They file out of Birmingham tomorrow morning on the Network Q RAC Rally, their minds uncluttered by championship statistics, their instincts unrestrained by points requirements. Toyota and Juha Kankkunen already have the titles secured. The shackles are off. This is a straightforward shoot-out, a four-day charge. It just might be one of the classics.
Kankkunen, not renowned for overexuberance, said: 'It seems to be the first time in a long time that we have not had to think about the championship situation and that is a nice feeling. I have nothing to lose and I can just enjoy it and go for it. We can all go for it.'
The demise of Lancia and consequent absence of Carlos Sainz will be lamented, but the wheels of competition keep turning and there are new forces to be reckoned with. Toyota's success has confounded the expectations of Ford and the campaign for retribution begins here. Then there is Subaru, the team gradually gathering momentum and providing a platform for Britain's great hope, Colin McRae. Mitsubishi will doggedly pursue the three favourites, while Vauxhall's target is the Formula Two award. All this over 1500 miles, 35 stages of hostile, unforgiving forest tracts.
Kankkunen's fourth title - a record - may have caught some off guard, yet he declares himself unamazed by developments this season and now just about everyone identifies the 34-year-old Finn and his Celica as the combination to beat. He said: 'From the very
beginning I felt the car was good and I had a good feeling about the team. We have nice people to work with and that is important. So I was not really so surprised when we got the good results.'
Those 'nice people' included his navigator for the past eight years, Juha Piironen. On the eve of the
Argentine Rally five months ago Kankkunen found his partner ill in his hotel room. He had suffered a brain haemorrhage. The doctors said Kankkunen probably saved his life. Nicky Grist, a Welshman, was offered Piironen's seat and directed Kankkunen to victory. Two further wins and third place in Spain completed a remarkable achievement by the pair.
Kankkunen said: 'Juha is getting better but of course he cannot go rallying. Nicky is very good, still learning, very enthusiastic. Next year we shall have a full season together.'
There is something of the Alain Prost in Kankkunen: a calculating driver, a percentage player. He reasons: 'You do what you can in a rally. You have to be realistic and take targets when you can, otherwise you get zero. If I don't feel all right for a stage I decide it is better to drive 90 per cent and get what I can. Then, at the next stage, if I feel OK for it, I go for it. The tactics can change and that is rallying.'
If, as he says, his overall strategy is 'to go for it' he can anticipate meeting at least five other drivers head-on: his team-mate Didier
Auriol, Ford's Francois Delecour and Malcolm Wilson, and Subaru's McRae and Ari Vatanen.
Delecour and the Escort appeared to have the championship at their mercy early in the season, but their untimely lapses and Kankkunen's consistency tilted the balance. Ford already have Miki Biasion preparing next season's
effort, so Wilson, a 37-year-old Cumbrian, assumes the mantle of No 2 driver, backed by his own team organisation. Both men have pace yet both are prone to error and mishap. Much the same can be said of McRae and Vatanen, who drive the new Impreza.
At the sharp end the competition is ferocious, the driving and
machinery of the highest calibre. Down the field the competition may still be keen, yet here there is also a sense of adventure, a dream to realise, a cause to champion.
There is the Red Arrows pilot, Simon Meade, making his international rally debut in a VW Golf, hoping to raise pounds 20,000 for the Childline charity; the youngest competitor is 17-year-old Katy Tuthill, daughter of the London- Sydney Marathon winner, Francis, partnering her 19-year-old brother Richard, in a Subaru Vivio; perhaps the least likely pairing in Murray Spencer, a bank manager, and Michael Spicer, a dustman, occupying a Skoda Favorit. This, too, could be a hard act to follow . . .
Carlos Sainz will drive for Subaru next year, the team announced yesterday.