Rallying: McRae's honourable victory upstaged by Makinen's title

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The Independent Online
Despite Colin McRae's best efforts, which brought him victory in the Network Q RAC Rally which finished yesterday, the world championship still eluded him, Derick Allsop reports from Cheltenham.

Colin McRae coaxed his Subaru through the chequered door to receive the acclaim of the spectators, yet even as he celebrated his third consecutive victory on the Network Q RAC Rally, the ultimate triumph was being denied him.

Back there in the darkness of the racecourse, almost unnoticed, Tommi Makinen was competing his three-day business trip and securing the sixth place he required to retain the world championship.

Both men had achieved their objectives in the final round of the season, but the Finn's one point here proved decisive. It was the closest finish in the championship for 18 years.

McRae said: "I'm delighted to have won the rally again and I had fantastic support all the way through. But I have admit I'm a wee bit disappointed because we've lost the championship. We did all we could but Tommi did what he had to do. We may have won five rallies to his four, but he's got the championship and that's the way it goes.

"It was always going to be a long shot for us, but I said that if we couldn't win the championship I wanted us to in our home rally and we've done that."

Makinen had to struggle with a bout of flu as well as the steering wheel of his Mitsubishi and the effort was etched in his face. He said: "It has been a most difficult rally for me and it's incredible it has finished like this. We had transmission problems at one point and I thought we might lose the championship. All the way through I have had this flu and it's lucky for me I needed only one point because otherwise it could have been very difficult."

McRae and his co-driver, Nicky Grist, were already looking ahead to next year. "We're strong and should have a very good chance of the championship," the driver said. His more expressive navigator said: "We are going from strength to strength as a pair. Congratulations to Tommi on winning the championship this year, but we're out to kick your arse next year - and everyone else's."

The reception here was equally generous for Richard Burns, the joint overnight leader whose misfortune yesterday relegated him to fourth, behind the Ford pair, Juha Kankunnen and Carlos Sainz.

The rally itself was effectively decided on the day's fateful third stage. Burns, having taken a 17-second lead on the opening test and held a 14- second advantage following the second, lost 4min 45sec changing a wheel after tearing the tyre.

McRae was more than two minutes in the clear and able to drive within himself for the remaining stages. Equally comfortable, however, was Makinen in sixth place. He also had the insurance of Burns, his team-mate, who could have been instructed to fall back if necessary.

Burns' intention had been to hand Makinen the title by registering his maiden world championship rally victory. The Englishman said: "I'm absolutely gutted it's all over. I was flying through the stage and then suddenly hit a rocky section and punctured."

The sense of deflation was contagious. McRae said: "I'm both relieved and disappointed. It would have been a great battle if it had continued. There was nothing I could do about Tommi. Like me, he just cruised to the finish."

This air of anticlimax enveloped the closing proceedings, even if McRae and company put on an appropriate show of jubilation for the gallery at the finish. McRae's younger brother, Alister, completed a family double by winning the Formula 2 section in his Volkswagen Golf.

One pair who did not make it to the racecourse ceremony were some Japanese competitors who apparently pulled out in despair on hearing of the collapse of the stockbrokers, Yamaichi.

The organisers were relieved to learn that none of the injuries sustained by competitors including John Leckie and Graham Lewis as well as a spectator on the previous day proved life-threatening.