Hard day's night for McRae at Le Mans

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The Independent Online

The annual invasion of 60,000-plus sportscar fans will turn Le Mans into a corner of Britain next weekend, and a battalion of drivers from these shores will doubtless make their presence felt.

The annual invasion of 60,000-plus sportscar fans will turn Le Mans into a corner of Britain next weekend, and a battalion of drivers from these shores will doubtless make their presence felt.

Four Britons, headed by Johnny Herbert and Allan McNish, carry the hopes of Audi UK at the 24-hour race and are likely to be embroiled in the main contest with the marque's other teams from Japan and the United States. Two more Formula One exiles, Justin Wilson and Ralph Firman, seek redemption in the French classic, while it will be just another day and night at the office for the evergreen Andy Wallace. All will get the patriotic treatment and a lift through the inevitable troughs from a following far bigger than that about to support England's Euro 2004 cause in Portugal.

However, the curiosity market will probably be cornered by a man who made his reputation in a very different motor-sport environment. Colin McRae, Britain's first world rally champion, is fulfilling a lifetime's ambition by competing in this marathon race. McRae has already ticked off the Dakar Rally in his 2004 sabbatical and now makes his debut at Le Mans driving a Ferrari 550 Maranello in the GTS class. He partners another Briton, Darren Turner, and the Swede Rickard Rydell in a car that won the category last year.

That record ensures this will be no joy ride for McRae, but then he is intent on serious business and proud enough to approach the challenge like the final stage of a title-deciding rally. "Le Mans is something I have always wanted a crack at, but whatever I do I have to do it properly,'' the 35-year-old Scotsman said. "I couldn't do it just for fun. The satisfaction comes from competing as well as I can.

"This team proved themselves winners last year, so there is pressure to do well again. I have had to learn a lot very quickly. One of the biggest things is getting used to traffic. I have improved my pace and got up to within a few tenths of a second of the other guys.''

McRae's speed and application have impressed sceptical colleagues and experienced rivals alike. A team member said: "He hasn't come in playing the 'I am the great Colin McRae' bit at all. He's asked all the right questions, taken on board the answers and got on with everyone really well.''

McNish has been preoccupied with matters at the prototype end of the grid, but has kept an eye on his compatriot's progress. "Colin has adapted far better than people expected,'' the Audi driver said. "The thing is that he's done all there is to do in rallying and has nothing to prove. He can do this purely for his own satisfaction. He's not overdriving and being showy, he's smooth and pretty much on the pace. I see no reason why he shouldn't do well.''

One reason might be that although McRae has made a favourable impression in testing and practice, the race itself, with stints in darkness and perhaps changing conditions, will take him into uncharted territory. McRae responds: "Driving at night shouldn't be an issue because I have been used to night stages in rallies. It's probably less of an issue for me than a racing driver who's never done Le Mans.

"In a long race like this you need consistency and reliability. If we get that then hopefully we can make the podium. It would be great to stand up there in front of all those British fans at the end, and that's certainly the aim.''

For McNish, partnered by the German pair Frank Biela and Pierre Kaffer, and Herbert, teamed with fellow Englishmen Jamie Davies and Guy Smith, nothing less than outright victory will suffice. Herbert resisted McNish's late attack to win the inaugural Le Mans Endurance Series race at Monza last month, and they expect the battle of the Audi R8s to resume at four o'clock on Saturday afternoon.

"I suspect we will have another great race, but this time we'll reverse the finishing order,'' McNish said with a challenging smile at Herbert. "There is no doubt we have a strong car, but the trouble is there are three other Audis, and any one of them could win.''

The withdrawal of Bentley leaves the way clear for Audi to register a fourth victory in five years, but Herbert - seeking a second win in the race - said: "I think it is going to be really close between the Audis. We all want to win, and whereas you wouldn't get a real race with two Ferraris leading a grand prix, you will get a race between the Audis because there are no team orders. That's the way racing should be."