RallyScotland gets tough 16 | 10 | 2010

    THE PICTURESQUE AUTUMNAL beauty surrounding Dunkeld, Kenmore and Tummel Bridge masked a viciousness in the forests which enhanced RallyScotland's growing reputation as one of the toughest events in the world.

    The penultimate round of the Intercontinental Rally Championship, which heads into the Trossachs tomorrow before finishing at Stirling Castle, left drivers, teams and manufacturers coming to terms with the cost of physical repairs and ruined dreams.

    Just hours after the relatively docile start to the event in the grounds of Scone Palace on Friday evening, the S2000 cars, with their characteristic ear-piercing shriek, headed out of HQ at Scone Airfield at 6.19am and headed to the first test at Craigvinean near Dunkeld.

    Immediately there was drama. IRC champion-elect Juho Hanninen had a huge moment on just the third corner of the day and almost wrecked his Skoda: "That woke me up suddenly," the Finn admitted.

    On into the next stage, the 9.4-miler at Drummond Hill and Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen hit a deer as it leapt from the undergrowth into the path of his Ford Fiesta S2000. The big drama though involved last year's winner and overnight leader Guy Wilks.

    The 31-year-old from Darlington rearranged the aerodynamic efficiency of the front of his Skoda when he clattered into a rock face at high speed. It was testament to the car's strength that it survived to continue

    "We came to a tight left-hander, tucked the front left into the edge of the track and the tyres got far more grip than we'd expected," he explained. "That pitched us straight into the rocks.

    "The damaged was pretty severe and we found ourselves stuck. We managed to reverse and get going again, but I was convinced the bonnet was going to fly up at any time and I was worried about the radiator. It cost us about 18-seconds."

    That meant last year's IRC champ Kris Meeke entered stage five, the 11-miler at Errochty, with a healthy 19.8s, but that evaporated less than a mile into the stage. Totally committed and clearly intent on establishing an insurmountable advantage after Wilks' troubles in the previous stage, Meeke slewed his Peugeot S2000 wide exiting a fast left-hander and emerged from the deep ditch with a right-rear puncture.

    The handicap slowed him progressively through the remaining 10 miles and he emerged 59.1s slower than Hanninen's fastest time. The 31-year-old from Dungannon was clearly frustrated as he pulled to a halt at the end of the stage.

    "That was a wild ride," he sighed before pausing and letting out a beastial-type roar which illustrated his huge pent-up frustration far more than any words could. Meeke, competing in the Peugeot for the final time before switching to the World Rally Championship with Mini next year, quickly regained his composure.

    "It's a huge disappointment and frustrating," he continued. "It's going to be tough from here, but we'll be fully committed this afternoon."

    Scot Alister McRae meanwhile was left stranded in Errochty after the battery of his troubled Proton finally gave up the ghost after a morning of electrical problems

    "It was a pretty disastrous start to the day," McRae, being eyed by Peugeot to replace Meeke in the IRC next season, said. "We had a loose alternator wire and that eventually finished the battery in the afternoon."

    Lunch in Perth saw Wilks lead his Skoda team-mate Hanninen by 5.4secs. That though all changed immediately the crews headed into Craigvinean for the second loop of the three stages.

    While Hanninen again cruised through, 24s faster than his time in the morning, Wilks emerged with the hazards on his Skoda flashing.

    "The rear diff's gone," the hugely disappointed Englishman said. The damage forced the Skoda to miss the remaining two stages, but will return for tomorrow's closing four stages.

    And there was further disappointment for Meeke when he lost the rear brakes on his Peugeot, and 50% efficiency of those at the front, for the final two stages. The problem, a result of the damage caused by the morning's puncture, cost him more than a minute.

    With the demise of the Brits, it was left to Norwegian rally champ Mikkelsen's Hankook-shod Ford Fiesta to pressurise Hanninen. The Finn leads by just 11.1secs with today's four stages remaining. Meeke is fourth, just 15.8s behind the Peugeot of Belgian Thierry Neuville, but 1min 46.2 behind Hanninen.

    There was frustration too for Hankook Scottish Rally champ David Bogie on today's final stage. Starting the test in fifth, he was forced to change a wheel on his Mitsubishi after a front-right puncture. The delay cost him five minutes and dropped him to 10th.

    "It's a big disappointment," the Scot said. "I know we didn't hit any big rocks, so all I can assume is it was just a sharp piece of stone which ripped the tyre. But that's rallying."

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    Jim McGill

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