Motor sport: McRae needs a quick shift into gear

Colin McRae (left) has seen his championship chances dim after Acropolis Rally failure, but he is still fully focused as Ford press ahead. By Derick Allsop
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The Independent Online
THOSE WHO seek to analyse Colin McRae's driving will tell you his self-assurance, judgement and natural instincts separate him from the rest, so it was unsurprising to hear his succinct prognosis on the Ford Focus as he retired from the Acropolis Rally. "The gears are completely knackered," he informed his team over the radio.

Resignation does not sit comfortably on McRae's shoulders, but he now recognises the championship is becoming a distant prospect. Almost as distant as it appeared before the start of the season.

Had he then been offered two wins from his first eight events in the all-new World Rally car, it would have been a done deal. The declared objective at that juncture was to pave the way for a championship challenge in 2000.

However, such was the instant impact of the Focus that McRae and the team revised their aspirations. He finished third on the Monte Carlo rally, even if he was subsequently disqualified because of an illegal water pump. Victories on the Safari and Portuguese rallies, rounds three and four of the championships, confirmed the potential of the car. McRae's talent was never an issue. That is why Ford lured him from Subaru with a two- year contract reportedly worth $10m (pounds 6.25m).

And then the vagaries of this tantalising sport began to drain the euphoria. Just three points from the next four rallies. A blank in Greece, scene of two previous successes for the Scotsman, this week was particularly damaging.

"It's very disappointing because this was a rally I definitely felt I could win," McRae said. "And if we'd got to the last day I'm sure I would have got at least second place, which would have kept me in a good position for the championship."

Accepting second best would usually be anathema to McRae, but more so when it meant conceding to the Englishman, Richard Burns, who had taken over from him at Subaru. Ironically, Burns' maiden win for Subaru has done McRae a favour by taking points off Finland's Tommi Makinen, the championship leader, and the other contenders, but it has also put Burns in the frame at joint fourth place with McRae.

The five-week gap to the New Zealand rally could prove a defining period in the season for McRae and Ford. The team must press ahead with their development programme while achieving essential reliability.

Nicky Grist, McRae's co-driver, acknowledges they are in danger of being squeezed out of the contest. "It's going to be quite difficult for us to win the championship now," the Welshman said. "I wouldn't say it's an impossibility because generally Colin does come strong towards the end of the year. It's a case of developing the car and making it strong enough for Colin to drive as quickly as he can drive it."

Grist is not alone in believing the 30-year-old McRae can drive a rally car quicker than anyone else. However, he alone can speak from experience alongside McRae for the past two and a half years.

"He's certainly come on a lot over the last few years," Grist said. "I think before he always used the throttle before the brain, but now he applies the brain a lot more. He has matured and that makes him very clever now. He's just got this natural ability. He's not trying to make things happen. He's not having to work hard or fight. He's just flowing. When you look at some other drivers, such as Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol - and, don't get me wrong, they are very fast rally drivers - they are just not as natural.

"The only other driver I would say is similar to Colin in that sense is Tommi Makinen. The car is like putty in their hands. They can do anything with it and yet don't put stress on it. The thing that makes Colin even more special is the ability to dig deeper and get that extra five to ten seconds when he needs it. That's the difference between a good rally driver and a great one. You just know when the guy's fully lit, you can feel it. The pace notes are coming that much quicker and at every corner he's teetering on the edge of going off the road."

That Grist is prepared to be conveyed to the edge is a measure of his faith in McRae's car control. "When you're with a top-line driver, although he's much, much faster than most other people, his ability is also so much better than most other people's. You know what they can do."

Even the best have their moments and Grist admits the pair were fortunate to avoid a big accident on a mountain stage of the Acropolis rally, just before their enforced retirement. They flew over a hump on the rocky road, flat in six, and dropped a rear wheel into a ditch.

Grist said: "I expected us to barrel-roll sideways down the hill into the valley and you don't stop easily in a situation like that. But we hit a big lump of I don't know what, and it kicked us back on the road. It could have been pretty nasty."

Their luck was soon to run out. "It had been jumping out of gear a few times but we thought it could get through the day," Grist said. "Then it spat it out repeatedly and in the end we had only first gear, so we'd no chance of going on. It's a bitter disappointment when you're fighting for the championship.

"I think we were a little spoiled in the early part of the season. That good start wasn't expected. We're still going for it and by the end of the year we should be very strong. But if we can't do it this year we'll be looking to come back with a vengeance in 2000 and take the championship then."

n Gwyndaf Evans' miserable Mobil 1 British Championship season continued yesterday in the second stage of the Scottish Rally as the Welsh driver lost three minutes after his SEAT Ibiza punctured. Finland's Tapio Laukkanen took advantage to finish over 20 seconds ahead of his compatriot Jarmo Kytoleh to take the overall lead from David Higgins, who was another six seconds adrift.