McRae's attitude impresses rivals

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The Independent Online

The annual invasion of 60,000 or more sports car fans will turn Le Mans into a corner of Britain today and a battalion of drivers from these shores will doubtless make their presence felt on the circuit.

The annual invasion of 60,000 or more sports car fans will turn Le Mans into a corner of Britain today and a battalion of drivers from these shores will doubtless make their presence felt on the circuit.

Four Britons, headed by Johnny Herbert and Allan McNish, carry the hopes of Audi UK at the 24-hour race and are likely to be embroiled in the main contest with the marque's other teams from Japan and the United States. Two more Formula One exiles, Justin Wilson and Ralph Firman, seek redemption in the French classic, while it will be just another day and night at the office for Andy Wallace. All will get a lift through the inevitable troughs from a following bigger than that about to support England's Euro 2004 cause in Portugal.

However, the curiosity market will be cornered by a man who made his reputation in a very different motorsport environment. Colin McRae, Briton's first world rally champion, is fulfiling a lifetime's ambition by competing in this race.

McRae has already ticked off the Dakar Rally and now makes his debut at Le Mans driving a Ferrari 550 Maranello in the GTS class. He partners another Briton, Darren Turner, and the Swede, Rickard Rydell, in a car that won the category last year.

That track record ensures this will be no joyride for McRae, but then he is intent on serious business and proud enough to approach the challenge.

"Le Mans is something I have always wanted a crack at but whatever I do I have to do it properly," the 35-year-old Scotsman said. "This team proved themselves winners last year so there is pressure to do well again. One of the biggest things is getting used to traffic. I have improved my pace and got up to within a few tenths of a second of the other guys."

McRae's speed and application have impressed sceptical colleagues. A team member said: "He's asked all the right questions, taken on board the answers and got on with everyone really well."

McNish has been busy with the prototype end of the grid, but has kept an eye on his compatriot. "Colin has adapted far better than people expected," the Audi driver said. "I see no reason why he shouldn't do well."

McRae has impressed in testing, but the race itself, with stints in darkness and perhaps changing conditions, will take him into uncharted territory.

McRae says: "Driving at night shouldn't be an issue because I have been used to night stages in rallies. In a long race like this you need consistency and reliability. If we get that then hopefully we can make the podium."

For McNish, partnered by Germans Frank Biela and Pierre Kaffer, and Herbert, teamed with fellow Englishmen Jamie Davies and Guy Smith, nothing less than victory will do. Herbert resisted McNish's late attack to win the inaugural Le Mans Endurance Series race at Monza last month and they expect the battle of the Audi R8s to resume at 4pm on Saturday.

"I suspect we will have another great race, but this time we'll reverse the finishing order." McNish said with a challenging smile at Herbert. "There is no doubt we have a strong car but the trouble is there are three other Audis and any one of them could win."

The withdrawal of Bentley leaves the way clear for Audi to register a fourth win in five years, but Herbert - like McNish, seeking a second win - contends the marque's domination will not detract from the spectacle.

Herbert said: "We all want to win and whereas you wouldn't get a real race with two Ferraris leading a Grand Prix, you will get a race between the Audis because there are no team orders. That's the way racing should be."

YESTERDAY'S LEADING PRACTICE TIMES: 1 J Herbert / J Davies / G Smith (GB) Audi R8 Audi Sport UK 3min 32.838sec (average speed: 230.678 kph/126.563mph); 2 F Biela (Ger) / P Kaffer (Ger) / A McNish (GB) Audi R8 Audi Sport UK 3:33.233; 3 A Wallace (GB) / D Brabham (Aus) / H Shimoda (Japan) Zytek 3:33.923; 4 S Ara (Japan) / R Capello (It) / T Kristensen (Den) Audi R8 Japan Team Goh 3:34.038; 5 S Bourdais / N Minassian / E Collard (Fr) Pescarolo C60-Judd 3:34.252; 6 E Pirro (It) / JJ Lehto (Fin) / M Werner (Ger) Audi R8 Champion 3:35.892; 7 H Kato / R Michigami / R Fukuda (Japan) Dome Mugen Kondo 3:36.285; 8 J Lammers (Neth) / C Dyson (US) / K Kaneishi (Japan) Dome Judd Racing 3:36.353; 9 M Short (GB) / R Barff (GB) / J Barbosa (Por) Dallara Judd 3:39.260; 10 T Coronel (NZ) / J Wilson (GB) / R Firman (GB) Dome Judd Racing for Holland 3:40.261.