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FEATURE - PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 13TH 2009
WRC: Five of the best stages - #2 Lough Gill
Autosport magazine took five rallying aces to their favourite stages in the world that you can drive yourself. Now, autosport.com autosport.com brings you the video footage from their spellbinding ride, and each driver's account of his exploits. Today it's Jimmy McRae's guide to Lough Gill in Ireland

By David Evans

The sunlight spears down on the puddles that litter the damp road, creating mini-rainbows as the car snakes around each tight twist and turn. The trees almost hem us in until we turn right and a carpet of still, blue water appears, stretching away to the dark hills beyond.

Jimmy McRae is in his element. This is true McRae territory: fast roads, a fast car and just a hint of treachery lying in wait on the damp, slippery asphalt. Jimmy has been rallying in Ireland for more years than he cares to remember and this sweeping, snaking route around the ravishing Lough Gill is perfect rallying territory.

The start could hardly have a more romantic setting for a stage of the World Rally Championship, the cars roaring down lanes between villages with evocative names, such as Moneyduff and Mullagh, before setting out on what is usually the sedate R286, a rambling route along the northern shore of Lough Gill to Sligo, high on the north-west coast of the Republic of Ireland, the land of W.B. Yeats, arguably Ireland's greatest poet.

When Sebastien Loeb, the world champion, attacks this slow road to Sligo, his speedometer soars beyond the 100mph mark. Today, Jimmy, himself a five-time British Rally champion, is taking in the sights.

"It is so beautiful out here," he says. "I have been rallying in Ireland for 40 years and I never tire of the place. Of course, when you are rallying you donít have time to admire the sights. But an ordinary motorist can have the best of both worlds on a rally stage that is a public road, like this one. Easy on the throttle and enjoy the view - it is beautiful."

The name McRae is synonymous with rallying, not just because of Jimmy's long career but because Colin, his son, was Britain's first world champion. His victory, in 1995, sent him on a trajectory to becoming the most popular driver in the sport, his thrilling and spectacular style revered around the world.

Ironic then, that this most daring of rally drivers should die in a helicopter crash in September, 2007, a tragedy made worse by the fact that Johnny, his five-year-old son, was on board along with two family friends.

The man who had defied the odds in a snarling rally car died within yards of the front door of his home in Lanark, Scotland. But out of this tragedy will come some good: Jimmy is busy with the Colin McRae Vision, a foundation aiming to raise money for children's charities. The first £40,000 - the result of donations that flooded in from around the world after Colin's death - has already been delivered.

But Jimmy is ambitious to plough new funds into rehabilitating youngsters involved in car crime, by re-training them at Scotland's Knockhill race circuit and, perhaps, even finding and backing a young driver who might also become a world champion, a successor to Colin.

"The tragedy brought Colin's popularity to light, how well he was thought of and the following he had," Jimmy says. "We were quite gob-smacked at the scale of the reaction."

Such was Colin's popularity - even among his greatest rivals - that many top rally stars are giving their time to help the charity, drivers such as the great Ari Vatanen, the 1981 world champion; Mikko Hirvonen, the fast Finn who succeeded Colin at Ford, and Marcus Gronholm, the two-time world champion.

"It is fantastic to have these boys helping us out," Jimmy says as he changes down through the six-speed gearbox of his Ford Focus to flash past Parkes Castle, a curious 17th century colonial manor house of battlements and turrets. Then it is on to take a fearsome long right-hander that leads to a viewing point over Lough Gill.

It is a benign enough scene on this day, with just a couple of tourists taking photographs of the still water. Except for a roughly-painted sign on the stone wall that reads: "WRC. Ha, ha." Somebody's idea of a joke because this was the point of impact where Gronholm slid off and out of the 2007 Rally of Ireland.

This road is not benign, not even for a double world champion, and it is exciting. During the Rally of Ireland, the R286 is transformed from rural through road to grand theatre, applauded by some of the most fervent fans anywhere in the world.

"The welcome in Ireland is always warm," Jimmy says. "But rallying here is something special. It is not just a road like this, with all its challenges among lovely scenery, but the fans absolutely love it. It becomes one of the most enchanting places in world rallying."

Look out for Miki Biasion's favourite stage tomorrow

  FEATURES FROM FEB 12, 2009 - FEB 18, 2009
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Petter Solberg: Mud, sweat and tears
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WRC: Five of the best stages - #2 Lough Gill
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WRC: Five of the best stages - #3 Montalcino
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WRC: Five of the best stages - #4 Col de Turini
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Dodgy Business: Answers in the offing
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Technical analysis: Testing round up
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Sebastien Buemi: Rookie resolve
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Time to deliver for Nelson Piquet
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  ABOUT DAVID EVANS
David Evans is the rallies editor of AUTOSPORT. A successful rally driving father ensured an early introduction to motorsport and, fascinated as he was by rallying, the fourth estate was of equal interest. Having read (or at least looked at the pictures) from the age of two, he joined Motoring News in 1996 and later moved to AUTOSPORT in 2002.
Contact David Evans
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