Makinen closing in on title

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The Independent Online

Richard Burns spearheaded the British challenge in the Australian Rally today as Tommi Makinen edged closer to a fourth successive drivers' crown in Perth.

Richard Burns spearheaded the British challenge in the Australian Rally today as Tommi Makinen edged closer to a fourth successive drivers' crown in Perth.

Burns was just over six seconds off pacesetter Carlos Sainz at the end of a second day which saw the dramatic departure of Makinen's only realistic championship rival.

Frenchman Didier Auriol retired after dominating the early stages, leaving Makinen needing just a third-placed finish on Sunday to retain his title for another year.

The Mitsubishi driver is currently fourth behind third-placed Colin McRae, after the duo both suffered punctures, allowing Sainz to seize the advantage on the gravel tracks east of Perth.

Auriol had set a hat-trick of fastest times this morning to grab the lead from overnight pacesetter McRae before he was forced to retire after hitting a tree.

The former champion, who trails Makinen by six points, lost 25 seconds on the stage and though he reached the service area, the car's engine refused to start.

"We damaged the radiator and had to drive the rest of the stage with no water," said Auriol, certain to sign for SEAT next season with Toyota pulling out of rallying to concentrate on Formula One.

"Water had got into the engine and the car just wouldn't start. Now we have to wait and see what happens - our championship hopes are in Tommi's hands."

Makinen looked on course for the podium finish that would clinch the title before the last event, the Network Q British Rally later this month, as he quickly took the lead.

But he lost well over a minute on an 18-mile section because of a puncture - McRae also lost around 40 seconds on the same stage - to drop to fourth overall.

The 35-year-old, bidding to complete a Finnish double for the second year running following Mika Hakkinen's Formula One success, is one minute 18.7 seconds adrift of Sainz.

McRae is just over 50 seconds behind the man who will partner him at Ford next season, having looked in confident form in the Focus - setting one fastest time today - before his problem.

"It was the same place that Makinen collected a puncture," said the 31-year-old Scot.

"We came over a crest and there was quite a big bang, but I'm not sure whether we clipped a hole or hit an upturned rock."

Burns was fastest on two stages but Sainz completed the day with a hat-trick of quickest stage times to enjoy a narrow 6.3-second advantage at the end of the day.

Oxford-based Burns is looking for victories this weekend and in his home rally to clinch third place in the drivers' championship.

Burns' team-mate Juha Kankkunen, who was mathematically still in the title hunt but who needed a freak set of results, saw his challenge formally end with a broken suspension early on today.

McRae's younger brother Alister is 22nd for Hyundai with Martin Rowe (Renault) 26th and Mark Higgins (Volkswagen) two places further back.

The leading drivers, for the first time, were able to choose their start position tomorrow because, traditionally on the gravel tracks, the early runners are at a disadvantage.

Sainz opted for the lowest possible starting place of 10th with Burns choosing ninth, McRae eighth spot and Makinen seventh.

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