JUHA KANKKUNEN, of Finland, eased his way to another landmark in motor sport last night, winning the RAC Rally his way: with cunning, patience and devastating precision.
The Old Fox was in control at the end - if, indeed, he had ever genuinely lost it - to register a record 20th world championship rally victory. An unprecedented fourth title success was already in his safe keeping.
Kankkunen and his Welsh co- driver, Nicky Grist, brought their Toyota Celica back to Birmingham after four days of tense conflict in the British forests with a 1min 44sec advantage over Sweden's Kenneth Eriksson, in a Mitsubishi Lancer. Britain's leading driver, Malcolm Wilson, was third, five minutes down in his Ford Escort, but hugely content.
The final day's action was delayed 40 minutes when a number of drivers, Kankkunen and Francois Delecour chief among them, objected to changes to the opening stage at Hamsterley. Officials cut out seven miles of snow-bound track, which they felt would not be passable in two-wheel drive vehicles. The modification necessitated the introduction of a 250-yard stretch of uncharted road, but Kankkunen relented when he and his accomplices were given the ultimatum: 'Start or you're out'.
Kankkunen dutifully went to work and consolidated his lead with the fastest time. He and Grist encountered more drama on the next stage. Grist explained: 'We arrived at the first junction and had nowhere to stop. We went off sideways and hit a post very hard. It broke my window and covered me in snow. We kept it full on in the ditch and managed to get the car back onto the stage.'
That incident enabled Eriksson to make up ground, but thereafter Kankkunen pulled away, regardless of the hazards. He was quickest on the following three stages, rendering the contest over. Eriksson pursued in hope rather than in expectation, while Wilson was relieved to stay on course for his best RAC Rally result in 17 attempts after a rock jammed between a wheel and a calliper.
Kankkunen trailed Colin McRae at the end of the second day, though that conveniently forced the Scot on to the road ahead of him. On the third day, McRae went out. Kankkunen employs his head as well as a heavy right foot and once again he has outmanoeuvred the rest in every sense. He was fastest on 12 of the 35 stages in this, the final round of the championship.
Conditions these past four days have been unusually extreme, with ice, fog and then several inches of snow, packing hard to produce a skid-pan. The occasional banger thrown by the lunatic fringe has not made life any more comfortable for the competitors.
Kankunnen said: 'I have never known an RAC Rally like this one. It has been very difficult all the way through. It has been the hardest all year, even tougher than the Safari. Conditions have been dangerous for us and spectators. Every corner could have been the last one. But it is the perfect end of the season for me and the team.'
Grist, once Wilson's co-driver, and enlisted by Kankkunen when his regular partner, Juha Piironen, suffered a brain haemhorrage five months ago, was ebullient. The 32- year-old from Abergavenny said: 'Now we've made it to the finish I can believe it. It's fabulous.'
Wilson, who developed this car and ran his own team operation, finished with a flourish, going fastest on the penultimate stage. The 32-year-old Cumbrian said: 'This is fantastic, I'm so delighted. When we got to the end of the third day I was determined not to throw it all away. I've had so much bad luck in the past and the conditions have made it the toughest yet, but it's all been worthwhile.'
Richard Burns, the 22-year-old British champion, completed an outstanding season with seventh place, despite having to struggle to cajole his Subaru Legacy through the final stage at Donington. Alister McRae, also in a Legacy, retrieved some consolation for the family by finishing 10th. Gwyndaf Evans, in a Ford Escort, was winner in Group N and David Llewellin took the Formula Two award in a Vauxhall Astra.
NETWORK Q RAC RALLY Leading final standings: 1 J Kankkunen (Fin) and N Grist (GB) Toyota Celica 6hr 25min 48sec; 2 K Eriksson and S Parmander (Swe) Mitsubishi Lancer 6:27.32; 3 M Wilson and B Thomas (GB) Ford Escort 6:30.51; 4 F Delecour and D Grataloup (Fr) Ford Escort 6:32.57; 5 A Vatanen (Fin) and B Berglund (Swe) Subaru Impreza 6:33.59; 6 D Auriol and B Occelli (Fr) Toyota Celica 6:39.39; 7 R Burns and R Reid (GB) Subaru Legacy 6:47.25; 8 A Schwarz and P Thul (Ger) Mitsubishi Lancer 6:51.02; 9 M Jonsson and L Backman (Swe) Toyota Celica 7:00.48; 10 A McRae and D Senior (GB) Subaru Legacy 7:02.12. Selected GB: 11 G Evans and H Davies, Ford Escort 7:10.44; 12 D Llewellin and I Grindrod, Vauxhall Astra 7:26.42; 13 J Milner and S Turvey, Ford Escort 7:29.12; 14 M Jones and N Dashfield, Mitsubishi Galant 7:31.46; 16 J Joannides A Farrell, Ford Sierra 7:35.06; 17 M Rimmer and C Patterson, Subaru Legacy 7:38.15; 19 M Higgins and M Corner, Vauxhall Astra 7:42.58; 20 P Kirtley and J Elder, Ford Sierra 7:44.04.
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