Rallying: Burning up the forests

After the heat and dust of Australia, Britain's No 2 rally driver relishes the mud and cold of home; McRae will not have it all his own way next week.
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The Independent Online
TOMMI MAKINEN will probably make history at next week's Network Q Rally of Great Britain - better known by its old title, the RAC Rally - by becoming world champion for the third successive year. But according to those determined aficionados who like to be within touching distance as 300-horsepower turbo-charged cars slew past, the most talented driver of all is Britain's Colin McRae whose world title hopes blew up in Australia last weekend. Yet every cloud of smoke has a silver lining, or in his case a very large pot of gold.

The British rally is the last in this year's world series and sets off at Cheltenham racecourse on Sunday for 1,175 miles of still extremely wet Welsh countryside and the mucky Midlands. For McCrae it will be his last major appearance in a Japanese Subaru before joining Ford. To help compensate for the fact that the the newly-designed Ford Focus he will be driving from January is unlikely to be truly competitive until the end of next year, McRae has negotiated a two- year contract worth - he does not deny - a reported pounds 6m, not a bad return for sacrificing the chance of a world title for just one season.

McRae would probably have been returning to the British event he has won four times in the last five years with high hopes of winning the championship this year were it not for the fact that five miles from the finish of the Rally of Australia his car's turbocharger blew up. Had he won, the odds would have been on his taking full advantage of the home ground he knows so well. His misfortune leaves Makinen (Mitsubishi) and Spain's Carlos Sainz (Toyota) in a head to head, which is doubly infuriating because last year he lost the world title by only one point to Makinen and revenge seemed so close.

As if McRae's ill-luck was not bad enough, Britain's next highest-placed driver overall, Makinen's Mitsubishi team-mate, Richard Burns, who is sixth, dropped out after twice rolling his car. He had been holding third place and was looking likely to move up rather than over. It was not the ideal way to approach the British climax of the season and the event that last year he led until a puncture on the last day forced him out. Nevertheless, he could well win it this time.

Burns, from Oxford, is 27 and has been driving rally cars since he was 15, but in a sport that seems to offer bonus points for maturity, he thinks of himself as a comparative novice at top level. Even so he began this his first full world championship season splendidly, challenging Makinen and McRae, but although a winner of the Safari rally he has yet to achieve victory in the "sprint events" which form the modern world championship series.

Burns explained: "Events like the RAC are flat out on every single stage. Years ago events would be won by minutes; now it's so competitive it's usually a few seconds." He confidently expects that he and McRae will fight it out for victory next week while Makinen more carefully guards his overall two-point lead over Sainz. "We've got nothing to lose now so it doesn't really matter if we don't finish," Burns said. "I think it's going to be between us two. Last year in all the forest stages I think there was only one on which either Colin or myself were not fastest."

Not finishing the British event last year mattered a lot. "Everyone was expecting Colin to win but we went into the lead, then Colin drew level with us, then we pulled away from him. I think it's possible to win this year, especially after Australia where we and Tommi were fastest on 15 stages out of the 23." When speaking of "we", Burns includes his invaluable co-driver Robert Reid.

The dry, hot conditions of Australia in the last round could not have been more different to the mud and cold of a British winter, but Burns said: "Although that's true, the suspension set-up we use is fairly similar. Because Australia is dusty, the grip level comparison between the two rallies is fairly similar. In the dry you have a lot of loose gravel which gives you less grip than if you were on wet gravel, so unless it's really wet, with standing water, it's surprising how similar the conditions are likely to be."

As a comparatively young competitive driver with "probably another 10 years ahead", Burns is in demand. Mitsubishi, who still have a chance of the manufacturers' title, wanted him to stay for next year, but that would have meant remaining No 2 to the Finn Makinen. "Clearly, as a No 2, if I had been leading in Australia and Tommi was second, I would have been told to finish second. Mitsubishi put out equal cars but they are one of the smallest teams in the championship, without a huge budget."

So next year he moves to Subaru in place of McRae. He realises comparisons will be drawn but says: "Most of the drivers have been around for a long time, so the manufacturers are looking for fresh people." McRae's financial package has been called excessive, but Burns said: "It's good that he got that sort of money because it ups the ante for everyone."

The move will improve his standing at a time when, in spite of the fact that it costs about pounds 12m a year to run a successful team, there are more manufacturers coming in to the sport and not enough drivers to go round. Or at least insufficient drivers who can defy any weather, any ice-crazed or sun-baked surface, avoid deer, dogs and daft devotees who stray on to the forest tracks, and all at speeds that make a caravan club sort of word like "rally" seem absurdly inadequate.

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