Six competitors and a spectator were taken to hospital yesterday after a series of crashes in the Network Q RAC Rally. The day's drama, controversy and anxiety ended with Colin McRae and Richard Burns, remarkably, together on the same time. The world championship is now delightfully set up for an enthralling finale.
Proceedings were marred by a bad accident involving two relatively unknown British competitors, John Leckie and his co-driver Graham Lewis, who were seriously injured when they crashed on the Hafren stage. Further incidents on that stage and the next forced the organisers to abandon them.
Leckie, from Prestatyn, north Wales, was taken to Morriston Hospital in Swansea for surgery on a serious facial injury. Lewis was airlifted to Aberystwyth hospital with suspected chest and spinal injuries. The injured spectator, who suffered a broken leg, was struck by a tree uprooted by the Italian duo, Andrea Navarra and Alessandro Alessandrini. The Italians were taken to hospital with cuts and bruises.
McRae picked himself up from eighth place in the early morning gloom to draw level with Burns on the final stage. To become champion, McRae must win the rally and hope that Tommi Makinen, at present sixth, drops at least one place in today's concluding stages in south Wales.
If the 29-year-old Scot now pulls it off, he will be acclaimed on the famous racecourse here this evening as the most popular winner since Desert Orchid.
Such a scenario seemed a distant fantasy when he was caught out by fog and darkness on the first Welsh forest stage yesterday. He put his Subaru in a ditch and negotiated the rest of the Radnor stage with extreme caution and lost 90 seconds. His main rivals overhauled him, none more gleefully than Burns, the 26-year-old Englishman.
Burns said: "I knew I had six minutes more daylight than the others, so I went full force. I passed Didier Auriol, who had been two minutes in front of me. It's a great start."
McRae, unsurprisingly, had a different perspective. He could not contain his frustration and said: "I couldn't see a thing and drove straight off a straight piece of road. It was terrible out there. It shouldn't be allowed in a professional world championship. It should be decided by who's the quickest driver, not the weather. Maybe they should reverse the running order a bit the following day to make it fair."
He channelled his anger in a positive manner thereafter, winning four consecutive stages and climbing closer to Burns. The gap was reduced by a further 10 seconds when the Mitsubishi driver incurred a penalty for taking too long at a service stop. His team-mate, Makinen, received a 20-second penalty for a similar offence. Burns retaliated on the penultimate stage but McRae's five-second margin of victory on the last sent both back to headquarters here on 2hr 13min 43sec.
"All I can do now is go all out on the final day but then that's what I've had to do all the way through. The rest is out of my control," McRae said.
Mitsubishi may yet play their joker to scupper him. If he and Burns are still neck and neck with one stage to go, then Burns, McRae's former team- mate, could be instructed to sacrifice his own rally rather than risk a second place that might endanger Makinen's chances of finishing in the points.
McRae's situation is effectively unaltered. All he can do is stick to the original script and go all out for the win. Makinen, too, could remove the doubts by increasing his pace. He has patently been restrained by his team, which has proved an irritating if understandable expedient for him.
Finland's Juha Kankkunen starts the final day third, his Ford team-mate, Carlos Sainz, fourth. Auriol, troubled from that opening stage, rolled out of the rally late in the day.