Rallying: Subaru work to refine mechanics of winning: A truly competitive RAC Rally team depends on its support crew. Derick Allsop hit the road with one

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THE FIRST of them crept out of Birmingham at 4am, making for the mountains of Wales in trepidation. They were warned to expect icy conditions; they were not misled.

Everyone will tell you the Network Q RAC Rally proper begins on the second day. The 'tame' spectator stages of Sunday behind them, they were into the forests and on the long, unforgiving tracts which inevitably decide this event, the temperature at -8C.

Subaru's support crew set up their temporary service station by the roadside and waited for news of their four drivers. All came through Dyfnant, a 12.75-mile stage, though not entirely unscathed.

Colin McRae, the team's leading driver overnight with fourth place who spent yesterday moving up to first, reported two spins and a broken light. He had lost time to the man initially out front, Juha Kankkunen, but there was consolation. Along the route he saw the two Mitsubishis, second and third at the start, in trouble. Armin Schwarz had tumbled into a ditch, Kenneth Eriksson had slid off and punctured a tyre.

As mechanics jacked up McRae's Impreza and hauled themselves beneath to check for damage, the 25-year-old Scot cradled a hot drink and did a little PR, chatting to the owners of the property they were parked on.

'I think I was a bit too cautious,' he said. 'It's difficult to know what to do. You see the Mitsubishi in a ditch and realise what can happen.'

Daylight beckoned the drivers to Myherin, a 20.87-mile monster of a stage. Andy Moss, Subaru's competitions co-ordinator, booked the same piece of parking space for next year and set off for another service area.

'It amazes me how obliging people are,' he said. 'We depend on locals to allow us to use their property for servicing. They're not paid, they allow us to do so because they're happy to be involved in the rally in some way. I contacted 120 people for this year, only five said they couldn't help and, of those, four were already booked by other teams. Just one said they didn't want motor sport.'

Subaru's rally campaign has a team of 120 and a fleet of back-up vehicles this week. More vans are lined up at the ready for McRae, Ari Vatanen, in the other Impreza, and Richard Burns and Alister McRae, Colin's younger brother, in their Legacies.

A rumble announces the arrival of the elder McRae. He had had another spin, but his time was good. He was up to second, Vatanen was third, Burns fifth. There was a buzz in the camp.

Moss said: 'Colin's up now. He just needs to know he can do it again. It's psychological. All drivers are the same. It's like two years ago, when he came through to take the lead. It was electric.'

On the road to Machynlleth, where the competitors regrouped, Moss was anxious to learn of developments on the 15-mile stage at Hafren. In the meantime, he was asking for reports of the following stage. 'It's changing in the sun, but got to be careful in the shade. Still icy,' came the information from his crew.

The next message was from Alister McRae: 'Got a puncture. Hit a tree.' He later added: 'I came through the last three miles with a wheel hanging off. It's not easy, this rallying.'

Certainly not for his mechanics. They had to restructure the back of the car, taking a sledgehammer to the boot and offside wing.