McRae's crash gives Burns advantage in race for title

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Colin McRae was back home in Lanark last night, nursing his bruised body and pride, as Richard Burns plotted a judicious course towards the world championship.

Burns returned to base here after a dramatic first leg of the Network Q Rally of Great Britain in second place behind Peugeot's outgoing champion, Marcus Gronholm, which would be more than good enough to secure the Englishman the title come tomorrow afternoon.

The much-anticipated showdown between McRae and Burns was over when the Scotsman, the early leader of the rally, crashed spectacularly, flipping his Ford Focus end over end, on the third stage of the morning.

McRae and his Welsh co-driver, Nicky Grist, sustained cuts and bruises. McRae briefly complained of blurred vision and was taken to hospital for checks before flying north.

Grist clasped a bag of frozen peas to his swollen arm and then headed to his nearby home.

They still top the championship table on 40 points, but all they can do now is hope that Burns makes a mistake or has a mechanical problem and fails to finish in the top four. Three points would put the Subaru driver on 41. The British pair's closest rival, Tommi Makinen, went out of the rally on the first stage of the day.

One other driver, Ford's Carlos Sainz, remains in the equation, but he is fifth and must win the rally to finish above McRae. More realistically, the Spaniard might find himself in the position to put pressure on Burns over the next two days and kindle his team-mate's hopes.

McRae and Burns traded insults with ever increasing venom during the build-up to the rally, and the latter had scant sympathy for his nemesis when he drove past the battered Focus on the Rhondda stage.

Burns said: "The first thing I thought when I saw the car was, 'that's a big one'. But then I told myself he can still be champion. I'm surprised Colin was taking big risks on that stage. He's paid the price.

"I'm easing off a little because I need the points, but I'm not easing off too much. It's a very high-pressure situation for everybody. A big part of the fight has gone out of it. It's tough if you're trying to win or just trying to finish fourth. There's no point in chasing after Marcus.''

McRae, champion in 1995, was fastest on the first two stages and still in front when he chose a tight line midway through Rhondda. "I made a mistake and we paid the penalty,'' he admitted. "This is the biggest disappointment of my career.

"It happened on a very fast section. We cut the bend by no more than six inches, a front wheel caught a big hole and flipped the car over. I don't know how many times we rolled. When I got out of the car the vision from my left eye was not right so I went to hospital to have it checked out and all is fine.

"Richard is in the driving seat and all I can do now is sit at home and hope he has a problem. I feel terrible for myself and the team. Everyone's put so much effort into this since 1999. It can be a cruel sport. But Richard still has to survive the rest of the rally.''

Grist said: "I've hurt my arm a bit, but it's our pride that really hurts.''

Survival may not be a straightforward task for 30-year-old Burns. He will be aware that Sainz appeared to be coasting to the championship three years ago, following the early retirement of Makinen, only for his engine to expire barely 500 metres from the end.

RALLY OF GREAT BRITAIN Standings after special stage eight: 1 M Gronholm (Fin, Peugeot) 1hr 20min 15.0sec; 2 R Burns (GB, Subaru) +36.6sec; 3 H Rovanpera (Fin, Peugeot) +52.4; 4 D Auriol (Fr, Peugeot) +2min 10.0sec; 5 C Sainz (Sp, Ford) +2:26.9; 6 A McRae (GB, Hyundai) +2:37.6; 7 M Higgins (GB, Ford) +3:41.9; 8 A Schwarz (Ger, Skoda) +3:51.9; 9 K Eriksson (Swe, Hyundai) +3:52.4; 10 F Loix (Bel, Mitsubishi) +4:17.5.