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Driver tragedy ends British Rally

CARDIFF, Wales -- Co-driver Michael Park has been killed after the car he was in crashed into a tree during a special stage of the Rally of Great Britain.

Park, 39, had been the co-pilot in a Peugeot 307 driven by top Estonian Markko Martin when the car veered off the road at top speed.

They were competing in the 15th special stage of the rally, the 12th leg of the world championships and were in sixth place at the time of the crash.

"It is with deep regret that the organisers of Wales Rally GB confirm that Michael Park (co-driver in car number eight) has been fatally injured following an accident in special stage 15," organisers said in a statement.

"The driver of car number eight, Markko Martin, is uninjured."

Race organisers quickly announced that the remaining two special stages of the race were canceled and that the rest of the competitors were being called back to the finish at Cardiff.

"Markko (Martin) spun off at top speed shortly after the start of the stage and the right side of the car slammed into a tree," said Peugeot Sport director Jean-Pierre Nicolas.

"I think that Michael was killed outright. It's hard to take. The championship is nothing when you compare it to the life of a man. None of us want to continue."

Nicknamed "Beef", Park had been Martin's co-driver since 2000 and they had won five world rallies together.

But he had been competing in the world championships since 1994 when he was co-driver for David Higgins.

The decision to cancel the two remaining special stages and declare that race leader Sebastien Loeb was the winner, would have meant the Frenchman securing the world title for a second straight year.

At the start of the race he had needed eight more points than Peugeot driver Marcus Gronholm to clinch the top honour.

The Finn had been in third place at the time of the accident but withdrew from the race immediately after discovering that his team-mate had died - meaning that he would not make it back to Cardiff and thus go pointless.

Loeb though declined to win the world title in that manner and deliberately incurred a two minute penalty before heading back to Cardiff for the offical finish.

That left him in third place with Norwegian Petter Solberg in a Subaru Impreza winning and Belgian Francois Duval in a Citroen Xsara runner-up.

It was Solberg's fourth British win in a row but he will not consider it a victory.

There were no celebrations and the drivers and crowd held a minute's silence when the leading cars arrived at the finish in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

"There's no way I wanted to win the world title in circumstances like that," said Loeb. "They should have called off the rally completely. Marcus (Gronholm) didn't have any doubts over what to do. Who wins the race is not what counts today."

Rallying has always been a dangerous sport, with spectator safety a particular concern, but fatal accidents have become rare at world championship level.

The last similar incident was in the Rally of Australia in 1993 when co-driver Rodger Freeth was killed when the Subaru driven by the late New Zealander Possum Bourne rolled after a series of jumps.

In 1985 and 1986 respectively, Italian driver Attilio Bettega and leading Finn Henri Toivonen were killed in the Rally of Corsica.

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