Rallying: McRae holds the key to title

Two points is all that separates the leading two contenders as the world rally championship enters its final round.
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The Independent Online
WHETHER THE objective is the world championship or national pride, the spectre of Colin McRae is inescapable.

It has overwhelmed all else on the Network Q Rally of Great Britain in recent years and his intimidating presence will be apparent again as the drivers set out from Cheltenham for the parklands and forests tomorrow morning.

McRae's misfortune on the previous rally, in Australia, where a turbo failure halted a swashbuckling charge that had lifted him from sixth to first, means the title has come down to a final-round decider between Finland's Tommi Makinen and Spain's Carlos Sainz. Makinen, in a Mitsubishi, heads the Toyota driver by two points and will become the first winner of three consecutive championships even if they finish level, courtesy of a greater number of victories.

Either contender can simplify matters by winning the rally and with it the championship. In Sainz's case it is the only guarantee of ultimate success. The issue, however, is complicated, as Sainz ruefully acknowledges: "I don't think there is any way to beat Colin in Britain," said the man who has twice secured the title by finishing first on what was known as the RAC Rally.

Sainz, for all his achievements and experience, has a notoriously fragile Latin temperament, and his apparently defeatist attitude might be interpreted as further proof of an inherent weakness. Alternatively, it could be regarded as the candid assessment of a seasoned pragmatist.

No one has found a way to beat McRae in the British rally since 1993. He has competed in three of the four subsequent years and won on each occasion with a conviction to destroy the most stoic psychological resistance.

Makinen, of course, will be perfectly content to finish second behind McRae. He is renowned as an all or nothing driver yet disciplines himself to finish in the points, which was, 12 months ago, all he required to seal the championship.

But there is one man out there prepared to predict he can beat McRae, a claim based not merely on bravado but sound evidence. Richard Burns arrives with a powerful case to complement his fierce ambition.

The 27-year-old Englishman has emerged as a genuine front-line driver after waiting impatiently in the queue behind McRae. When this event is over he leaves Mitsubishi and takes the place of the Ford-bound McRae at Subaru.

Burns is intent on adding substance to symbolism and is hugely encouraged by developments since he took advantage of McRae's mishap 12 months ago and led the rally, only to be sabotaged by a puncture. A full world championship programme and victory in the Safari Rally have bolstered Burns' belief he can bring down the McRae fortress, and this intriguing subplot is bound to captivate the unashamedly patriotic hordes who will be pursuing the rally over the next three days.

McRae has no doubt where his main opposition will come from. "Richard is definitely a good bet for the rally," the Scotsman said. "He's come on a hell of a lot. He's had a great season, and he wants to win this just as much as I do."

There was a question mark against McRae's motivation after his demise in Australia. His immediate reaction was to say he could not face the British event. His heart had been set on a second championship and even his home rally, the one he had dominated in recent times, meant nothing to him.

"It was the lowest point of my career," he said. "I just didn't want to know. It is still hard to accept I'm not in there with a chance of being champion. But you have to, and once it has started all I'll be thinking about is winning it again."

Fog threatened to throw McRae off course last year, but he scrambled out of a ditch and was up there again to capitalise when Burns' tyre gave way. But the man from Oxford is entitled to figure he is due a change of fortune. More importantly, he argues, he has the weaponry to overthrow McRae.

"That was a shattering experience for me last year and it was very hard to take, finishing up fourth when I was only three stages away from actually winning it," Burns said.

"But this year I'm better, stronger, more prepared in every sense. This past year in the world championship has given me invaluable experience, taught me a lot and helped me improve.

"I am free to go for the win because the team know it is in their interest in the manufacturer's championship, and in Tommi's interests, if I can beat Toyota and Carlos."

Makinen has nosed in front of Sainz with a run of three successive wins, and Burns does not anticipate his team-mate being denied now. "The pressure is now on Carlos and historically he has had problems in situations like this," Burns said. "It all seems to point to Tommi for the championship."

Sainz, having led for most of the season, could be forgiven for thinking the gods have conspired against him. In his frenzied attempts to tilt the balance in the tense closing stage of the Austrian rally, he and his co-driver were discarding light-bulbs and used pace notes to make the Toyota just a tad lighter and quicker.

Now his only certain passage to the championship is to emulate his feats of 1990 and 1992 and win the rally. But then those were the days before the McRae factor.

The first day of the rally features, as usual, a series of relatively tame spectator stages, a loosener for the contest proper, the forest trails to be negotiated on Monday and Tuesday. Those tactically inclined may prefer to be a few cars off the pace on Monday morning, thereby avoiding additional hazards.

McRae explained: "We went off the road on the second morning last year because it was foggy as well as still dark. You have to use your headlights and the light just reflects off the fog. It is like a Formula One car in the spray.

"We asked if they could start 10 minutes later this year but I notice we actually start a couple of minutes earlier, so there could be problems again. It will be interesting to see if people back off a little so they don't have to start first."

Any jockeying for position will be purely temporary byplay. Ultimately the rally will develop into a familiar, relentless bombardment by the world's finest drivers. If McRae can avoid the ditches and curtains of fog, it is difficult to imagine how anyone is going to beat him.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP POSITIONS Drivers: 1 T Makinen (Mitsubishi) 58pts; 2 C Sainz (Toyota) 56; 3 C McRae (Subaru) 45; 4 D Auriol (Toyota) 34; 5 J Kankkunen (Ford) 33; 6 R Burns (Mitsubishi) 23. Manufacturers: 1 Toyota 85pts; 2 Mitsubishi 81; 3 Subaru 65; 4 Ford 43.