Motor Rallying / RAC Rally: Lancers make early advances: Kankkunen makes aggressive start but McRae adjusts to new car and prepares to launch counter-attack: Derick Allsop reports from Birmingham

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The Independent Online
AN UNLIKELY pair tracked the world champion, Juha Kankkunen, through the snow and mud to the first overnight halt in the RAC Rally last night. Colin McRae and the rest of the fancied runners were still in there, but they had been nudged down the order by the Mitsubishi Lancers of Armin Schwarz and Kenneth Eriksson.

The purists, of course, deride these opening spectator stages through parkland as 'Mickey Mouse' and of no authentic bearing on the grand event. However, try telling the competitors that these skirmishes in wintry, treacherous conditions were not for real or a test of the potential of their machinery. Mitsubishi have tested diligently for this, the final round of the World Championship, and Schwarz led for part of the day. He was still only 14 seconds behind Kankkunen's Toyoto Celica at the end of the ninth stage. Erikksson was a second behind his team-mate and McRae two seconds further back in the new Subaru Impreza.

For McRae that amounted to a satisfactory first day's work. He lamented the wrong tyre choice during the morning and his crew were concerned about the car's centre differential. But by the afternoon he was into his stride, registering outright fastest times on two stages.

The 25-year-old Scot, charged with the responsibility of becoming the first British winner of the RAC since 1976, said: 'Seventeen seconds is nothing. It's not such a bad thing to be slightly down the order going into the next day because it means someone else can go through the ice first. The real stuff starts from now on and I feel I'll be able to build up my speed on the longer stages. This is where we go for it.'

Kankkunen, his fourth world championship already secured, put down his marker with fastest time on the first stage. Neither Subaru nor Ford could compete; Mitsubishi could an did, the German Schwarz patently undeterred by the icy tracts and edging ahead.

He shared the lead with the patient Kankkunen entering Clumber Park, in Nottinghamshire, but asked too much of his car at a left-hander, slid wide, over-corrected and drifted left. That cost crucial seconds. The Finn was in front again and stayed there into the darkness.

'The conditions were changing all day and later it was getting very icy, very slippery. But we had no big problems. Everything was OK,' Kankkunen said.

In other words, business as usual for the Ice Man and an ominous state of affairs for the others.

Francois Delecour, Kankkunen's main opponent through the championship, was sixth last night in the Ford Escort. Next up for Ford was Malcolm Wilson, the 37-year-old Cumbrian backed by his own team organisation, running eighth.

Wilson has been making this trek for 17 years, often promising, ultimately disappointing. He bashed the window out of his co-driver's door early in the day and conceded: 'I've been struggling hard to get on the pace and I don't think I've done it. I don't know why - maybe it's the driver.'

NETWORK Q RAC RALLY, leaders after Leg 1 (Stages 1-9): 1 J Kankkunen/N Grist (Fin/GB) Toyota Celica 38min 34sec; 2 A Schwarz/P Thul (Ger) Mitsubishi Lancer 38:48; 3 K Eriksson/S Parmander (Swe) Lancer 38:49; 4 C McRae/D Ringer (GB) Subaru Impreza 38:51; 5 A Vatanen/B Berglund (Fin/Swe) Impreza 39:00; 6 F Delecour/D Grataloup (Fr) Ford Escort 39.05; 7 D Auriol/V Occelli (Fr) Celica 39:08; 8 M Wilson/B Thomas (GB) Escort 39:43; 9 R Burns/R Reid (GB) Subaru Legacy 39:49; 10 M Jonsson/L Backman (Swe) Celica 39.55.

(Photograph and map omitted)