Burns backs Solberg's experience to take title

Wales Rally GB: Home hero kept out by illness expects Norwegian nous to secure world championship
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The Independent Online

It all comes down to a tantalising finale at the Wales Rally GB this weekend, just as Richard Burns always suspected it would. Alas for the home driver and legions of his followers, he is no longer involved in the struggle for the world championship.

Illness has forced Burns out of the last and decisive round of the season, although he had accepted he would have been embarking on a mission near impossible in Cardiff this evening. For much of the championship, Burns led the way, scoring consistently despite an inability to pull everything together in a winning drive. But he had mustered only three points from his last three rallies, all on asphalt, and the gravel stages of Wales appeared to beckon too late for him and his Peugeot.

Burns trailed the Citroën pair, Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz, by five points, and Subaru's Petter Solberg by four. They now line up for the opening super special stage, in the principality's capital, in a straightforward, winner-takes-all contest for the championship.

Sainz, the vastly experienced Spaniard, has been here before. He has twice won the title and he has also lost it in agonising circumstances. He is familiar with the pressures and the vagaries of these situations.

However, he is widely regarded as the outsider of the three. His opponents are much younger, generally quicker and perhaps prepared to push that bit harder and stick their necks out a little further to secure the championship for the first time.

Loeb, the Frenchman, is in his first full championship season and has been a sensation if not necessarily a revelation. Many inside the sport were convinced that, just like Marcus Gronholm, Peugeot's two-times winner of the championship, he was capable of competing with, and beating, the best, given the equipment and the opportunity.

The former gymnast opted for vaulting the hazards of the world's most demanding rally stages rather than apparatus in a gym, and that decision will make him extremely wealthy. Backed by the French motor sport federation, he has come up through the training scheme to the pinnacle of the sport.

It is a measure of Loeb's ability that he has routinely outpaced Citroën's third driver, Colin McRae, the Scotsman who was not so long ago recognised as the fastest in the business.

For all that, Solberg is considered the favourite by most respected judges, including Burns. The Norwegian, who won the British event a year ago, will relish the forest stages and his car will perhaps have the edge over the Citroën.

Burns, who returns to Subaru as Solberg's team-mate next season, says: "I think the favourite is Petter because his package is proven and he won here last year. He has a lot more experience than Sébastien has. He does not have more than Carlos, but I think he has the legs on Carlos.

"None of them can afford to be conservative, and certainly Petter can't afford to be," he adds. "He has to finish ahead of the other two. But I think he is capable of doing just that."

The concern for all the contenders is that, even with Burns out of the equation, others may muscle in on their patch and complicate the issue; Gronholm for one. The outgoing champion has had, by his standards, an erratic season and would like to put down a marker for next year.

Burns concedes that Gronholm is "sublimely talented and can get away with murder inside a car". Yet the Englishman's tip to win the event is the Estonian, Markko Martin, who took over from McRae as the team leader at Ford this year.

"I go for Markko because that car is very, very good and he doesn't have the pressures of the championship on his shoulder,'' Burns reasons.

Burns has never felt totally comfortable in the Peugeot team or their car and is not surprised to see his old nemesis, McRae, reduced to virtual anonymity in his first, and last, season with Citroën. The 1995 world champion has been released and cannot get a drive for next season.

"I thought Colin would find it hard entering a team where another driver is loved," Burns said. "It's the same with Sébastien at Citroën as it is with Marcus at Peugeot. Colin has also come across the vast culture difference."

Burns felt he was "under-utilised" at Peugeot and that they never got the best out of him. Two years without a win suggests something was missing from the mix. But he is adamant the harm to his form and reputation is reparable. "It's probably damaged my confidence, but I know that once things are righted it's still there - the motivation and the feeling I can do anything in a car. I'm still only 32," he says.

"In some ways I regret going to Peugeot and in some ways I don't. I think I've come out of it a better person and driver. If you can say that then you can't regret it. But I do think more could have been made of it."

McRae had hoped to make more of his French connection and has been frustrated in attempts to find the funding for a car next year. Even plans for a family outing at Rally GB have been forced off the rails. His 60-year-old father, Jimmy, has come out of international retirement for one last tilt at this event, but a drive for his younger son, Alister, has fallen through.

McRae Snr said ruefully: "It seems everything we try at the moment goes wrong.'' Burns might be inclined to echo that sentiment.