RAC RALLY: McRae to keep it in the family

RAC RALLY: Scottish motorsport's rising talent has been groomed for the big time. Derick Allsop reports
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Fending off the rest of the Formula Two runners and making an impression on the heavyweights in the Network Q RAC Rally would be enough to exercise the skill and concentration of any driver. The driver of car No 10, however, knows he must also compete with the phantom of the forests.

Scotland's Alister McRae has prepared for the three-day rally, which starts in Chester tomorrow, like any other event: testing, recceing, plotting and testing again. Unlike any other entrant, he will be judged against a man not taking part - his brother Colin.

Alister, the younger sibling, was an uncomplaining member of the supporting cast last year when Colin won the RAC and with it the World Championship. Alister's excellent fourth place went virtually unrecognised in the euphoria of a British triumph.

This time the rally does not count towards the overall World Championship standings, and the older McRae is missing from the line-up. That presents Alister with the opportunity to bear the standard for family and country.

It is a challenge he accepts philosophically, just as Colin did when he first ventured out in the wake of their father, Jimmy, a stalwart of the rallying game.

Alister, 25, said: "Colin thought he'd got big wheel tracks to drive in after our father, but now I've got even bigger ones to follow.

"It can be a help having a famous name to start with, but then once you are in you've got to prove yourself, and for the last couple of years I've been in Colin's shadow. I've just got to keep trying my best and, if I get the chance to prove myself on the world scene, I'm sure I can come out of his shadow."

An impact in the RAC might hasten the course of that ambition. McRae drives a new two-litre Volkswagen Golf GTi 16V and primarily is intent on beating the rest in his formula class. But he is eager also to join a pack he expects to be tracking Juha Kankkunen's Toyota Celica.

"I need to get a good result for Volkswagen," he said. "If I win Formula Two, it would probably do more good than coming fourth overall last year. But if I'm leading Formula Two and not in the top 10 overall, I wouldn't be very happy. If the car runs well, I would hope to finish about sixth overall."

But will any achievement count for much in an event seemingly devalued this year? McRae argues it would.

"The competition is still going to be very strong," he said. "There's the biggest Formula Two entry of any World Championship rally this season, with Seat, Renault and Skoda fighting for the title, and tough opposition from Ford and Nissan. And then you've got names such as Kankkunen and Armin Schwarz, and I'd be surprised if Kankkunen didn't win.

"All right, so it won't be the same without Colin and Carlos Sainz fighting out the championship, but there's still going to be an awful lot of quick drivers. It's still going to be tough, it's still going to be exciting and, above all, it's still going to be the RAC.

"I'm sure we'll still have huge crowds out there because the RAC has such an amazing appeal and the fans in this country are real enthusiasts. It's particularly good for the home drivers, because there's no doubt you do feel it competing here.

"It's not going to give you a second a mile, but it's got to give you the confidence, the fight and the will to go quick, knowing all those people are behind you. I saw what it was like for Colin last year. Just fantastic."

McRae hopes to gather further World Championship experience next year with a view to securing a full programme for the 1998 season and renewing boyhood rivalry with his brother.

"If I didn't feel I could do as well as Colin, I wouldn't stick at it," he maintained. "Anything we've done up to now, bikes or whatever, it's always been very close between us. He's just beaten me or I've just beaten him.

"It's hard to compare drivers and their styles. The only comparison that matters is the times at the end of the stage. What I would say is that I've not had as many accidents as Colin," he added with a grin.

British interest is concentrated on the Formula Two contest, with Wales' perennial challenger Gwyndaf Evans, driving a Ford Escort RS2000, providing an obvious threat to anyone with aspirations in the category. Robbie Head (Renault) and Mark Higgins (Nissan) ought to be in contention also.

Martin Brundle, on a Formula One-man's holiday, has seriously competitive "first division" kit in the Ford Escort Cosworth. He must measure himself against the likes of Kankkunen, the most successful rally driver of all time.

The 37-year-old Finn has won 20 World Championship events and the title four times. Partnered by the Welshman Nicky Grist, Kankkunen is seeking his fourth victory in the RAC rally.

Kankkunen's opposition will come from the other drivers steering Toyota's rehabilitation after serving a one-year ban for technical offences, namely Schwarz and Ian Duncan, and the leading Ford runners Jarno Kytolehto and Ari Vatanen.

And back there, in the 190-strong field, deep in the mud and trees, will be the usual mix of would-be champions and unabashed enthusiasts, all living out their dreams. In line with recent tradition, the spectator stages are being held on the Sunday, which is the second day this year, and by then sterner tests may have taken their toll.

The drivers get down to the real business straight away, on the unforgiving tracts of Kielder and the other northern territories, so those massed Sunday galleries might well be deprived a glimpse of many a luminary and romantic.