Wilson rapidly follows father's pursuit

Youngest-ever British driver sets off down the long and painful road to emulate McRae and Burns
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The Independent Online

Matthew Wilson, carrying the expectation of the nation on his shoulders and wiring in his knee, is about to make rallying history. The 18-year-old Cumbrian is Britain's only full World Rally Championship driver this season, and the youngest ever from these shores.

Wilson embarks on the capricious Monte Carlo Rally on Friday knowing he will be portrayed as the successor to Britain's former world champions, Colin McRae and the late Richard Burns, who died of a brain tumour last November.

As if that is not enough of a burden, he has a knee held together by wire after it was smashed into 10 pieces in a big accident last year. He also suffered a broken arm and wrist. But Wilson, who has a three-year contract to drive a Focus RS for Ford's second string, Stobart VK, is unconcerned by the attention or potential handicap.

He said: "People talk about the pressure of being Britain's only driver doing all 16 rallies and following in the footsteps of Colin and Richard, but this is just the start of a long-term plan for me. The World Championship is my eventual aim, but it will be five or six years before I am in a position of trying to achieve what they achieved. I've got a lot of learning to do first. The Monte is a difficult rally to start with, you can never be sure what the conditions are going to be like, so my objective will be to finish it.

"As for the knee, it's not 100 per cent yet, but at the same time it's not really a problem and I'm not thinking about it. I'm too excited thinking about what a great opportunity I've got."

Wilson was born into rallying, and the courage comes as naturally as the talent. His father, Malcolm, once a distinguished driver, runs Ford's senior team. His company, M-Sport, prepared the 2005-spec car his son will drive, partnered by Michael Orr.

"All I ever wanted was to drive," Matthew said. "When I was little I went to my dad's rallies and helped out. I remember sleeping in the motorhome. He had a workshop near the house and I was always in there. He never influenced me to come into the sport, but once they saw how keen I was, he and my mum encouraged me. He has given me advice along the way."

The huge shunt in Wales failed to dent Matthew's ambition. "That same night I was itching to get back in the car. I was out of competition for about four months, but I did sneak a drive while I still had my leg and arm in casts. My confidence hasn't been affected. It's the only big accident I've had and I suppose it's part of the learning process."

Wilson Snr has emphasised the importance of that process and the need to learn his trade. Two domestic wins confirmed his rehabilitation last season, but he has the experience of only two outings on Rally GB to arm him for the rigours of the WRC.

"He's got to learn the stages, and to do that he has to finish rallies," his father said. "But I can't hold him back all the time. He's quite shrewd for his age so I am not worried. I believe he has the ability to get to the top. I think he's going to be better than his dad, anyway!"

Finland's Marcus Gronholm is Ford's realistic contender for the title this year, although Wilson Snr accepts even a switch to a private Citroën team may not be enough to derail the champion, France's Sébastien Loeb.

He said: "Loeb is again likely to be the man to beat, but it's up to us and Subaru to put him under pressure. He had a fantastic season last year, but didn't have enough competition. Maybe if we are closer to him he will make mistakes."

Replay 1964: Hopkirk's Mini miracle on road to Monte Carlo

When the first BMC Minis rolled off the production line in 1959 it was immediately obvious that their nimble handling, excellent roadholding and rear-wheel drive made them ideal for rallying.

By 1962, beefed up as the Mini Cooper, they had scored up many international successes, but it was the Northern Irishman Paddy Hopkirk's victory in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, driving the new Cooper S, that really captured the public imagination.

Up against formidable opposition from other works teams, including Ford Falcons and Citroën DS 19s, Hopkirk and his navigator Henry Liddon negotiated the snow and ice of the Alps to win by a slender 30 points.

The following year another works Mini won, driven by Timo Makinen, and in 1966 Makinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Hopkirk finished first, second and third for a Mini hat-trick, only to be disqualified on a headlight technicality; one of the most dubious decisions in rallying history.

Simon Redfern