Rallying: Driven by an obsession to race

Derick Allsop talks to the men who are happy just to take part in the RAC Rally

For Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz, read Michael and Robert Plant: it is the same rally and the same combative zeal, but a different world altogether. Honour and family pride, rather than victory and the world championship, are at stake at the rear of the Network Q RAC Rally, which starts on Sunday. These two are members of the band of privateers and clubmen who give the event its sense of democracy and enduring camaraderie. Well, almost.

"We have some blazing rows," Michael Plant says. "He's been getting up early in the morning to get the newest parts for his car." The "he" in question is his team-mate and twin, Robert. Last year, they competed in the event for the first time sharing a car and finished 97th.

This time they have a Mini Cooper each. Michael is number 193, Robert 199. They have a team of 13 and a budget of pounds 14,000 for the two cars. Luxury items such as new parts are consequently fiercely contested.

Minis are appropriate for the 41-year-old brothers from Rochdale. Both stand 5ft 3in and weigh nine stone. Both also run small businesses, Robert in engineering, Michael in property.

Everything else about the Plants - their enthusiasm, vitality and ingenuity - is substantial. The Mini strikes a chord with most spectators, and the link with Corgi and the Heritage Centre in the neighbouring Lancashire town of Heywood secured important sponsorship. Viking Tyres took the opportunity to back Robert's car.

"It is very hard to get sponsorship, so we try to get a car that gives an image," Robert says. "This is the 30th anniversary of the Mini's only win in the RAC, and the Mini has a character all of its own. Everybody loves it - people swoop on it."

The sponsorship does not, however, eliminate the hard work and personal sacrifice. "We've been working on the cars every night to one and two in the morning," says Robert, who blames rallying for contributing to the break-up of his marriage.

"I'm still married," Michael says. "My wife is a nurse, so she has to be caring and understanding."

Their co-drivers, both about to embark on the RAC for the first time, are equally committed. Marina Francks, a 35-year-old computer programmer, took voluntary redundancy 18 months ago to fund her obsession. Jason Austin, a man patently born to motor, is a fruit-packer, and has not had what most would consider a holiday for the last 12 of his 27 years.

Robert says: "Rallying is like a drug. I've seen really shrewd businessmen, people you would never pull wool over their eyes, go to ruin over rallying. They make financial decisions they would never make in business. Your heart rules your head.

"But then rallying is unique. I could never play golf against Nick Faldo or tennis against Andre Agassi, but I can get myself a Mini and be in the same rally as Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz. You've got the world championship at the front, and the true enthusiast who just wants to finish at the back. Some come with less than us, they survive on a wing and a prayer.

"It took us 15 years to get to the RAC. We came round a bend last year and said: 'We speccied [spectated] there'. It's like playing for a lower- division team walking out at Wembley."

Michael, who drives the more basic "showroom" car, says: "I describe myself as a rallyholic. We've been part of that two million crowd. To be part of the 200 competing is unbelievable. If McRae wins the championship I can tell my grandchildren I was there, competing in the rally where he did it.

"We have to run through their ruts and muck, but we're glad to do it. They have the cars, the budgets, the responsibilities. We have no cars, no responsibilities, no power - but we are there."

Robert adds: "If those at the front make a mistake it's their job, they can get sacked and write off millions of pounds. With us, we can fail and people say it was a brave effort. But you want to finish. And yes, we want to beat each other - of course we do."

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