Rally review: McRae of sunshine

Despite setbacks during the early stages of the event, Colin McRae fought back to take a second consecutive victory on home soil. In so doing, the Scot becomes the UK's first outright world rally champion

Hard on the heels of that great commotion which followed Spain's Catalunya Rally, after which the works Toyota Castrol Team was not only deprived of all its points for 1995 but disallowed from taking part in the 1996 series, all for using illegal turbochargers on two (at least) of its cars, came the Network Q RAC Rally of Great Britain. The ferment continued, and many a conversation in and around Chester centred on the severity of the sentence imposed upon the team.

No one was in favour of allowing cheating to go unpunished, but most felt that cancellation of all 1995 achievements would have been discipline enough. To bar the team from taking part in the world series for the whole of 1996 was, in nearly all non-FIA opinions, taking sanctions much too far, to the detriment of the sport as a whole. Even opposing teams who considered that Toyota deserved to he punished felt that the penalty was far too severe. It was generally considered to be an FIA demonstration of authority merely for authority's sake, without any thought of what harm the reduction of competing teams to just three would have on the sport.

But all such talk, however pertinent in the long term, became pallid and insignificant, especially to the British and Spanish public, with the prospect of a tense fight, with no quarter asked or given, between Spain's Carlos Sainz and Scotland's Colin McRae for the World Rally Championship.

Could a Briton become World Rally Champion for the first time since the drivers' series was inaugurated in 1979?

Long before the CSI of the FIA, as it was then called, even considered world rank for such an uncouth, dirty, largely nocturnal and even incomprehensible (to them) form of motorsport as rallying, the Competitions Department of Britain's RAC realised that a gap was in serious need of filling and inaugurated what was called the RAC World Rally Trophy. It was based on events selected from those which were the most competitive of the European Championship of the time, plus a few outsiders such as the East African Safari Rally and Canada's Shell 4000 Rally. Roger Clark was once a recipient of this award, although it has never had the proper recognition of the FIA, presumably because it was not of Paris' making.

The first worldwide series for rallies set up by the CSI was the 'International' Championship which began in 1970. Even then, the upper crust of Paris did not consider rallying worthy of a series which actually included the word "world" in its title. Odd as it may seem, the events were chosen without any apparent reference to their organisers.

So, when you hear talk of the World Rally Championship for Drivers, bear in mind that the talker may only be considering events from 1979 onwards. Rallying was thriving long before that year, even though the FIA steadfastly denied it the status it deserved.

In Spain just four weeks earlier, Colin McRae and his team-mate Carlos Sainz, very closely matched, were leading the field in their Subaru Imprezas. As the rally drew to a close it seemed likely that McRae would inch ahead of Sainz, but the boss of Prodrive, the British outfit which runs the Subaru team, felt that a win in Spain by a Spaniard, and one of the country's national heroes at that, would produce far more good publicity than victory by a Scot. Thus it was that team orders went out and McRae deliberately, but obviously reluctantly, clocked in late at a control near the end of the rally and gave victory to his team-mate.

The outcome was that McRae and Sainz were level-pegging on World Championship points at the start of the RAC Rally. Mitsubishi led the makes' series marginally from Subaru, but all eyes were on the fight which was undoubtedly going to take place between the Spaniard and the Scot. To the masses, the drivers and co-drivers are far more important than the cars they drive.

Subaru proclaimed that on this occasion no team orders would be given. Both drivers would be left alone to fight their personal battle. As it turned out, this is precisely what happened, but there were circumstances which had a great bearing on whether this promise would be kept or not. For instance, towards the end the third Subaru of Richard Burns was in third place, keeping opponents at bay should the duel between Sainz and McRae result in the two leading duellists making mistakes and losing both time and position. Had this not been the case it would have been a great temptation for team boss David Richards to instruct his warring pair to hold station and not to take risks.

Furthermore, before the RAC Rally Sainz had announced that he would be leaving Subaru to rejoin Toyota at the start of 1996 — the FIA's decision to ban Toyota from the world series during 1996 had not then been announced. Would it be to Subaru's liking to end the season with a World Champion who promptly left to join a rival team? As a Toyota driver, he could hardly be expected to take part in promotional activities on behalf of Subaru!

As it happened, none of these affected the situation and what ensued was as stirring a fight to the end as rallying has ever seen, made even more interesting by the fact that both rival crews were members of the same team.

