Solberg driven by a burning desire to be the best

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The mathematics are against him and his Peugeot 206 has been off the pace against the top cars in recent rounds of this year's World Rally Championship. Clearly it will take an extraordinary drive in next week's final event, the Wales Rally GB beginning in Cardiff on Thursday, or a series of mechanical failures or errors of judgement by the three drivers ahead of him, for Britain's best-placed competitor, Richard Burns, to win the title.

In which case it could well go to a Norwegian, Petter Solberg (Subaru), who a fortnight ago seemingly crashed his way out of contention, then, overnight, reappeared.

For Burns the situation is simple but difficult. After abandoning the last round, the Rally Cataluyna, he comes to his home event five points behind the joint championship leaders, Carlos Sainz (Citroën) and Sébastien Loeb (Citroën). He must win and the three drivers ahead fail to finish in the top four. The third of them is Solberg, who is only a point behind the leaders and would be even more strongly placed if he had done better than fifth in Spain. But he was fortunate even to be competing.

Solberg, who won last year's Rally GB, would not be in the running for the title were it not for an astonishing victory in the recent round in Corsica, where he crashed his Impreza in practice. The mangled car had to be rebuilt overnight but it still got to the start ramp.

"I didn't believe the team would get the car ready," he said. "I was feeling really bad, and couldn't do anything. I sat in my room thinking about nothing else. I couldn't even dream of winning." Tommi Makinen offered to give up the team's second Impreza to help the better-placed Solberg, but the mechanics insisted on the all-night battle.

The car had hit a telegraph pole at high speed and been all but ripped in two. Yet Solberg recalled that he almost felt grateful the pole was there: "If I had hit it next to me I would have been injured, but it stopped us going over a drop of about 200 metres."

In spite of that he won the rally by 36 seconds from Sainz, who took the overall lead away from Burns, who had led the series since March.

Solberg, 29, is generally considered the best of the new generation of rally drivers. His seemingly carefree attitude out of the car runs counter to his determinedly serious ambition when faced with the examinations and perils of driving. He accepts that in spite of Burns making some pessimistic statements about his own chances of winning in Wales, the British driver is likely to be his biggest rival.

"Richard is going to be really determined to win," he said. "I know it's going to be difficult but I have to concentrate more on keeping Seb and Carlos behind me than going flat out from the start. You don't have to win every battle to win the war."

Current champion Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot) believes that Solberg will be "unbeatable" on the gravel surfaces of Wales, especially as his car is strong and the Pirelli tyres are suited to the wet weather that almost always drenches the GB Rally. Even so, there has never been a closer finish to the world championship, and Burns is hoping that practice in Wales will give him a chance of closing the gap on the leaders. Solberg is cautious about his own chances: "I know it's going to be difficult, but if I had to choose anywhere to make a final effort to win the title it would be the Rally GB."

Solberg is particularly wary of the threat posed by Loeb, who has had a good season and a couple of years ago secured the FIM Junior World Rally Championship in Wales. However, Britain's most experienced driver, Colin McRae, says that in his view Solberg starts as favourite in spite of the fact that he must finish at least two places ahead of Loeb or Sainz, or at least third if Burns wins. The permutations seem endless, but the 35-year-old McRae is not among the title contenders, although he could well finish highly placed in the rally itself. He has finally lost his appetite for the demanding world championship, and intends to take a year out then consider a comeback in 2005.

This year will see the last of the spectator-popular super-special stages on the side-by-side track in Cardiff Bay, because the site is due to be redeveloped. The organisers of next year's rally are hoping to incorporate the Millennium Stadium in a new special stage.

World Championship positions: 1 S Loeb (France, Citroën), 63; 2 C Sainz (Spain, Citroën), 63; 3 P Solberg (Norway, Subaru), 62; 4 R Burns (GB, Peugeot) 58.

Itinerary: 6 and 7 November: Special Stage (SS) 1: Cardiff. SS2: Brechfa. SS3: Trawscoed. SS4: Rheola. SS5: Resolfen 1. SS6: Rheola. SS7: Cardiff.

8 November: SS8: Crychan. SS9: Halfway. SS10: Crychan. SS11: Halfway: SS12: Margam Forest. SS13: Margam Park. SS14: Resolfen 2. SS15: Cardiff Super Special.

9 November: SS16: Rhondda. SS17: Rhondda. SS18: Margam Park 2.