McRae looks to turn back the clock

The organisers of Rally GB struck gold in coaxing the former champion out of retirement, writes Derick Allsop, now he wants to bring back the excitement
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Britain's greatest-ever driver has been brought out of enforced retirement at the age of 37 to titillate an event that has increasingly failed to satisfy those who jump on the bandwagon of home winners, or the purists.

Organisers say that McRae's participation and the introduction of a new super special stage, to be held at the Millennium Stadium, tomorrow evening, have served to increase ticket sales this year by more than 20 per cent. The former champion, three times a winner of the rally, required little coercion to end his two-year exile. He has tried his hand at the Dakar Rally and the Le Mans 24-hour sports car race, but this is the territory he knows, and he senses the opportunity of permanent reinstatement.

He will also be aware that he is not expected to win. He drives a Skoda, which is yet to finish in the top five. If he achieves such a landmark result he may well secure a regular job for next year.

But McRae is also conscious that the World Rally Championship in general, and British rallying in particular, requires much more than a short-term fix. Sébastien Loeb's brilliant driving in the Citroën is a sight to behold, yet his domination this season has compounded the problem of selling the sport as a major spectacle.

Citroën and Peugeot are withdrawing from the WRC at the end of the season and factions within the sport are constantly wrangling over costs, schedules and rally formats.

"The trouble is that the WRC has gone a bit flat," McRae said. "The fans want excitement and personalities. They don't really see much of that at the moment.

"British fans obviously want to see British drivers doing well, but they're not getting the chance. Our young drivers don't get the financial support that many of the foreign drivers do. We've got the talent in this country but they need to be able to show it."

The halcyon days of McRae and Richard Burns, struck down by illness, already seem a distant blur, but perhaps the signs of a British revival will be evident come the end of this rally on Sunday.

McRae's protegé, Kris Meeke, drives a WRC Subaru for the first time at the top level with the promise of consideration for a place alongside Petter Solberg next season. Guy Wilks and Matthew Wilson are two more young men intent on enhancing their reputations.

The 17-year-old Wilson suffered a broken arm, wrist and dislocated knee cap in a crash earlier this year, while co-driver Scott Martin's leg was shattered. The pair are still recovering. "Both Scott and I are still trying to get back to full fitness," Wilson said. "We've packed in a lot of rallies and a lot of miles over the past few weeks and at the end of each we are still aching a bit in places."

For the majority of the British gallery, however, McRae remains the main attraction, even if he is a championship sideshow.

"I'm going to liven things up a bit and give the fans something to cheer," said the Scot, who renews his partnership with the Welsh co-driver Nicky Grist. "I can still show the kids a thing or two. I've had my break and now I've got the old enthusiasm back. It's great to be competing at Rally GB again but I don't see this as jut a one-off. I'm definitely interested in doing something more permanently.

"We've got to be realistic. We can't expect to be challenging the top teams, but hopefully we can set some good stage times and finish with a decent place."

McRae's admirers believe his experience and appeal will help raise Skoda's profile and competitiveness. A strong performance in Wales this weekend could seal the alliance. Solberg has won the event for the past three years and can equal the Finnish veteran Hannu Mikkola's record of four victories in Britain. Even if he has not won since Mexico in March, the Norwegian will still put up a strong fight.

"I'll have to start flat-out straight away," Solberg said. "The plan and objective is to win but we have to be realistic. It has been a difficult season for us and we have to hope that we have more success than we have had at other gravel events."

Another authoritative drive by Loeb may confirm his second consecutive title. If the Frenchman scores eight more points than Marcus Gronholm and two more than Solberg, the final four rallies will be rendered academic.

Title-chasing Loeb leaves nuptials in the garage

Sébastien Loeb has put his honeymoon on hold as he attempts to win his second world title in a row this weekend in the Welsh forests. The 31-year-old Citroën driver, who married his long-time girlfriend, Severine, last Saturday, has won a record eight out of 11 races and the title is within reach.

Yet the Frenchman, unshaken by a rare crash in testing last week when his Xsara plunged off the road, will need everything to slot into place before Sunday's formal finish in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

The rally has two fewer stages than last year but includes a super special in the 50,000-capacity Millennium Stadium tomorrow night. The cars will race the stage under the retractable roof, the first time a world rally championship stage has been held indoors.