Britain's most popular rally pairing, Colin McRae and Nicky Grist, start the Rally of Great Britain (21-23 November) with their sights firmly set on capturing their third FIA World Rally Championship success of the season. With the outcome of both the drivers' and manufacturers' titles already settled, the country's biggest sporting event should witness a spectacular battle among the world's top drivers on McRae's home ground, unrestrained by tactics and team pressures.
Most experts view this 14th and final round of the 1999 championship as a 'Battle of the Brits', a fierce fight forecast to develop between the Ford Focus World Rally Car of McRae and Grist and rising stars Richard Burns and Robert Reid. However, it is the Ford duo which holds the advantages going into the three-day, 1815km event based in the spa town of Cheltenham.
McRae clinched the 1995 world championship amid emotional scenes on this event. The 31-year-old Scot also won the rally in 1994 and 1997, at the same time lifting Britain back into the top echelons of the sport for the first time since the mid-1970s when the late Roger Clark scored his second victory on this rally.
"It obviously holds great memories for me," said McRae. "For the first time in several years both championship titles have been decided before this rally and so all the drivers have nothing to lose. They can all go flat out for victory and that should provide plenty of excitement in the forests.
"Having said that I would be surprised if it didn't come down to a battle between myself and Richard. Home knowledge is a big advantage for anyone in the Welsh forests and both Richard and myself have that advantage. It should be very close but I'm certainly not going into the event thinking second place would be a good result. I want to win, Ford Martini wants to win and that would be a great way of ending the year - an ideal preparation for the start of next season," added McRae.
Ford Martini team-mate Thomas Rådström will enjoy a reunion with former co-driver Gunnar Barth for his first attempt at the rally. Fred Gallagher, who has partnered Rådström throughout the season is unavailable as the Ulsterman is clerk of the course for this event. Barth co-drove his fellow Swede on five world championship events last season and Rådström feels the change will be seamless.
"Gunnar and I have worked together a lot, our first rally was back in 1987, so switching co-drivers won't create any problems for me," said Rådström. "Gunnar has competed on this rally four times previously whereas this is my first time so his experience of the British forests will help me enormously."
A third Ford Focus will be driven by rising young Norwegian star Petter Solberg and former British champion co-driver Philip Mills. Solberg has made a huge impression in his first year of world championship competition, gathering experience of rallies which will pay dividends in future years. "I've learned a lot this season, especially by having Malcolm Wilson as my mentor, and his experience, and that of Philip, in the British forests will give me great confidence for this event," he said.
Although only 14 days separate the end of the Rally Australia from the start of the Rally of Great Britain, the Ford Martini team has been hard at work testing the latest specification engine from Cosworth Racing, used for the first time by McRae in Australia. The Scot was delighted with its performance on the fast and flowing sections while also providing positive feedback on potential modifications to improve its response on tighter and twistier roads.
"We've been working hard at M-Sport's test facility on aspects like in-car engine mapping to maximise the effect of the changes brought about by the revised engine," said Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson. "We learned much about the new engine in Australia and we've used the time since the rally to try a few modifications to ensure it is working in harmony with other mechanical aspects of the car.
"Colin has a brand new Focus for the rally and our continued development programme should ensure that it's the lightest gravel specification car yet produced. We're also 90 per cent confident that Thomas will also have the revised engine in his car," he added.
The forests of central and south Wales again provide the bulk of the action but first drivers must tackle the traditional opening day special stages around stately homes, parkland venues and motor racing circuits in the Midlands. The second leg takes the rally onto the smooth gravel roads of central Wales for a series of stages, some repeated, based around the market town of Builth Wells. The final day features tests in the mountains high above the south Wales valleys close to Cardiff, recently announced as the base for next year's rally.
Cheltenham hosts the rally for the third and final time. It will also be the last year in which the opening day public stages, designed to give prime viewing opportunities for spectators, are held. They will go next year when the format of the rally undergoes major changes. The opening day comprises only 35km of stages, the highlight of which will be the super special stage at Silverstone where two cars at a time will race over a purpose-built gravel circuit including jumps and a watersplash. The previous stage at Blenheim will be broadcast live on nationwide television across Britain. Drivers will tackle 22 stages in all, covering 389km in a total route of 1815km. Leg 3 is the longest and most difficult with the Resolfen stage on the final day at over 46km, one of the longest stages in the entire championship.
RALLY OF GREAT BRITAIN
ROUND 14 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP, 21 - 23 NOVEMBER 1999
Sunday 21 November: Leg 1
Start Cheltenham 08.27 SS1 Cheltenham 1 1.91km 08.30 SS2 Cornbury 4.17km 09.46 SS3 Silverstone 1 10.02km 11.18 SS4 Silverstone 2 10.02km 11.33 SS5 Blenheim 5.62km 13.50 SS6 Silverstone Super Special 1.96km 15.27 SS7 Cheltenham 2 1.91km 17.35 Finish Cheltenham 18.52 Leg total 35.61km
Monday 22 November: Leg 2
Start Cheltenham 05.15 SS8 Radnor 23.69km 07.39 SS9 Crychan 16.89km 10.04 SS10 Esgair Dafydd 8.64km 10.41 SS11 Tywi 22.65km 11.39 SS12 Sweet Lamb 1 25.70km 14.26 SS13 Myherin 1 16.72km 15.10 SS14 Sweet Lamb 2 25.70km 18.08 SS15 Myherin 2 16.72km 18.52 Finish Cheltenham 23.05 Leg total 156.71km
Tuesday 23 November: Leg 3
Start Cheltenham 05.15 SS16 St Gwynno 13.67km 07.29 SS17 Tyle 10.55km 07.56 SS18 Rhondda 35.82km 08.32 SS19 Rheola 1 31.47km 10.41 SS20 Resolfen 46.45km 12.31 SS21 Rheola 2 31.47km 14.39 SS22 Margam 27.64km 15.57 Finish Cheltenham 19.15 Leg total 197.07km
Rally total 389.39km