Accident overshadows big day for Burns

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Between 12 and 15 people, including children, were injured on the Brechfa forest section of the Network Q Rally of Great Britain in west Wales yesterday when the Ford Focus driven by the Spaniard Carlos Sainz slid off the road and into a spectator area. Although Sainz continued, the 11th stage was later stopped to allow ambulances, including air ambulances, to reach the scene and Sainz, who had an outside chance of winning the world title, was later withdrawn by his team manager. Three of the injured were reported to be in a serious condition.

Danger to spectators has always been a problem, and in recent years the British event, which over its four days attracts up to 200,000 spectators, has needed to enforce strict control. Free roaming through the forests to gain spectacular vantage points is no longer supposed to occur, but there is never a guarantee that all of the fans will stay in designated areas. With competition cars sometimes travelling at over 100mph on slippery surfaces danger can never be completely removed, as was shown on Friday when the championship leader, Colin McRae, crashed when near top speed.

Before the accident, the English driver Richard Burns had consolidated his position as world champion in waiting. Having seen his main rivals, McRae and Tommi Makinen, fall by the wayside, he spent yesterday happily trailing Marcus Gronholm, of Finland, knowing that a place in the top four when the event ends today would bring him his first world title. In those stages that were completed yesterday, he had allowed Gronholm to take an advantage of over a minute but had a 16-second cushion over third-placed Harri Rovanpera, of Finland.

All of the much-hyped acrimony between Burns and McRae had already become irrelevant and the rally's outcome only a matter of Burns staying clear of trouble. All of the fighting talk that had been given extra heat by the surprisingly comfortable 2.5sec advantage McRae took over Burns on Thursday's Super-Special stage was overtaken by the events of the following day when, in theory, it was Burns who had to make the pace but McRae took the risks and barrel-rolled at 100mph, forcing him to abandon. He was left knowing that his one-point advantage over Burns in the championship had been reduced to a thin and improbable wedge. But he was also aware that strange things happen in the final miles, even yards, of a rally.

There was some confident talk from Burns as he prepared for yesterday's opening stage. He said there was little chance of his making a mistake. Embarrassingly he promptly discovered that his Subaru shared the same dislike of damp mornings as those more humble vehicles the rest of us drive. He and his co-driver Robert Reid had to push the reluctant Subaru and change a couple of spark-plug leads before it agreed to be driven to the real start.

When Burns finally left Cardiff he knew that the battle between himself, McRae and the plausible outsider, the four-time world champion Makinen, whose rally also ended on Friday, had ended and what was left was an endurance event in which finishing became more important than winning. Indeed, between stages yesterday he admitted that he had no intention of chasing the leader Gronholm.

Having seen the other contenders ruin their chances, Burns had spent Friday moving steadily up to second place, leaving him to drive through the forests above Swansea yesterday with the one quandary all top rally drivers abhor: not needing to go flat out to but fretting that concentration lapses often occur when holding back.

He moved to within a minute of Gronholm, but his overnight lead of 16sec over Rovanpera, who like the leader was driving a Peugeot, dropped to just 2sec before he reopened a gap on the 17-mile Margam stage. If he needed an extra incentive to retain his safe position it was the thought that McRae's younger brother, Alister, was in fifth place and would have been only too pleased to put him under greater pressure.

Not only had the errors and misfortunes of his rivals played into Burns' hands, the conditions were far more comfortable than the drivers usually experience in Wales. Unlike last year, when torrential rain saturated the forest roads, yesterday it was no more than dank, which made the accident involving spectators all the more unfortunate.