration it was perfect preparation for McRae.
Mitsubishi's Tommi Makinen, the winner on four of the seven stages, led the cavalcade into Leeds for the overnight stop, 11 seconds ahead of his team-mate, Kenneth Eriksson. McRae was a second further behind and 14 seconds clear of his Subaru partner, Sainz.
McRae, level on points with Sainz, but at a disadvantage because of the Spaniard's greater number of rally victories, is conscious that one aberration could put him out of the RAC and quash his title hopes.
His most spectacular, and characteristic, moment came at the end of the final stage, where his car went into a 360-degree spin, forcing alarmed officials to take evasive action.
"Everything has gone to plan," McRae said, "although a wrong tyre choice cost us time at Donington. This is my chance to become Britain's first world champion and I don't intend taking any risks. I just had to be careful where it was slippery."
Sainz, seeking a third championship success, was already anticipating more daunting tests. He said: "Perhaps today's stages are Mickey Mouse but you still have to be careful not to make a mistake. But of course the hardest part is now coming."
McRae had been rather less circumspect on the recce, incurring fines totalling pounds 1,075 for two offences of exceeding the 30mph speed limit and a further offence of using a radar warning device. Presumably it was faulty. Considering the first prize at this event is a modest pounds 3,000, McRae will not be aspiring to instant riches. The dividends from a title victory, however, would more than compensate.
The portents yesterday morning were encouraging. Sainz edged ahead of McRae by a second on the first stage but damaged a radiator in the water splash at Chatsworth.
It was enough, however, to relegate him to beneath his stablemate in the standings and he was to stay there for the rest of the day. McRae, focused on championship matters, was none too perturbed that the Mitsubishi pair moved ahead. He also stressed: "The contest really starts from here."
Eriksson, of Sweden, who joins Subaru in place of Sainz next season, was fastest at Clumber, and the Finn Makinen took command at the two Donington stages. He maintained his assured progress at Rother Valley and Leeds, reinforcing widespread predictions of success for Mitsubishi here.
Subaru, having brought their drivers to Britain on level terms by issuing team orders at the Catalunya Rally, have effectively compromised their endeavours to beat Mitsubishi in the manufacturers' championship.
Toyota's disqualification has deprived the RAC of a wider dimension and Ford's challenge has already been weakened by the retirement of the Frenchman, Francois Delecour. A transmission failure on the third stage inflicted the event's first major casualty.
Malcolm Wilson, the Cumbrian who says he will quit driving if he wins at the 19th attempt, was sixth last night. Richard Burns, in the third Subaru, completed the day in ninth place and was thankful merely to be involved. He damaged his steering when he hit a log hidden by a straw bale in Tatton Park.
NETWORK Q RAC RALLY Leading standings after seven stages: 1 T Makinen/S Harjanne (Fin) Mitsubishi 30:18; 2 K Eriksson/S Parmander (Swe) Mitsubishi 30:29; 3 C McRae/D Ringer (GB) Subaru 30:30; 4 C Sainz/L Moya (Sp) Subaru 30:44; 5 B Thiry/S Prevot (Bel) Ford 31:05; 6 M Wilson/B Thomas (GB) Ford 31:11; 7 A McRae/C Wood (GB) Ford 31:19; 8 G De Mevius/J M Fortin (Bel) Ford 31:42; 9 R Burns/R Reid (GB) Subaru 32:13; 10 A Navarra/R Casazza (It) Toyota 32:43.Reuse content