Rallying: McRae hones new skills to cope with Dakar Rally

A Dank, unforgiving morning, with the temperature barely above freezing, at a small aerodrome in middle England seemed an unlikely setting for the job at hand. The passing tractor pulling a trailer of hay rendered it absurdly incongruous. But Colin McRae thrust his red and white beast of a machine into gear for the first time and made the most of this opportunity to prepare for the fabled desert challenge that is the Dakar Rally.

The former world rally champion, thwarted in his attempt to secure a drive with Subaru for next season, has found a new toy and adventure to indulge his instinct for speed and competition, and now he can give them his sole attention.

"I'm excited and probably a wee bit daunted," he said after a few runs over a short twisting, bumpy course in the Nissan Pickup. "What I know about Dakar is what I've seen on television or been told. It's something I've always wanted to do and now I can.

"I was going to do this anyway but now I don't have a WRC event straight after Dakar to think about I can enjoy it even more. I'll be able to give it 100 per cent. It's totally different from WRC, about as different as Formula One from WRC. It's very much a journey into the unknown. But that's what makes it so exciting. It's a similar feeling I had when I went into my first rally in 1985. My whole world is going to be turned upside down."

The 'unknown' is a near 7,000-mile trek, starting at Clermont Ferrand, in France, on New Year's Day and ending in Dakar, Senegal, 18 days later. Some nights he will have the familiar luxury of hotel accommodation. On others he and his Swedish co-driver, Tina Thorner, will have to pitch their own tents and rediscover the joys of the great outdoors.

"They didn't tell me about that until I'd signed the contract," he said with a mischievous smile, knowing he was in earshot of a Nissan employee. "I think I've slept in a tent once in my life. A long time ago." Acquainting himself with the Pickup would appear to be the least of his concerns. "It's a lot more nimble than it looks and although it obviously doesn't have the acceleration of a WRC car it's no slouch,'' he said. "Even the small bump here would be risky with a WRC car, but the bigger bumps are nothing to the Nissan."

McRae made his reputation on his raw speed and flamboyant style. Dakar, he acknowledges, demands a more prudent approach. He said: "One of the keys is getting the speed in the right places. There are dangers, particularly on the sand dunes, but you can afford to back off. If you lose some time it's not the end of the world. You have to adapt to the event. In the European WRC event you can't afford to back off. Dakar is more like the Safari Rally, where the first objective is to survive it, then think about your position.

"I'm used to rallies where you go flat out for about six stages of 20 minutes or so on each of the three days. Dakar lasts for six times as many days and some of the stages are 700 kilometres long. You're doing 10 to 12 hours a day. And for Tina there'll be another four or five hours on top of that, planning the route for the next day. It's a bit like rallying used to be before we had pace notes.

"We'll have meals in the morning and at night, but then we'll be relying on the water and energy bars we carry with us. And that's going to be tough for me. I like my food." For a Scotsman, embarking on Dakar requires the ultimate concession. "There'll be no drinkies on Hogmanay for me,'' he confirmed. "I've been watching my diet and training properly for this.'' If he can overcome the more fundamental problems, the rest should be a breeze. He is a trained mechanic so he will be able to handle basic repairs. As for the driving, that has always come naturally.

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