Rallying: Brundle learns, Schwarz masters

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The Independent Online
Martin Brundle's great adventure in the forests was consigned to a ditch yesterday, but not before he had been hooked on the drug that is the Network Q RAC Rally. As Germany's Armin Schwarz was coasting to consummate victory and Mark Higgins was carrying the British standard with a creditable fourth place, the Formula One veteran was coming to grief as so many before him had done.

Brundle, whose excellent showing on Sunday was scarcely reflected by an overnight position of 73rd, resumed the charge in Wales yesterday morning. Twenty-five minutes into the stage he had overtaken five cars, which had left ahead of him at one minute intervals, and went wide to negotiate a sixth. Too wide.

The Ford Escort RS Cosworth plunged into the ditch. Brundle, remembering instructions from the rallying fraternity, "booted it", hoping to force his way out. Instead, the car thumped into a bank. The impact smashed in the front and caused a fire. Brundle and his navigator, Roger Freeman, clambered to safety as marshals quickly dealt with the blaze.

For Brundle it was a salutary lesson at the end of a concentrated course on rallying. After his ordeal on Saturday, he had found a renewed relish. "The car was going beautifully," he said. "Driving fast is no problem. The problem is you've got so little margin for error. I came up behind the sixth car and was unsighted. We slid into the ditch and then came to a sudden stop from about 50mph. There was a small turbo fire but it was no real drama.

"I've been taking off minutes from everyone. I could have cruised round and been the first grand prix driver to finish the RAC, but I wasn't interested in that. Not that I was going silly."

Brundle acknowledged his rally had been prolonged thanks to the assistance of Louise Aitken-Walker. "I found the camaraderie slightly strange," he admitted. "Everyone wants to help. I didn't expect that. I now realise in these elements you have to help each other.

"I didn't enjoy Saturday. I was out of my depth, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I don't want to leave it like that. I've got to do it again."

Brundle's performance made Freeman revise his opinion of Formula One drivers, commonly perceived in this area of motorsport as jumped up and pampered. Freeman said: "It's a shame it ended like that. But he's a great driver, his car control is superb. It was easy to overlook his inexperience, and that is probably what caught him out. He could be world class, right up there with the McRaes. He's changed my attitude towards grand prix drivers. We're supposed to be the tough ones, out in the forests, but we're no tougher than they are. If you can drive a Formula One car, you can drive a rally car."

Brundle cannot be sure he is still a Formula One driver, but he is optimistic of negotiating a deal to stay with Jordan-Peugeot next season. He left saying: "Now I've got to get a job. I'm hopeful we can sort things."

Shwarz had business pretty well sorted from the first stage and his Toyota Celica rolled into the racecourse here yesterday 7min 52sec ahead of Japan's Masao Kamioka, in a Subaru Impreza, the biggest winning margin in the rally for 13 years. The German said: "It's great to end the season this way. Even after everything the weather threw at us in the first two days, the last leg in Wales was no easier. I could afford to back off a little but I didn't want to get too far away from my normal rhythm. Our only scare came when the power steering went and we lost 40sec in penalties changing the steering rack."

The winner in 1983, Sweden's Stig Blomqvist, was third overall this time, giving Skoda a Formula Two victory to celebrate their RAC silver jubilee and turn all those old jokes on a few more renowned manufacturers.

Britain's leading driver overnight, Jeremy Easson, ran into problems, slipping to sixth and presenting the national distinction to Higgins, in a Nissan Sunny. The 25-year-old Isle of Man-born rally instructor, said: "Brilliant, quite brilliant. We had to attack and just went for it. I couldn't have gone any quicker."

Robbie Head, whose rally ended on Sunday, signed a new contract with Renault yesterday. The 28-year-old Scot has agreed to a third season with the French manufacturer and a second in the Maxi Megane.

Wales' Gwyndaf Evans, who also crashed on Sunday, was released from hospital yesterday, declaring himself stiff but otherwise unhurt.

NETWORK Q RAC RALLY Leading final overall standings: 1 A Schwarz (Ger) Toyota 4hr 46 min 50sec; 2 M Kamioka (Japan) Subaru 4:54:42; 3 S Blomqvist (Swe) Skoda 5:02:02; 4 M Higgins (GB) Nissan 5:09:11; 5 G De Mevius (Bel) Renault 5:11:20; 6 J Easson (GB) Ford 5:13:59; 7 D Buckley (GB) Subaru 5:16:54; 8 H Rovanpera (Fin) Seat 5:20:40; 9 E Weber (Ger) Seat 5:22:24; 10 R Baumschlager (Aut) Volkswagen 5:23:25.