McRae victory ends long year of frustration

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Colin McRae, of Britain, who had threatened to leave the Ford team unless the reliability of his Focus improved, ended a year-long wait by winning the Catalunya Rally yesterday.

McRae finished 5.9sec ahead of his compatriot, Richard Burns, who leads the overall standings by nine points from Tommy Makinen of Finland.

McRae had retired 11 times in his previous 12 events, but he overcame a 10-second penalty at the start of the final leg to retain his overnight lead and storm to victory on an asphalt surface.

"I'd forgotten what it feels like to win," he said. "I was confident we could do it going into the final stage but there was always that small worry.

"If the car runs like that for the rest of the year, I'll be very happy and now we must concentrate on taking the title fight to Richard over the next few rallies."

McRae warned Ford last Wednesday that he might be forced to switch teams when his contract ran out at the end of the season unless his car'sreliability improved.

McRae suffered a bearing failure and clutch problems on the first road section and left the first service park a minute late. But he took the setback in his stride as he put up the fastest times on stages 12 and 14 toremain ahead of Subaru's Burns and his Ford team-mate Carlos Sainz.

"Colin did a superb job in completing the repairs himself outside of the service park. It was a great day," said the team director, Malcolm Wilson.

Burns, in a Subaru, extended his overall lead in the drivers' championship after the reigning champion, Makinen, could manage only fourth in his Mitsubishi.

"I wanted to win but I'm still happy with second as it is the first time the new Subaru has competed on asphalt," said Burns. "I had a brilliant tussle with Colin and I really enjoyed the fight. I'm happy that we extended our lead in the championship."

Sainz had put himself into strong contention in another Ford to win his home event for a third time on the middle leg, but conceded that McRae was too fast on the final four stages.

"It's the first time we've had both Focus cars at the finish this season and that's important," Sainz said.

"I've learnt an awful lot on this rally and with every event it's getting better and better. I hope we can get a Ford one-two next time."

Makinen improved later, but but lost time on the opening two legs had put him out of contention for a podium finish. The Finn said: "I had difficulties on the first two days and it has been really hard. If we hadn't had the brake problem on leg two then we would have stood a good chance of fighting for the win."

The Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm was classified in fifth position, almost two minutes off the pace, after his team-mates Gilles Panizzi and François Delecour both incurred last-stage time penalties to move them down the order.

The drivers now have a short break before the next round takes place in Argentina on 12-14 May.

CATALUNYA RALLY (Lloret de Mar, Sp) Leading Results: 1 C McRae (GB) Ford 4hr, 7min 13.0sec; 2 R Burns (GB) Subaru +5.9sec; 3 C Sainz (Sp) Ford +11.7; 4 T Makinen (Fin) Mitsubishi +40.2; 5 G Panizzi (Fr) Peugeot +1:10.9; 6 M Gronholm (Fin) Peugeot +1:51.7; 7 F Delecour (Fr) Peugeot +3:36.4; 8 F Loix (Bel) Mitsubishi +4:12.5; 9 A Navarra (It) Toyota +5:05.4; 10 M Martin (Est) Toyota +5:29.0. Overall standings: 1 Burns 28 pts; 2 Makinen 19; 3 Gronholm 18; 4 Sainz (Sp) Ford 17; 5 C McRae (GB) Ford 14; 6 J Kankkunen (Fin) Subaru 11.