Colin McRae of Scotland has won the Rally of New Zealand for the third year running. The Subaru driver finished 44 seconds ahead of world champion Didier Auriol after easing up on the last day, which he had started with a lead of 1min 03s.

Auriol's Toyota team-mates Juha Kankkunen and Armin Schwarz finished third and fourth respectively.

These results make it extremely close at the top of the world drivers' championship: with three rounds to go, Auriol had 51 points, Kankkunen and Carlos Sainz both 50. Sainz did not compete in NZ; the Spanish Subaru driver was recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in a mountain-bike fall.

Finn Tommi Makinen was the early leader in his Mitsubishi Lancer, driving really hard -- the following drivers were amazed by his tyre marks going right out to the edge of the road. But he crashed on the second morning, McRae grabbed the lead and kept it till the end.

The decisive factor was again McRae's performance on the Motu stage on day three. This tage is unique in world rallying, 45km along a narrow, tightly winding gravel road in the middle of nowhere. McRae was a full 35 seconds faster than the next man, Auriol, through this stage -- at an average speed of only 70.5km/h -- and that pulled his lead out to 47 seconds at that point.

The Subaru seems to suit tight roads better than the other cars, and McRae certaonly knows how to drive it in these conditions, using all the narrow road and then some, cutting right across the inside of the corners.

Afterwards Auriol and Kankkunen suggested, semi-jokingly, that the Motu be cancelled in future. Auriol sportingly added that McRae would have won the rally even without the Motu, as he was fastest on several other stages too.

Kenneth Eriksson brought the second Mitsubishi home fifth, after running higher up earlier in the rally. Ford's Francois Delecour finished sixth, after struggling with a bad case of the flu all through the event. Ford ran a new computer-controlled central differential in this event and Delecour said it made the car noticeably better, though not actually different in its characteristics.

Richard Burns -- replacing Sainz in the Subaru team -- was running seventh till his radiator was wrecked going through a ford on the Motu.

The roads in the New Zealand Rally are all gravel, and usually quite smooth and hard. This year they were softer and slipperier than normal because of an unusually wet winter.

The next world championship rally is in Australia in mid-September and the Toyota drivers expect this event to suit their cars better than New Zealand.

I was at the event covering it for Reuters and NZ news organisations, and it is worth mentioning that the rally drivers are in general a very nice bunch of people, approachable and friendly, unlike some other motorsport superstars one could name.

Rally of New Zealand results:

1. Colin McRae (Scotland) Subaru Impreza 2. Didier Auriol (France) Toyota Celica 3. Juha Kankkunen (Finland) Celica 4. Armin Schwarz (Germany) Celica 5. Kenneth Eriksson (Sweden) Mistubishi Lancer 6. Francois Delecour (France) Ford Escort Cosworth 7. Possum Bourne (NZ) Impreza 8. Neil Allport (NZ) Escort 9. Jorge Recalde (Argentina) Lancer (Group N) 10. Rui Madeira (Portugal ) Lancer (Group N)

World championship points: Auriol 51, Kankkunen and Carlos Sainz (Spain, Subaru) both 50, McRae 40, Delecour 36. Toyota leads the manufacturers' championship narrowly from Mitsubishi, with Subaru also close and Ford further back (sorry, I don't have the exact points with me).

-- Bernard Carpinter

Four wheels good, two wheels better