Rallying: Burns' talent may be decisive force in RAC Rally and title ra ce

The young British driver, Richard Burns, could play a key role in the destiny of the 1997 World Rally Championship. And a good performance, as he tells Derick Allsop, would mark him out as a future winner of the event.

All about him the talk is of the World Championship conundrum, of Colin McRae and Tommi Makinen. When it comes round to him, the question is how he might influence the title issue at next week's Network Q RAC Rally.

Richard Burns politely and dutifully acknowledges he has "a job to do" for his team, and therefore for his team-mate, Makinen, when he sets out from Cheltenham on Sunday. But he is palpably a young man with his own agenda.

He reasons: "The best way I can help the team is by going out and winning the rally and ensuring Colin doesn't. That would obviously be the best result for me also and I have no doubt I can do it."

Burns' personal ambition is an intriguing sub-plot in the final act of the World Rally Championship. The main storyline features Makinen, and his endeavour to retain his title in the face of a revived challenge from McRae, the man with home advantage.

Makinen, the 33-year-old Finn, requires only a point from the British event and even that would not be necessary if the 29-year-old Scot failed to win the three- day trek.

The Mitsubishi team, based at Rugby, are hoping Burns can apply sufficient pressure to break McRae and turn the rally into an lap of honour for Makinen. However, you sense the 26-year-old Englishman is a mite ill at ease cast as the destroyer.

Burns said: "In all honesty I can't see Tommi wanting any help from me or anyone else. You could get a situation where I'm running in sixth place and he's seventh going into the last stage, in which case I could give way, but I can't see that situation arising.

"Tommi and Colin are very similar in terms of ability and style. You would have to put your money on Colin to win this rally because he's good under pressure and he's always extremely quick on the RAC.

"But although the RAC is one of the most unpredictable rallies in the championship and anything can happen, I believe there is no way Tommi will finish out of the top six, and that's all he needs to be concerned with."

Burns' championship sights are on next year and the years beyond. Long identified as a potential contender, he made his World Rally Championship debut in 1990 and became the youngest winner of the British championship in 1993, at the age of 22.

To prove himself the best in the world he must have a regular drive and he has reinforced his claims with consistently competitive performances from a limited programme this season. He has driven the Carisma GT in only seven of the 13 rallies yet has five top four finishes, including second place on the Safari, and seventh position in the championship standings.

Success in the RAC would provide the perfect finale to the year and perhaps a defining influence on his career. Not least because it might usher him from the shadow of McRae. His best result in the event is the third he achieved two years ago, but that went almost unnoticed as his colleagues celebrated the ultimate triumph.

A change of the RAC Rally route, centreing on Cheltenham racecourse and eliminating the fabled northern tracts, such as Kielder, has met with a mixed reaction but has Burns' approval.

He said: "We've still got a lot of challenging stages in Wales, though, and I've always gone well through the Welsh forests.

"I know some people consider it a big loss not to have Kielder, but I'm sure the rally will be far from straightforward. It will be tough, it will be very competitive, and I think it will be very interesting.

"I'm not the only driver who could be putting pressure on Colin. Both Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen at Ford can go all out for the win without any pressure on them. There could well be a couple of Toyotas in there as well."

Which suggests Makinen would be advised not to drag his heels. "I don't think he will," Burns says. "The Lancer is a car designed to be driven flat out, not 85 per cent. If he dilly-dallies it won't work properly. And if you are concentrating really well, which you have to, it is very difficult to go too slowly."

Burns has no such dilemma. "I have a very clear objective. I'll be giving it everything from first to last. I know I can win and I know that if I drive well it can happen."

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