reports from Chester
Colin McRae had to revert to type yesterday, casting off the cloak of composure to kick and fight his way back into contention for the World Rally Championship in the manner of some latter-day Braveheart.
The Scot's apparent command of the Network Q RAC Rally became an heroic struggle against the odds after two punctures in the notorious Kielder threatened to sabotage his hopes. He effected emergency, not to say crude, repairs to his Subaru and went on the charge again.
At the half way point, he had reduced a deficit of 1min 14 sec to 39 seconds behind the leader, his team-mate Carlos Sainz, the only man who stands between McRae and the distinction of becoming Britain's first world rally champion.
Misfortune in the Mitsubishi camp conveniently left the Subaru pair at the head of the field. The overnight leader, Tommi Makinen of Finland, was forced to retire after clipping a log on the day's first stage, damaging his suspension and subsequently breaking his transmission. Sweden's Kenneth Eriksson, in the other Mitsubishi, hit the rock which caused McRae's first puncture and slipped to third.
That opening stage revealed McRae's hand. The posturing of the Sunday show stages behind them, the 27-year-old advanced from third place to a lead of 27 seconds over Eriksson, 43 seconds over Sainz. And then they arrived in Kielder. A third of the way in to the world championship's longest stage, the 36.61 miles of Pundershaw, McRae ran over an unaccommodating rock. He said: "By the time we saw the rock it was far too late at the speed we were going, so I hit it and the tyre went soft very quickly."
Sainz also had his problems. He reached the end of the stage with severe overheating. The stage wreaked havoc. Eriksson, too, lost two minutes after damaging the front offside of his car on that fiendish rock. Malcolm Wilson, the 39-year-old Cumbrian, rolled his Ford Escort into a ditch and had to concede it was the end of his rally. Alister McRae rolled his Escort, but was able to continue.
His brother, Colin, resumed with defiant and unrivalled pace. Sainz reported his overheating problem had been cured but was powerless to prevent McRae making up 11 seconds on the next stage, another four on the one after.
At Kershope, however, McRae encountered another test of his resolve. Seven miles from the end of the stage he had a second puncture, and damaged suspension and bodywork. He not only made it to the finish but still managed to take a further two seconds off Sainz's advantage. McRae resorted to brute force and a log to make temporary repairs and then drove the 45 miles to the more orthodox service.
His Subaru duly tended, he revived his magnificent assault on the final two stages, at Grizedale, in the Lake District. McRae closed in by another 18 seconds. McRae said last night: "The problem to the suspension was not as bad as it looked but the punctures were much more trouble. I'm going as quick as I can to try to close up the massive lead Carlos had and I'm happy I've closed some of it.''
Sainz said: "He's been lucky and taking a lot of risks. If he had damaged his suspension on a stage where another stage came straight after, he would have been out of the contest. I don't have any tactics for staying ahead, except driving as quickly as I can.''
NETWORK Q RAC RALLY Leading standings after 14 stages: 1 C Sainz/L Moya (Sp) Subaru 2hr 23min 37sec; 2 C McRae/D Ringer (GB) Subaru 2:24.16; 3 K Eriksson/S Parmander (Swe) Mitsubishi 2:25.36; 4 R Burns/R Reid (GB) Subaru 2:26.44; 5 B Thiry/S Prevot (Bel) Ford 2:26.49; 6 A McRae/C Wood (GB) Ford 2:28.05; 7 G De Mevius/JM Fortin (Bel) Ford 2:34.16; 8 A Navarra/R Casazza (It) Toyota 2:35.05; 9 R Madeira/N Silva (Por) Mitsubishi 2:37.07; 10 G Evans/H Davies (GB) Ford 2:37.24.