RAC Rally: Ice stumps British hopes

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A tree stump in the grounds of a stately home in Derbyshire compounded the mayhem at the Network Q RAC Rally yesterday, spectacularly ending the aspirations of Britain's Gwyndaf Evans and Robbie Head.

Evans was fifth overall, leading the home challenge when he went into Chatsworth Park in the morning. His Ford Escort RS 2000 slid on ice, struck the stump, to the left of the track, tossing it into two and a half barrel rolls and smashing in the roof. The Welshman eventually reached the end of the stage but neither his, nor his car, was in a fit state to continue. He was taken to hospital in Chesterfield and detained overnight for observation.

Head, driving a Renault Megane, followed the same fateful course, then rolled five and a half times. He was unhurt, but seething that he had not been warned of the hazard.

Evans, a veteran of this event, was visibly shaken by the incident. He said: "We got caught out on ice. There was a flat right, over a jump, fourth or fifth gear, we started to go sideways and rolled. It was not very nice. I'm feeling rough. My back and neck are not so good." His navigator, Howard Davies, escaped injury. He said: "We had enough time to think `this will hurt' and `when will it stop'. The marshals tried to pull me out by my feet but we were trapped by our helmets. We had to take them off to get out."

Davies was among those who wondered whether they should have been competing in such obviously dangerous conditions. The prospects of emergency crews having to cope with icy tracks did not bear thinking about, he suggested. Head expressed his grievance even more vehemently. "It was completely icy," he said. "We ran wide and hit the tree. It's crazy because Gwyndaf had gone off at the same spot and there was no warning. It's wasted two cars and two drivers' chances."

This event, already undermined through losing its world championship status this year, has been further blighted since it started on Saturday in the Northern Forests, extreme conditions catching out some of the best drivers in the field. The organisers have been criticised for changing the regular schedule and exposing the competitors to such an unforgiving environment on the opening day, but the weather this time has been almost freakishly hostile. Even yesterday's normally docile spectator stages were rendered venemous and persistent snow in Wales defied the best endeavours of workman and their ploughs, forcing the cancellation of this morning's first stage.

One man, however, has made relative light of the snow and ice. Armin Schwarz, of Germany, has steered a generally untroubled course in his Toyota Celica, returning to the Racecourse here last evening with a commanding lead of 5min 11sec. Second was Japan's Masao Kamioka, in a Subaru Impreza, and third Sweden's Stig Blomqvist, heading the Skoda campaign in this, their silver jubilee.

The leading Briton going into the final day is Jeremy Easson, of Leicestershire, seventh overall at the wheel of a Ford Escort Cosworth.

The catalogue of catastrophes gathered an alarming momentum from the early, treacherous tests. Juha Kankkunen, the pre-event favourite, leading Toyota's return following a one-year ban, slid off and into a ditch on the third stage, and although he ultimately scrambled through, his rally was over.

His fellow Finn Jarmo Kytoleahto, in a Ford, came to grief at the same corner. Yet another Finn, Ari Vatanen, also in a Ford, had one skirmish too many swerving off a public road to avoid an oncoming vehicle, and was out. The casualties were joined by Ian Duncan, Alister McRae, Louise Aitken-Walker and some 40 others come Saturday evening.

Martin Brundle, with help from Aitken-Walker survived his first day in rallying albeit a grand prix duration off the pace. He was effectively lapped before he had warmed his tyres and slithered from one trauma to another. "It was a bit unfair to have to face that on my first proper day in rallying," he said. "It was a bit fraught."

Brundle's fortunes took a turn for the better yesterday his increasing confidence reflected in improved times. Last night he was 73rd, an hour and 43 minutes down on Schwarz.

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