WRC season begins Thursday

British rallying received a major stamp of approval when Colin McRae lifted the World Rally Championship title in 1995 and now, as the first championship of the 21st century gets under way in Monte Carlo, Britain looks a good bet to be celebrating again

WRC season begins Thursday

Although Finland's Tommi Makinen lines up as defending four-time champion ['I can't remember what is feels like not to be defending the title!' he joked recently], McRae and his arch rival Richard Burns are hotly tipped to be 2000 champ.

Last season McRae got off to a flying start with the controversial Ford Focus but the Martini-backed car suffered from poor reliability as the season progressed and, coupled with a run of destructive accidents, McRae hasn't finished his last eight events.

Nevertheless the Scot is bullish about the year ahead and told AUTOSPORT magazine last week: 'We proved last year that the car can win.

'Hopefully we've improved its reliability and I'd say we now have the basis of a championship challenge.'

By contrast, Burns' season with Subaru suffered a sluggish start before he came good in mid-season and ran out victor on the final two events of the year.

Pre-season testing has shown that Subaru, and perhaps more crucially Pirelli who bore a lot of the criticism for the early poor showing, has raised its game and Burns is confident of living up to his tag of pre-season favourite.

'I won't worry too much if I don't get a great Monte Carlo result as it's clearly the hardest event of the year for me, but I'm feeling pretty good about everything else,' he said.

With six top-flight manufacturers lined up for the opener in Monte Carlo [the new Castrol/AUTOSPORT Hyundai team joins the fray in Sweden next month], competition in 2000 will be tougher than ever.

With the disbanding of the Toyota team, Carlos Sainz joins McRae at Ford to create the most exciting, or volatile, team in the pack depending on your viewpoint.

Sainz's Toyota team mate, Didier Auriol, has taken a place at SEAT and the Spanish manufacturer now has no excuses not to get the best from the sometime troublesome Cordoba WRC.

Peugeot's tentative 1999 season is now a full-blown title challenge. The 206 WRC proved fast but fragile last year so if the winter work has solved the reliability problems then a title challenge is a real possibility for Messrs Delecour, Panizzi and Gronholm.

Last year Skoda didn't last as far as the first stage in Monte Carlo but things have improved since then.

Armin Schwarz can't be tipped as a possible winner, but this year every point will be fought for tooth and nail and the Czech team could easily upset a few favourites' title hopes.

Makinen and Mitsubishi remains a constant threat, however, and the reiging champion fears no one these days.

The Lancer might be long in the tooth but it is still a potent weapon that could deliver once more.

With a week to go before the start of the event there was little snow reported on the rally route although the roads were turning to ice overnight.

The forecast is for much of the same and so great pressure will fall on the ice-note and weather crews whose information about the state of the roads and the weather patterns will be crucial for tyre choice.

Monte Carlo may be famed as a gamblers' Mecca but, if the weather holds true to form, then it will be just as much of a lottery in the mountains as in the Casino.

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