McRae and Burns gear up for final showdown

Rally Of Great Britain: The finale of the World Championship begins today in Cardiff with two top British drivers battling it out for the title
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The Independent Online

At 7.10 this evening the phoney war gives way to authentic combat and the shaping of the destiny for Colin McRae and Richard Burns.

The bare statistics of the World Rally Championship indicate that one other driver, Finland's Tommi Makinen, has an excellent chance of winning the title, while a fourth, the Spaniard, Carlos Sainz, cannot be discounted from the equation.

However, the Network Q Rally of Great Britain has become the undisputed domain of the natives in recent years and few in the sport doubt that the Scotsman, McRae, and the Englishman, Burns, will slug it out for the championship.

The unprecedented scenario in British rallying has cranked up the stakes and the hype to a level Don King would gel down his hair for. And, in classic prize-fight tradition, the winner takes all in this final round of the contest.

Burns, the Subaru driver, seemed to be out of contention mid-season, bemoaning his ill luck as McRae steered his Ford Focus to three consecutive wins. McRae accused Burns of being "a sore loser'' and illustrated his contempt by wearing a t-shirt which showed the man from south of the border cleaning his boots.

A less than amused Burns attempted to dismiss the prank as "boring',' so drawing more sniggers from the 1995 world champion. McRae, an incurable mischief maker, was in his element. He had another championship in his sights and, he felt sure, the upstart Sassenach on the run. Nothing malicious, of course, just a bit of fun. Keep Richard in his place.

In his autobiography (The Real McRae, Ebury Press) McRae reveals: "I phone up Richard now and then when I have had a few too many beers and feel in a mischievous mood, and tell him I am quicker than him. I like to wind him up. He reckons I must love him because I only ever call him when I am drunk.''

Widely recognised as the fastest driver in the business, McRae has guarded his reputation and status jealously. He remains Britain's only winner of the World Rally Championship and makes no bones about his wish to retain that distinction. If he is to be denied come Sunday afternoon he hopes Makinen, rather than Burns, will be triumphant.

However, the 30-year-old Burns has defied McRae's barbs and predictions to bring them to a decider in the forests of south Wales and the younger man is not alone in believing the force is with him. A 15-point deficit has been reduced to two, and Burns has the additional momentum of three consecutive victories in their home event.

McRae's three British wins now seem an age away. Burns is also matching him in the verbal joust, suggesting people familiar with the Colin McRae PlayStation game do not know if he is a real person.

Burns follows up with another combination: "Colin, when he is winning, is very good at putting other people down. And Colin, when he is losing, doesn't do it very well. We get on reasonably well but then some snidey comment comes out. I do wonder why.

"You can say Colin feels threatened because we are the people most likely to damage his chances of winning the championship. Or because we are British and he doesn't want us to do better than him.

"It confuses me because he is not a nasty guy. But he does try to put me down and you don't do that to someone you think is beneath you. You only try to put down someone who you think can beat you."

McRae, 33, acknowledges that Burns has closed the gap but maintains he is confident he still has the additional speed when it is required, the finishing flourish that has earned him his fortune and his cult following.

As "the first Brit there'', he has cashed in. His contract with Ford this year is worth £5m. He has homes in Monte Carlo, Majorca and his home town, Lanark, a plane, a helicopter, an array of four and two-wheeled machines, and enough tucked away to ensure he, his wife Alison, their daughter Hollie and soon-to-be born second child are comfortable for the rest of their lives.

And yet even a serious accident in Corsica, a year ago, could not deter him from the dangers or dilute his desire for success. "As long as I feel I can win more rallies and championships I want to go on,'' he said.

And now it is Burns, rather than the driver he respected as his equal, Makinen, who obstructs his path and his ambition. National pride serves to fuel the intensity of the rivalry.

Burns, in a tit-for-tat gesture, states that if he cannot win the championship he would like to see it go to Sainz "because he is a nice bloke''. Sainz happens to be McRae's team mate.

However, Sainz, trailing the leader by nine points, accepts his prospects are remote and says he will endeavour to support McRae's cause. Makinen, sandwiched between the British pair in the standings, represents the more obvious threat, yet he has never won this event, his new car has so far proved disappointing, and he will have his third navigator in as many rallies.

The driver who just might be capable of mixing it with McRae and Burns is the outgoing champion, Marcus Gronholm, in a Peugeot. The Finn was irresistible in Australia earlier this month and, spared the pressures of competing for the title, has nothing to lose. If Gronholm wins the rally and Burns finishes second, then third place would be good enough for McRae.

Burns has tried to heap the pressure on McRae and Makinen, arguing that they have everything to lose while he, coming from behind, has everything to gain. McRae shrugs off that play, pointing out that he has greater experience of championship fighting and has never been in a stronger position going into the last rally of a season.

Significantly, as the world rally championship stands at the threshold of its bright new era, Britain has never been so prominent at the top level of the sport.

Burns recalled the days when he ventured into the forests to watch the then RAC Rally: "The best thing we had to cheer as fans in the late 80s was Tony Pond finishing third. The prospect of winning the championship on our home rally is immense. To be part of what is going on now is very exciting. If it all goes wrong for both of us it is not going to be the end of the world. We will be back next year, trying again to win it.

"In our field Colin and I are miles more successful than Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, and don't get half the recognition. I am not wildly bothered about that but it is nice to be recognised for positive reasons."

After this rally Burns is due to join Peugeot, a move that recognises his growing stature. He contends his salary will match McRae's, but that it would not have done had he stayed at Subaru. It is not, though, a question of money, he stresses. "If Skoda had offered me twice as much I wouldn't have gone there."

The lure for Burns is the championship. Only if he achieves it, he knows, will he be acclaimed the best. Better, even, than McRae.

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