Rallying: Burns wins confidence from early sparring

RALLY OF GREAT BRITAIN McRae loses out in skirmishes but the real battle begins today as rivals fight to prove dominance
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The Independent Online
FIRST BLOOD to Richard Burns, but Colin McRae is content to lie in wait.

The much trumpeted showdown of the two leading home drivers on the Network Q Rally of Great Britain was little more than a bout of sparring through yesterday's spectator stages.

However, Burns took the opportunity to bolster his confidence and vent some of his frustration at being perceived as Britain's No 2 by defeating McRae in a head-to-head race over the 1.2 mile Superspecial stage at Silverstone.

The Englishman completed the tight, twisting run eight tenths of a second quicker than the Scotsman and his time proved too much for the rest of the competitors.

Spin and suspension problems on the Subaru earlier in the day cost Burns any prospect of heading the field at the end of the first day and, despite going fastest again in the final stage, in the darkness of the race course here, he had to settle for fourth place overnight.

The phlegmatic McRae shrugged off the setback at Silverstone as he shrugged off his eighth position overall last night. He had to endure other problems through the day. He bent his door and smashed the window after hitting a gate post on the opening stage. A straw bale proved scant protection.

"It's a little disappointing to have lost a few seconds, but today is the kind of day where you can lose so much more if you are not careful," said McRae. "The real rally starts tomorrow."

McRae had to wait until after the fourth stage - and the long road stretches - before the Ford mechanics could get to work on his damaged Focus.

To complicate matters, his Swedish team-mate, Thomas Radstrom, had also broken a window. The crew found a solution by raiding a Focus simulator, conveniently positioned to amuse the punters at Silverstone. They took away the two doors and fitted them to the rally cars.

Martine Whitaker, head of Ford Motorsport in Europe, said: "It was unbelievable. This poor guy is sitting there, pretending to be McRae, when three of our burly mechanics come along, get him out, and remove the doors. The poor security guy didn't know what was going on. But it was a smart piece of thinking by our guys and they got the job done."

McRae's mechanics had not finished there. They had to change his gearbox after he reported a problem selecting third. His tyres had given him further concern, but he admitted that was down to his choice.

Burns' team-mate, Juha Kankkunen, led the rally last night, followed by Francois Delecour and Marcus Gronholm in the nimble Peugeot 206 cars. The Toyota Corolla pair, Carlos Sainz and Didier Auriol, were fifth and sixth respectively, with Mitsubishi's Tommi Makinen, the world champion, seventh.

Day one of the rally accounted for only 22 competitive miles, less than a 10th of the total distance. The contest proper begins in the forests of mid-Wales this morning, where Burns and McRae can be expected to launch their challenges.

Burns had made it clear in the build-up to this event that he believed it was high time he was given the recognition he felt he deserved. He will finish the season above McRae in the championship no matter what happens in this event, but he wants to prove to the British public he can beat McRae in a straight fight. So far, so good.

"After losing 10 seconds early on there was no point in worrying about leading overnight," Burns said. "I'm only eight seconds off the lead and that's nothing. The important thing is I've not made a mistake and it should be easy to make up that time in Wales.

McRae completed the day almost 24 seconds down on Kankkunen but he, too, was confident of making up ground today. He said: "Richard won this battle but it's not this one that counts. It's who wins on Tuesday that counts.

"These stages today have been very slippery. It's very easy to lose a lot of time trying too hard so we've been cautious to make sure we're in the right place when the real rally starts tomorrow morning."

Although Sunday's "Mickey Mouse" stages are generally derided by the senior drivers, no one was comfortable in the slippery conditions and survival was the common cause. Makinen, having secured his fourth consecutive title, is free to chase his first win in this event and was joint fastest on the opening stage. But then he flirted with danger on the second stage, hitting a bank. At Blenheim, stage five, he prudently took no risks around the lake but rattled farm fencing, half ripping off his back bumper. It seemed an unlikely act of vandalism for a member of the farming community.

The Finn, who was stopped by the police for running on three wheels last year, was ordered to pull up again and remove the dangling bumper.

Martin Brundle, the former grand prix driver and now ITV commentator, had a still healthier respect for the rallying fraternity after struggling through the opening day. The third member of the Toyota works team said: "Blenheim was a disaster for me. I did very badly. I'll be really happy to finish in the top 30 tonight." Happily for him, he finished in 28th place.

NETWORK Q RALLY (After first day): 1 J Kankkunen (Fin) Subaru Impreza 27min 00.7sec; 2 F Delecour (Fra) Peugeot 206 +3.5secs; 3 M Gronholm (Fin) Peugeot 206 +4.5; 4 R Burns (GB) Subaru Impreza +8.1; 5 C Sainz (Sp) Toyota Corolla +16.8; 6 D Auriol (Fr) Toyota Corolla +23.2; 7 T Makinen (Fin) Mitsubishi Lancer +23.7; 8 C McRae (GB) Ford Focus +23.9; 9 P Solberg (Nor) Ford Focus +27.2; 10 T Radstrom (Swe) Ford Focus +32.1.