McRae opens up early advantage

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Colin McRae struck the first blow in the contest for the World Rally Championship here last night. The Scotsman outpaced his English rival in a head-to-head opening special stage of the Network Q Rally of Great Britain.

McRae steered his Ford Focus over the 1.52-mile test in two minutes 10.1 seconds to win the stage and open a two-and-a-half-second lead over the man expected to be his most serious challenger for the title.

Richard Burns, struggling to keep his Subaru in touch with McRae, was only 10th in this preliminary skirmish. Business proper starts in the Forests of south Wales today, but McRae has registered a significant psychological message.

McRae, savouring his spectacular opening, said: "That was a lot of fun and we've given Richard something to sleep on. But we know the real action starts tomorrow."

Second here last night was Subaru's Petter Solberg, just a 10th of a second behind McRae. Ford's Carlos Sainz, the outsider in the championship fight, was third.

Tommi Makinen, sandwiched between the British contenders in the standings, was a ragged and distant 18th in his Subaru, 4.3 seconds slower than McRae.

Peugeot last night dismissed claims by Subaru that they could yet hold on to Burns for next season's championship.

As Burns began his final push for the title at the Network Q Rally of Great Britain, the Subaru team maintained they had a clause in their contract with the Englishman that gave them an option on his services for 2002 if he became the champion. But Peugeot are adamant they have a watertight deal with Burns – said to be worth £5m.