Land mines fail to block McRae's late progress

Dakar Rally: Former world champion makes 1,000-mile drive across rugged and dangerous terrain
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The Independent Online

He may be at the back of the field, fortunate merely to be in the field, but Colin McRae is already being fêted here in Burkina Faso for a heroic debut.

McRae arrived at the airport base camp after being stranded in the desert and then completing a 1,000-mile drive two hours and 40 minutes ahead of the deadline to join the rest of the surviving competitors for the remaining six days.

Britain's former world rally champion embarked on this odyssey expecting it would be unlike anything he had previously experienced in an eventful and illustrious career, and Dakar has not disappointed him.

"It's a love-hate relationship,'' the 35-year-old McRae said, looking remarkably relaxed after his ordeal. "But it's not put me off. I'd definitely come back again.''

McRae had steered his Nissan Pickup to third place on this incomparable rally, which began in France on New Year's Day and reaches its merciful conclusion in Senegal on Sunday. But then he encountered the first of his problems.

Getting stuck in the sand twice cost him 20 minutes at a time, yet when his transmission system succumbed to the rigours of rock and sand, he came face to face with the real challenge of the Dakar.

McRae, a trained mechanic, did as much as he could but had to rely on a team-mate to tow him out of a stage and then wait for the rescue party that was his crew. He joined forces with his mechanics, although he played down his own part in the effort.

"The guys who deserve all the credit are the guys who found us and put the cars together again. It took them 12 hours to find us - a fantastic feat in itself."

Another Nissan driver, Ari Vatenan, four times winner of this rally, also had to sit by his stricken car. And he, too, had to dash here to be sure of continuing the trek this morning.

McRae and his navigator, Sweden's Tina Thorner, had had to endure the natural hazards of snow and mud in Europe, rocks, sand dunes and pernicious camel grass in Africa. They also had to negotiate land mines and pay €50 (£35) each to opportunist militia. Camping out was the least of their concerns.

"If you come here expecting it to be easy you're going to have a shock, so I had a fairly open mind," McRae said. "It's so different from the World Rally Championship and anything else. It's just the scale of the thing.

"The worst part is getting stuck in the sand when the car is running perfectly and you have to dig out. It's not as if you have a mechanical problem. It's really soul-destroying.

"You also have to be wary about where you stop out on the road. The people are generally friendly but you can never be sure. We saw one car that had already been stripped and robbed. Once the car was fixed I was always confident we'd get here and be able to carry on. It took us about 20 hours''.

Driving here would have been a futile exercise but for the convenient cancellation of two weekend stages in Mali, ostensibly because of the threat from armed bandits.

Sceptical veterans of Dakar suspect the organisers were more concerned that the rate of attrition might reduce the number of runners below a level of credibility. They also decided to put back the deadline for drivers to check in here, thus ensuring their most distinguished personality on this year's event remained involved, even if he is relegated to the bottom of the order.

Base camp is a village of tents pitched around the two dozen aircraft and hundreds of vehicles deployed on the rally. Facilities are basic and washing hangs from the wings of planes. This morning they will move on, leaving a deserted airstrip and the locals to go about their lives as if the invasion of modern technology had never happened.

Donkey and cart is the normal means of transport in this impoverished land and in every village they pass through, the organisers have issued children with cartoon strips designed to make them aware of the cars, bikes and trucks, and the need for caution. Competitors must adhere to a strict 30 kilometres per hour speed limit in towns and villages.

McRae is now even more determined to reach Dakar. "That was always the goal and it is more so now," he said. "It would be nice to win a stage because we have the speed, but to do that we have to move up the order. Driving in dust from other cars is very difficult.''

Whatever McRae achieves this week, he can be sure he has made a lasting impression.

Gilles Martineau, Nissan's team manager, said: "Colin's image has certainly changed in France after people have seen him here, working under the car. He is not like any other superstar, wanting somebody to change his sunglasses for him. You could see after two or three days that he loved this. He is a natural driver. We would love him to drive for us again.''

McRae, released from the confines of the World Rally Championship, is intent on indulging his ambition to try a range of other challenges. He has Le Mans on his list of objectives for this summer but it would seem he will be back in Africa again around this time next year.

In the motorbike category, Cyril Despres believes the weekend off may have harmed his hopes of victory. The Frenchman, who lies fourth overall, had been banking on his stamina to help him overhaul the leader, Joan Roma.

"It's a strange feeling," he said. "On the one hand it's good to rest but on the other hand, I don't really need it. I was counting on my physical strength to make a difference, so I have an advantage less."

DAKAR RALLY (Leading overall standings): Cars: 1 S Peterhansel (Mitsubishi) 28 hours 16 min 20sec; 2 H Masuoka (Mitsubishi) +1:04:00; 3 J-L Schlesser (Schlesser Ford) + 2:22:28; 4 G De Mevius (BMW) +3:52:17; 5 L Alphand (BMW) at 3:59:38.