Rallying: Burns yearns to steal McRae's thunder

RALLY OF GREAT BRITAIN Season's finale set to become straight fight between former champion and young pretender in front of home fans

IT COULD scarcely have been stage-managed better. The World Championship has been settled, team tactics are out of the window, every driver can go for the win and every observer can focus on the one issue.

And the likelihood is that the Network Q Rally of Great Britain, which starts at Cheltenham tomorrow, will develop into a straight fight between Scotland's Colin McRae and England's Richard Burns.

Tommi Makinen, having secured a fourth title in a row, will be liberated to chase his first victory here, while such luminaries as Carlos Sainz, Didier Auriol and Juha Kankkunen are all capable of challenging.

However, drivers of any nationality respond to home comforts and, reliability permitting, McRae and Burns ought to set the pace and provide a stirring finale to the season. McRae won this event in three consecutive attempts before last year, when his engine blew and Burns took first place. The satisfaction for Burns was diluted by McRae's retirement and a dramatic conclusion to the Championship.

A sense of frustration propels Burns still and sharpens the edge to this domestic dual. He feels it is time he was recognised as the coming man and contends McRae is living on his reputation. McRae, for his part, remains convinced he is the faster of the pair. Burns has had to live with the spectre of McRae since he came in to the World Championship arena. He moved to Subaru when McRae switched to Ford at the start of this season.

McRae's early success with the new Focus - recording victories in Kenya and Portugal - reimposed his status and profile. He was widely regarded as the fastest man in the world, or at least the equal of Makinen. He was mercurial, spectacular, compulsive viewing.

Burns' apparently less natural, more cautious approach persuaded few he was a champion in the making. Then he was duped out of a win by his team-mate, Kankkunen, in Argentina, won in Greece, and made a lot of people inside rallying change their minds. He won again last time out, in Australia, where McRae crashed into a gum tree at 115mph. It was the Ford driver's seventh consecutive non-finish. If Burns is the winner again on Tuesday evening, he could claim second place in the Championship.

Both men are plotting title campaigns for next year and victory here would generate momentum and motivation through the short off-season period. But this is personal, too.

Burns acknowledges he has to beat McRae on a level playing field to earn the recognition he craves. "It is difficult to take when Colin seems to get all the recognition," the 28-year-old from Oxford said. "I can understand it in that he's won 18 rallies and a World Championship. I've won four rallies and no Championship so far.

"I just hope, though, that it's not because of his TV advert. People inside the sport know it's been a very different story this year. Hopefully if I beat him fair and square in front of our home crowd that will change things."

Burns concedes McRae is blessed with exceptional pace, but argues the case for a more thoughtful strategy. "I've never regarded Colin as the benchmark for me," he says. "Of course he's very quick but I do things a different way and it's working for me. Colin has gone off in the last two rallies and I'm going to finish higher than him in the Championship no matter what happens in this rally."

McRae realises he confronts a worthy pretender to his domain yet is less impressed by Burns' verbal aggression. "I don't think Richard should show he's miffed because I get more publicity and recognition," McRae says. "I'd keep quiet and let my driving do the talking."

That said, he continues: "People do recognise me a lot more through the TV advert and my computer game, but I do believe I'm still faster than Richard. If I was 15 seconds behind him on the last day I'd feel I could beat him. He's definitely got better but I just feel he lacks the last five per cent. That doesn't come from bravery, it's confidence. Everybody at this level has the ability to drive at speed, it's having the confidence to produce it."

The old, and recently revived, criticism of 31-year-old McRae is that his confidence sometimes gets the better of him. It is suggested by some - including the Subaru team principal, David Richards - he might take a leaf out of Burns' more considered manual.

McRae counters: "I am a lot more methodical than I used to be. I'm putting more thought into it. That's why I defend myself when people say I'm just a speed merchant. David and I have disagreed on a few things."

He is equally adamant he is undaunted by his latest accident. "It could have been a lot worse. Luckily the car is so strong. It's not the speed, it's the stopping. We went from 115mph to zero in 1.3 seconds. But if it put me off at all I wouldn't be carrying on. I had a problem with the steering wheel and there was nothing I could do. You can't afford to think about it."

More disturbing has been the sequence of breakdowns. If the lessons learned by the team take him to the Championship next season the anguish will have been worthwhile, but he is anxious to finish this year with a flourish. "It would be great to win and sign off on a high after the run we've had," he said. "That would keep up the spirits and confidence and help us approach the start of next season at Monte Carlo in a better frame of mind.

"For sure I'm going into this rally to win, but I think the result will affect Richard more than it will me or, say, Tommi. I don't want to be beaten by Richard but it would not bother me as much as it would him. He's still trying to prove himself. It will be a big fight for sure."

Burns has little doubt the scrap will come down to a head-to-head with McRae. "We'll both get a lift from the fans," Burns said. "It does make a difference. It's not just that you can see them and hear them when you're on home ground. You can actually feel the difference. The foreign drivers just can't cope with it. I'm sure it will be between me and Colin.

"I hope so, too. Although it was pleasing to win last year, some of the satisfaction was lost because Colin dropped out of the rally and the Championship had such an exciting finish. That took away a lot of attention from my win.

"This year it's all about the winner of the rally. I'd like both of us to be there at the end, and then we'll see who's the better. I believe it's going to be me."

With that he was off into the night - at the wheel of a Ford Focus. McRae smiled wryly and said: "I'll let the result speak for itself."

Derick Allsop is the author of `Ford and McRae - Focus on the World Rally Championship' (Haynes Publishing).

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