And so it was that Scotsman Colin McRae, helped by co-driver Derek Ringer, a compatriot, not only won the RAC Rally for the second year in succession but became the first British driver to hold the official title of World Rally Champion (although Louise Aitken-Walker won the ladies' world title back in 1990).

Based at Chester for the second year running, the rally spanned four days of actual competition although scrutineering, a rally show for the public and various meetings and presentations added another couple of days to that total, not to mention the pre-event note-making sessions which the event now allows, even in State Forests. These sessions are strictly controlled, but' even leading drivers continue to take chances by exceeding the limits in order to get their notes to the finest possible pitch. Winner McRae, for instance, was fined a total of £1,075 for three breaches of the rules, whilst six others in the first 50 were each fined £75 for two offences apiece.

On this occasion the organisers arranged that prizes be presented to their winners on the finish ramp, delighting the crowds and cutting out the need to organise a separate ceremony.

The crowd-pulling Sunday "Mickey Mouse" leg ran through seven park or private estate stages in the Midlands, totalling just under 29 miles. The day ended with a night stop in Leeds, after which the cavalcade headed northwards to stages in Kielder Forest and the Border District before returning to Chester via the Lake District. Tuesday's third leg went into Wales, penetrating southwards as far as Brechfa and Crychan before returning to Chester for another night stop, before heading to North Wales. The 28 special stages together made up 318 miles.

The Toyota ban meant that the entries for Kankkunen, Auriol, Schwarz and Fujimoto were not taken up, leaving just three nominated works teams with four-wheel-drive cars. Subaru had McRae, Sainz and Burns in Impreza 555s, whilst a privately entered Impreza was driven by Masao Kamioka from Japan and his English co-driver Kevin Gormley.

Rival side Mitsubishi had three Lancer Evolution 3s for Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander,Tommi Mäkinen/Seppo Harjanne and Rui Madeira/Nuno Silva. The latter Portuguese pair, winners of the Group N world title for 1995, were actually in a Group N car entered by Mitsubishi Germany, who also entered IsoIde Holderied and Tina Thörner in a similar car. Holderied was already assured of the ladies' world title.

Three Ford Escort RS Cosworths were entered by RAS-Ford for François Delecour/Catherine François , Bruno Thiry/ Stephane Prevot and Malcolm Wilson/Bryan Thomas. A front-wheel-drive Ford Escort RS2000 was driven by Gwyndaf Evans/ Howard Davies, the entrant being listed as the Ford Motor Company. Another Ford crew, in a Group N Escort RS Cosworth, was Johnny Milner/Steve Turvey. Alister McRae, Colin's brother, drove a Wilson-built Ford Escort Cosworth with Chris Wood.

Further down, Grégoire de Mevius and Jean-Marc Fortin drove an Escort RS Cosworth, whilst a Nissan Sunny was in the bands of Jarmo Kytölehto/Arto Kapanen. A Renault dealer consortium entered two Clio Maxis for Alain Oreille/Jack Boyere and Robbie Head/Terry Harryman, whilst Skoda Felicias were in the hands of Stig Blomqvist/ Benny Me!ander and Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross, that of the former crew sounding very odd indeed on the stages.

Irishman Richard Holfeld drove a group N Escort Cosworth with none other than Ian Grindrod alongside him. Another pair of veterans, David "Piggy" Thompson and John Davenport, were relishing every moment of their (brief) reacquaintance with the British forests. They were in a Ford Escort RS Cosworth.

The first leg began in Cheshire's Tatton Park, where much of the tarmac surface was wet. Eriksson broke his front spoiler whilst Burns damaged his steering against a log and, service not being allowed afterwards, had to use parts carried in the car to repair the damage himself at least well enough to continue. Some elements of rallying have been changed for the worse, but at least the service restrictions are turning drivers and co-drivers into reasonable roadside fettlers, as they once all had to be. There was nothing Delecour could do, though, when he broke a differential in Clumber Park, except take early retirement.

The two stages held at Donington Park, on mixed surfaces, were as dry as Tatton was wet. However, the artificially created corners were tricky and many slid off on to the grass and clouted some very firm straw bales, Colin McRae included. Thiry broke his rear bumper this way, saying afterwards, "I think I hit a small wall!" Sainz needed a radiator change after hitting a watersplash very hard and holing the honeycomb.

At Leeds on the Sunday evening, two Mitsubishis headed the field. Makinen led by 11s from team-mate Eriksson, whilst Colin McRae (Subaru) was another one second behind and Sainz (Subaru) another 14. Thiry, Wilson, Alister McRae and de Mevius followed in their Fords. The Mitsubishi people were in a fine mood for they had started the event with a lead in the World Championship for Makes and this early indication was that they stood a very good chance of keeping it.

