Rally GB: Wizard Wilson hopes success runs in family

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The Independent Online

When Matthew Wilson was a child he would tear out of his school uniform and head to the workshops behind the family home to see what his dad was doing. It's no wonder he wanted to lend a hand: Malcolm, a champion rally driver, would likely be tinkering with a high-spec Ford Escort. These days it's Matthew in the driving seat, Britain's sole World Rally Championship competitor – and the man aiming to follow legends Colin McRae and Richard Burns to the title.

Today, in the forests and gravel tracks of Wales, Wilson Jnr's fourth season in the WRC draws to a close – some achievement for a 22-year-old. He has shared his father's passion for rallying for so long that he can't pinpoint when he decided it was where his future lay. "It was just all I ever wanted to do," says Matthew in a break from preparing his Ford Focus RS at a remote and chilly airfield.

On paper it looks as though the likeable Cumbrian has had it easy: after just a year at national level he was given a chance on the world stage, driving for the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team. It was an almost unthinkable promotion, designed to allow the then 19-year-old to learn his trade in the toughest of environments. Take this year's 12-round calendar: from the extremes of Argentina to Finland, he has racked up in excess of 9,000 miles driving on, and between, the stages that make up each event.

"Matthew's had a great opportunity, but he's also been put in a difficult position," says Malcolm. "He is still in a learning process. He's getting invaluable experience finishing the rallies. We've been measuring his progress in terms of seconds per kilometre behind the quickest driver. He's sub-one second per km, which is a big step from only 12 months ago, but the last bit is the hardest."

Scant experience was not the only challenge Matthew faced – there was also the pressure of the nation's thousands of rally fans. "We'd gone from having two British drivers fighting for titles to not having any," says Matthew. "It made it tough. People realised I could not learn overnight, so the pressure eased off a bit, but I'm sure it will come back once I start battling for wins." So can he emulate McRae and Burns one day and win the title? "Definitely."

Matthew has already measured up against one world champion, Lewis Hamilton. In 2003, the pair were team-mates in Formula Renault, a single-seater racing series Wilson used as a stop-gap until he was old enough to get a rally licence. "With circuit racing you can go up and on to F1 – Lewis is 24 and he's a world champion – but it's so different in rallying; you can disappear trying to learn the trade."

In fact, Matthew vanished for several weeks the year after racing alongside Hamilton, when he had a bad accident in the British Rally Championship that left one leg and both arms in plaster. Today, some limbs are still embedded with metal plates. "I was laid up for a long time but I had no doubts about continuing. I just needed to get back in the car as soon as I could. The first time we did a test I felt OK, but we came to the stage where we did a rally and my heart was beating out of my chest. But after five or 10 minutes it was fine."

With support from his family – "what amazed me was my mum; if anyone pushed me, it was her" – he found himself in the WRC less than a year later. The youngest driver to win a WRC stage and score WRC points, Wilson's current tally – 25 points and seventh in the standings – is the best he has yet achieved, and could rise if he reaches his target of fifth place in Wales this afternoon.

Today, the Wilsons' cars are no longer run out of a backyard garage at the family home, but the 115-acre historic Dovenby Hall near Cockermouth in the Lake District.

As director of M-Sport, Malcolm would love to run his son one day. "It's something that's never been done in the history of the World Championship, but he would only get there on results. The next two years are crucial; if he can develop, it would be fantastic to have a British driver in the top end. But that's down to him."

The winner of last week's rally competition was Anna Simpson from Pensby on The Wirral