Insight: Paradise found

Consider Colin McRae's World Rally Championship victory and it's easy to run out of superlatives. What lies ahead for the youngest-ever champion?

Ka-pow! Colin McRae slammed shut the boot of his Subaru Impreza. It was the only visible sign of his frustration.

Moments earlier, the RAC Rally leader had calmly stepped from his car to show the press corps assembled at the end of the Pundershaw stage the shredded Pirelli which he and co-driver Derek Ringer had been forced to stop and change a third of the way through its 37 miles. The incident cost him two minutes and the lead to team-mate and arch rival Carlos Sainz, but the 27-year-old Scot's clipped, measured tones as he dealt with a string of enquiries gave no hint that the World Rally Championship hung in the balance.

In the past, certain sections of the media have depicted McRae as -- for want of a better word -- a nutter. Addicted to speed, blessed of a blinding talent at the wheel of a car, but monosyllablic out of it. To dismiss him thus is to do him a vast disservice. It's fair to say he's not the easiest driver of his stature to interview -- primarily he is reserved, happier away from the spotlight. On the job, though, Lanark's finest has matured into a driver keenly aware of his responsibilities and obligations, whether he likes them or not.

On-stage, he is unquestionably one of the most eloquent figures of his generation. Anyone who doubted his unconfirmed status as the world's quickest driver on gravel would have had their questions swept aside by the latter half of this season. In New Zealand he was head and shoulders above his rivals, the foundation of a third consecutive victory being a staggering performance on the long, sinuous Motu Road stage. Such is his reputation on this test that this year rivals talked not in terms of beating McRae, but how best the damage could be limited.

There is also the RAC to consider. Immediately prior to his Pundershaw puncture, McRae had "done a Motu" in Hamsterley, extracting 28s from his nearest pursuer in the space of 17 miles in itself a staggering performance, but far from a one-off. Pundershaw débâcle aside, he ceded just five more seconds to Sainz in the course of the whole rally, lopping between five and 20-odd seconds from his advantage on every other forest stage. It quickly became not a matter of if McRae could catch the Spaniard, but when. By the end of the third leg, and despite a brush with a Kielder rock that saw McRae service the Subaru himself for 20m by a roadside, he was back in front, never to be headed. Britain's first World Drivers' Championship was a momentuous achievement, but the epic manner of its accomplishment should not be overlooked.

Consider the context of McRae's RAC performance and its significance grows. Up to the point when Toyota Team Europe was excluded from the Catalonia Rally for cheating, 1995 had been the most closely fought World Championship for years. There was little to tell between any of the leading protagonists or their machinery: rallies were decided by seconds, not yawning several-minute margins. In this environment, to pull back the best part of two minutes and overhaul a double World Champion in equal equipment was truly remarkable -- a showing to rank with anything seen this decade at world level. Indeed, for Sainz to find himself on the receiving end of such a drubbing after six years at the top of his profession was an unpleasant novelty and he didn't mind admitting it.

Rewind 18 months, however, and the story was dramatically different. McRae, down on his luck and with a solitary World Championship point to his credit, appeared in grave danger of losing his Subaru berth. After a string of accidents (including a collision with an Argentine parapet. after which he tried to manouvere the Impreza out of the stage on three wheels and did untold damage to the chassis and engine before it ground to a halt) Prodrive boss David Richards had lost his cool sufficiently to criticise his charge openly. Victory in Australia, New Zealand and an epoch-making first RAC success not only patched up his position at Subaru (for whom he has now driven since 1991, the longest association of any current World Championship team and driver) but was the perfect response to critics who claimed that he couldn't consistently produce rally-winning pace without regular contact with the scenery.

Having said that, the first half of this season was an anti-climax given the highs of late '94. Coupled with engine problems in Sweden and an off-the-pace third (with a 'safe' motor fitted) in Portugal, an unforced and very public error eliminated him from Monte Carlo, giving rise to the "wild man" tag once more. It is a credit to his composure during the rest of the season that his temperament should be called into question only once more: in Catalonia, where ugly scenes followed Subaru's contentious imposition of team orders.

World Championship won, McRae is not short of ambition. Although the burden of expectation has eased, it is worth remembering that he is still only 27, with just two full World Championship campaigns under his belt. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that he has won only two different rallies at this level (Australia was an F2 round in 1994), and that re-dressing this situation forms the basis of his immediate hopes: to "be very quick on all rallies". Spain. where he gave local hero Sainz an even bigger surprise than on the RAC. gives the lie to his perceived inferiority on tarmac. And in a World Championship shorn of significant Toyota participation. where the Impreza has latterly begun to enjoy a definite edge on the competition, the youngest-ever champion will start 1996 as favourite for a second title. Whether he achieves it or not, he has decisively infiltrated the exclusive club reserved for drivers who are a genuine threat for honours whatever the terrain or conditions. It might be premature to say it, but Sainz is probably the only superior all-rounder.

Off the stages, his value to Prodrive has also increased although it is likely to stay well short of the reputed $5,000,000 demanded by Sainz for his services. The odd lucrative marketing spin-off aside -- he has recently launched the Colin McRae Collection with Scots rally driver Neale Dougan -- McRae has far less concern for his financial standing than most daily newspapers seem to. Tax-exiled in Monaco along with most of the Formula One community, suffice it to say that he is unlikely ever to be short of petrol for his Honda Fireblade . . .

How a Briton taking rallying's most glittering prize affects the sport in this country is less quantifiable. Already, McRae's World Championship has generated more column inches in the non-specialist press than it received during the whole of the 1980s. No British rally driver has ever featured in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year's top three, nor come as near to 'household name' status. But so much must change before the sport can be mentioned in the same sentence as Formula One, maybe even touring cars. Lacking promotional push at every turn, debarred of terrestrial television coverage and likely to be forgotten just as quickly as it is remembered every November by the dailies, rallying needs to make the jump from its current position as an eccentric minority sport, beloved of a few, roundly ignored by the many.

Unless, that is, McRae can produce another flush of success to keep it in the headlines. What was that about the burden of expectation? RJA