It is 17 years since a home driver won this event, traditionally the
final round of the World Rally Championship. Indeed, Roger Clark's fabled victory was the only success achieved by a British driver in the world championship until earlier this season. Then, McRae, driving a Subaru, outpaced the rest to win in New Zealand. They suspected the old country had at last unearthed something special; now they knew it.
The mantle, it appears, rests easily with McRae. He is undaunted in the company of Kankkunen, Delecour and Auriol, and by the many and varied challenges of the RAC Rally, now the Network Q RAC Rally. 'I feel I belong with these people and I don't think there's much to choose
between the top guys,' he said. 'It's all very close, very open.'
In other words he, too, feels he has arrived. He is unfazed by the expectations of the hordes who will populate the forests of England, Wales and the Borders for four days, because his own expectations are just as high.
'I find the support stimulating, not intimidating,' he said. 'I don't see it as pressure or anything like that. It was great last year. I loved it.'
In each of the past two RAC
rallies he has led, only to be sabotaged by mishap. He sets out from Birmingham tomorrow with the benefit of an extra year's experience, the assurance instilled by that win and a new, faster, more nimble car, the Impreza 555.
'I have more of a chance than last year,' the 25-year-old Scot, said, delivering the words as a cold statement of fact rather than comment. 'The car is totally different and
although it might take me until maybe half-way through the second day to feel comfortable with it, I know it's going to be quick and competitive. We also have the team, the right environment to work in. It's just a question of how the driver performs and he should be better than last year.
'I've obviously learned from the past year, I'm more experienced, more mature, and I sense that the other drivers recognise that. I realise I have to be more consistent to become successful, maintain the speed and yet not be too impetuous or do stupid things.'
Pace and consistency: the elusive combination. Francois Delecour, in a Ford Escort, has demonstrated unrivalled pace and perhaps should have been world champion, but is not. Didier Auriol, in a Toyota Celica, is stunningly quick also yet still prone to overexuberance. And then there is Juha Kankkunen, the very embodiment of pace and consistency, and now world champion for a record fourth time, this year at the wheel of a Toyota Celica.
There might be other threats to McRae's aspirations: his own team- mate, Ari Vatanen, and the doughty Englishman, Malcolm Wilson, in a Ford Escort. Kankkunen, however, is the man McRae fears most, the man they all fear most, especially since Carlos Sainz is absent.
'Juha is so cool, he never gets flustered,' McRae said. 'If it's not going to be his day he leaves it till another day. That's experience for you. The fact that he has already won the championship means there's no pressure on him, he can just go for it. On the other hand, he might figure there's no point in taking risks. I know what I'd do in his place, I'd go for it.'
McRae dispels the theory that
local knowledge will help. 'Most of these guys know these stages better than I do and in any case we now have pace notes, so that evens things up.
'Pace notes are particularly useful in Kielder because you're not running blind as you used to.'
The dreaded word: Kielder. 'Killer Kielder' as it is disaffectionately known. Killer of cars, killer of dreams. 'I actually like Kielder,' McRae said. 'Others don't, but I find these stages exciting, fast, what rallying is all about. You've got to be committed, and you know that this is where it can be won and lost.'
The RAC Rally will again be a McRae family affair. Father Jimmy and younger brother Alister are also competing, while mother Margaret and another younger brother Stuart will no doubt be out there in the forest galleries.
'Once the rally starts, I won't be thinking about dad and Alister,' Colin said. 'I can't afford to, and they know that.
'Sure, I'll be checking on their progress at the end of each day, but if you want to achieve anything at this level you have to give it total concentration. I'm going to be giving it 100 per cent, start to finish. If the chance is there, I intend to be prepared for it, and take it.'
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