Carlos Sainz was just 300 metres from the fourth place he required to win a third world championship when the Spaniard's flaming Toyota expired. The veteran driver slumped in dismay, while his navigator, Luis Moya, leapt from the stricken machine and threw away his crash helmet in fury.
Their extraordinary demise means that Burns' Mitsubishi team-mate, Tommi Makinen, whose rally ended on the first day when he hit an oil slick dumped by a Hillman Imp, became the first driver to achieve three consecutive world titles.
It also completes a historic year for Finland in motor sport. Makinen's compatriot, Mika Hakkinen, won the Formula One world championship.
Makinen had given up on this one and was only persuaded to stick around, just in case, by his team. He learned of his triumph in a telephone call from his brother, Tuomo, as he waited in a hotel before heading for the airport.
"My brother called me from the end of the last stage and told me what had happened to Carlos," Makinen said. "I said, `don't joke'. He said, `it's true'. Rallying is the kind of sport where anything can happen but I can't remember anything like this. I wanted to leave on Sunday because there was no point to stay.
"Of course, I feel sorry for Carlos. This situation is not so nice but then I was unlucky at the beginning of the rally. It is not the same feeling as winning in the normal way but, still, it's history, to win three rallies in a row. I've just been hanging around the hotel for the last couple of days and now I'm glad I did."
Sainz entered the concluding 16.81-mile stage, Margam in South Wales, with 2min 20sec in hand with no thoughts nor need to challenge those ahead of him, Burns, and Juha Kankkunen and Bruno Thiry, giving the Ford Escort a suitably glorious swan-song.
All day Sainz had taken a judicious course, tormented by fear of the unexpected. Observers reckoned it was understandable paranoia. Barely a kilometre from the finish, the engine of the Toyota gave way. An oil fire alerted marshals, who stood by with fire extinguishers. The Spaniard never reached them.
"It couldn't have finished worse," Sainz said, almost breaking down. "The engine blew and it was over."
An English Burns' night celebration was virtually assured on the opening stage of the third and final day, when Alister McRae crashed out. Having lost the assistance of his fog lights in the early morning mist, his Subaru went off the road and rolled into a ditch. The Scot was unhurt and walked the remaining three kilometres of the stage, his retirement confirmed.
The exclusion of the younger McRae - his brother, Colin, had been forced out while leading the rally the previous day - enabled Burns to savour the run to the finish. Like every other Briton, he has had to make his way in the shadow of the formidable McRae, a daunting challenge that might have broken lesser spirits. But this victory reaffirms Subaru's confidence in the 27-year-old, who could well emerge as the leading British driver in 1999, when McRae will be steering the campaign of the new Ford Focus.
Burns said: "I'm utterly and completely relieved, especially when you see what's been happening around me. I had a fright when the right front wheel began to vibrate and I tried to change it before the last stage but couldn't get the nuts undone, so we had to carry on.
"This gives me a lot of confidence for next year and we have a good chance of doing well. We've got a great car and great team. But for now I just want to enjoy this. It's complete happiness."
NETWORK Q RALLY Stage 22: 1 R Burns (Eng) Mitsubishi Carisma 8min 05.6sec; 2 M Dodd (Eng) Ford Escort +7.3sec; 3 B Thiry (Bel) Ford Escort +14.3; 4 M Stohl (Aut) Mitsubishi Lancer +14.9; 5 P Walfridsson (Swe) Mitsubishi Lancer +16.2; 6 H Rovanpera (Fin) Seat WRC +16.6; 7 J Kangas (Fin) Subaru Impreza +18.0; 8 J Kytolehto (Fin) Vauxhall Astra +18.5; 9 G Smith (Eng) Ford Escort +20.3; 10 J Kankkunen (Fin) Ford Escort +21.3. Stage 23: 1 Burns 6:20.3; 2 Kankkunen +3.9sec; 3 Sainz +7.8; 4 De Mevius +15.2; 5 Thiry +15.8; 6 Lindholm +22.5; 7 Rovanpera +23.9; 8 Schwarz +25.6; 9 Holowczyc +25.8; 10 Stohl +33.8. Stage 24: 1 Burns 20:45.3; 2 Thiry +24.1sec; 3 Kankkunen +30.1; 4 Lindholm +42.1; 5 Sainz +45.1; 6 De Mevius +47.5; 7 Rovanpera +49.6; 8 Schwarz +1:10.8; 9 Holowczyc +1:18.2; 10 D Higgins (IoM) Subaru Impreza +1:35.9. Stage 25: 1 Burns 25:30.5; 2 Kankkunen +32.4; 3 De Mevius +45.6; 4 Thiry +48.6; 5 Lindholm +54.0; 6 Rovanpera +57.0; 7 Sainz +1:08.0; 8 Schwarz +1:27.4; 9 Holowczyc +1:40.9; 10 T Laukkanen (Fin) Renault Megane +1:41.7. Stage 26: 1 Burns 13:59.9; 2 Kankkunen +7.5; 3 Thiry +8.1; 4 Lindholm +13.6; 5 De Mevius +17.7; 6 Sainz +18.1; 7 Rovanpera +18.9; 8 Schwarz +20.0; 9 Holowczyc +32.6; 10 Martin +51.7. Stage 27: 1 Burns 5:39.9; 2 De Mevius +7.7; 3 Kankkunen +9.4; 4 Rovanpera +10.0; 5 Thiry +10.7; 6 Lindholm +11.2; 7 Sainz +12.9; 8 Schwarz +23.3; 9 Higgins +27.4; 10 Holowczyc +28.2. Stage 28: 1 Burns 16:28.9; 2 Kankkunen +15.8; 3 Thiry +24.8; 4 De Mevius +27.0; 5 Lindholm +44.3; 6 Rovanpera +50.2; 7 Schwarz +1:05.2; 8 Holowczyc +1:21.5; 9 Stohl +1:21.6; 10 B Lyall (Sco) Subaru Impreza +1:27.1. Leading final standings: 1 R Burns (GB) Mitsubishi 3hr 50min 30.6sec; 2 J Kankkunen (Fin) Ford 3:54:17.1; 3 B Thiry (Bel) Ford 3:54.58.1; 4 G de Mevius (Bel) Subaru 3:58:25.4; 5 S Lindholm (Fin) Ford 3:58:46.2; 6 H Rovanpera (Fin) Seat 4:00:03.9; 7 A Schwarz (Ger) Ford 4:02:47.3; 8 K Holowczyc (Pol) Subaru 4:03:37.3; 9 M Martin (Est) Toyota 4:07:41.6; 10 M Stohl (Aut) Mitsubishi 4:09:37.8. Drivers' championship: 1 T Makinen (Fin) Mitsubishi 58points; 2 C Sainz (Sp) Toyota 56; 3 C McRae (GB) Subaru 45; 4 J Kankkunen (Fin) Ford 39; 5 D Auriol (Fr) Toyota 34; 6 R Burns (GB) Mitsubishi 33; 7 P Liatti (It) Subaru 17; Manufacturers' championship: 1 Mitsubishi 91; 2 Toyota 85; 3 Subaru 65; 4 Ford 53.