From Leeds, the rally restarted at 5am on the Monday, an ungodly hour by any standards, and several competitors were muttering about scrapping the day-only rule, reintroducing night running so that early morning starts would no longer be necessary. The feeling among quite a few crews was that a continuous first day and night would have been far better, ending in a longer stop and a more civilised restart time, even in the evening, although we imagine that TV crews and photographers would disagree.

The first Monday stage was called County Durham, but it was actually in Hamsterley Forest, a remote area south of the Wear Valley where many crews have spent long, tedious, stricken hours in the past. It ran for nearly 17 miles and, true to form, it produced many incidents.

McRae was fastest by 28s over Sainz and took the lead, whilst Makinen, the overnight leader, had to gnash his teeth in silent despair after hitting a log and stopping with suspension and transmission broken. He limped on, but at a service point afterwards he said disconsolately, "I think is very serious — something wrong with transmission."

Pundershaw, at 37 miles, was blazed by publicity as the longest-ever stage in the World Championship. But earlier stages in the Border Forests have been longer, as has the Dyfi stage in Wales. And of course one cannot ever forget that remarkable special stage in the Morocco Rally which was 500 miles long — yes, all of 500 miles — where teams established fuel and tyre dumps at intervals throughout the stage and even resorted to dropping spare parts to crews by parachute from aircraft.

Malcolm Wilson, in what may be his final rally as a driver, went out after crashing, whilst Thiry had some serious brake problems and had to use an extinguisher on his right rear disc after crossing a stage stop line. Johnny Milner, well placed in the Group N category, lost a wheel and tyre and finished the stage with just three wheels and a loose, flailing rear bumper.

McRae's fans were sorely dismayed when they heard that he had collected a puncture after clouting a rock, losing some two minutes having to stop to fettle the car himself as outside service was not permitted in that road section. Logs and various other improvised tools were brought to bear and, with parts carried in the car, McRae and Ringer managed to get going and stay in with a good chance.

Eriksson also stopped to change a wheel after hitting a rock, said to be the same one that crippled McRae'e car, whilst Sainz needed attention to serious overheating, probably a legacy of his Donington mishap when he hit a watersplash very hard and damaged the radiator. Both Head and Stohl spent some time off the road whilst Alister McRae continued after rolling, without even getting out of the car.

At the end of the day, Sainz was in the lead, but his advantage over McRae had been whittled down to just 39s. Eriksson followed after another 1m 20s, and Burns 68s later still.

The third leg began with incessant rain as the field headed into Wales. Sainz, bothered early in the day by a screen demister which stopped working, was gradually being overhauled by McRae, and after just two stages, the difference was down to 21s. Eriksson was still third, but this was not to last long. Soon after the very foggy Brechfa Forest, the Swede went off the road into a stream in Trawscoed Forest, and could not get back to the road. This not only put paid to Mitsubishi's chance of taking the World Championship for Makes, but allowed three Subarus up into the leading three.

But it was by no means a cooling-off moment. The battle for the lead between McRae and Sainz continued. Both were giving their utmost. At the end of the day British fans went wild when they heard that McRae was up in the lead with a 17s advantage over Sainz. Burns was third, nearly five more minutes behind but a safe minute ahead of Thiry's Ford. That minute was vital for Subaru, for the team could continue to give Sainz and McRae their heads for their personal battle.

Tapio Laukkanen told a bizarre story of his in-car fire extinguisher going off without warning and it seems that a stage marshal had something to do with this, although the Finn just laughed about it afterwards. Having driven with windows open to blow the extinguisher fumes away, he and his co-driver were just as wet as the spectators who surrounded them.

The final day began with the McRae family in jubilant mood, but Sainz had not given up. He continued to strive to get ahead, but it was to no avail. On a sunny day, in contrast to the Tuesday, McRae continued to extend his lead over Sainz, second by second, and the Spaniard was powerless to prevent it. Meanwhile, Burns extended his lead over Thiry, whilst Alister McRae, who left a spotlight in the hands of a spectator in a Welsh forest, delighted everyone, family included, by taking fourth place in his Ford, ahead of Thiry. The Belgian hit a rock and stopped after Gartheiniog, but continued to take fifth place at the end.

McRae thus becoming the first Britisher to take the world title was one thing for Subaru. Winning the Makes title was another, for it was the first time that Subaru has reached that lofty position.GP