McRae's self-control crucial in final stretch

Derick Allsop on an extraordinary end to the rallying season which may see the crowning of Britain's first world champion
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The Independent Online
British sport's biggest audience will line 1,447 miles of road and track over the coming four days hoping to acclaim the metamorphosis of a petulant, raw talent into the nation's first world rally champion. Colin McRae is that close, and that far, from fulfilment.

The objective for McRae when he leaves Chester tomorrow morning is straightforward: he must be ahead of his Subaru team-mate, Carlos Sainz, when they return to the ancient city next Wednesday lunchtime at the end of the Network Q RAC Rally.

He has the pace, the geographical advantage, the support of two million spectators and the incentive. But will he have the self-control, the composure and the judgement to do only as much as is required and not blow it all in pursuit of the loud angry statement?

This is, after all, the Scot with an instinct for the spectacular, the Scot once dubbed "McCrash", and the Scot more recently incensed by team orders to forfeit the Catalonia Rally to Sainz and so share the lead in the championship, coming into the finale.

Many close observers, however, believe he now has the maturity to curb his natural inclination, restrain his emotions, avoid the one error that would automatically concede the crown to Sainz on the greater number of wins, and achieve rallying's supreme distinction. Significantly, so does McRae.

"Actually winning the rally is not important this time," said McRae, who 12 months ago became Britain's first winner of the RAC for 18 years. "The championship is the important thing. It's what I want. As long as I finish in front of Carlos, it doesn't matter if I'm third, fourth, fifth, whatever.

"I think I have been approaching all the rallies that way this season. The crazy days are in the past. I sorted it all out in my head.

"If I'm lying second, 20 seconds behind the leader, I won't be pushing if I don't need to. There's no way I'm going to take any chance if I've got the championship in the bag. Next year could be a disaster. I could be nowhere near at the end. You've got to protect what you've got at the moment. The chance may never come again."

The chance would have been better still had David Richards, the director of the Banbury-based Subaru operation, not taken his "commercial decision" in Spain. Richards also seeks the manufacturers' title and it was suggested the locals would sabotage McRae's bid if he did not yield to Sainz.

McRae made no attempt to disguise his wrath and Sainz was offended by the slur on his countrymen. Add to this little plot Sainz's intended move to Toyota and that team's suspension for a year, and you have a drama even Formula One could not stage.

"It has caused friction between Carlos and me," McRae said. "We were both upset and my only regret is not discussing it with Carlos at the time. From what he has said since I'm sure we would have agreed to ignore team orders. He would have been happier with that.

"The problem between us is not healed but the decision was nothing to do with us and we'll still talk and help each other out on the rally. As for myself and David, a lot depends on what happens at the RAC. If I win the championship now it will be even more satisfying, but if I lose it by a few points then it will be on my mind I could have been coming here with a 10-point advantage."

McRae and Sainz are conscious it will also be on the minds of partisan spectators, out in the forests. Sainz reported logs had been placed in his path last year and the fear of further intervention disturbs both men.

"I seriously hope there's nothing stupid this year," said McRae, who at 27 would also be the youngest champion. "If I was to win the title through something like that happening it would take most of it away. I'd never know whether I could have won it in a straight fight, and that's all I've ever wanted."

Sainz, who recovered from a shoulder injury sustained in a mountain bike accident five months ago to challenge for a third title, said: "What makes me upset and worries me is all this publicity that the people in Spain were against Colin. It is absolutely wrong. The people were very correct and he said nothing happened to him.

"The only thing like this was last year here. I found some logs, but you cannot make a judgement on the whole country for two stupid people. I hope no one will be stupid this year. Apart from that incident, the people here have been very sporting."

Regardless of outside forces, Sainz, with three wins to McRae's one this season, maintains the odds are against him. "I think Colin is the favourite because we are here," he said. "In my favour, I suppose, is that I am probably more relaxed. When you have won two titles you have a bit less pressure.

"Of course, Colin will have some pressure, but he is a good driver and it shouldn't be a problem for him. I said last year Britain had a potential champion and you can see it this year. He has become more consistent. You have to be quick, but you don't have to make mistakes. It comes from experience."

McRae returns the compliment: "Consistency is one of Carlos's strengths, also. He doesn't let situations rev him up. He's cool and calculating. He thinks about the whole championship and not just that particular event.

"Beating Carlos for the championship would make it better still. There's no one tougher in a head to head. Put it this way, if I was a team boss I'd go for him. Carlos has proved himself and that's where I want to be."

This domestic difference over the drivers' title could, of course, undermine the team's ambition in the manufacturers' championship, playing into the hands of Mitsubishi's Kenneth Eriksson, who joins Subaru next season, and Tommi Makinen. McRae's principal concern, however, is purely personal.