Colin McRae: Rally GB heroby Anthony Peacock on 14th October 2015
The best way to describe Colin McRae is to remember how he described himself.
In his own words: “I go over the limit and then come back from that. It’s quicker to do it that way, rather than trying to build up to the limit and try and edge towards it; attack it to the maximum and sort it out afterwards.”
Colin was simply an all-action superhero, whom everybody wanted to be. Proof of that came in the world-famous Colin McRae Rally video games for PlayStation, which have sold nearly 10 million copies. And McRae also single-handedly made the Subaru Impreza desirable: a marque that had previously been the domain of farmers wanting a cheap and reliable 4x4 runabout. He did that through pure charisma.
The most iconic image of Colin is undoubtedly the end of his championship-winning 1995 Rally GB, as he did doughnuts at Chester racecourse while holding the Saltire proudly aloft. It was the culmination of all his dreams – and he did it in the only way he knew how.
That 1995 season was characterised by an intense year-long rivalry between McRae and his Spanish team-mate Carlos Sainz, with the duo fighting for the title from the start. A row over team orders on the penultimate rally of the season in Spain meant that the team-mates were barely speaking to each other on the final round in Britain: where McRae needed to beat Sainz in order to lift the championship.
Despite having to stop and change a tyre on the longest special stage, McRae won the rally in style. His title-winning Subaru Impreza formed the pride of McRae's car collection, housed in a garage at his home, Jerviswood House. Colin was Subaru.
But his best chance of becoming champion again actually came on Rally GB at Ford in 2001. A hat-trick of wins through the middle of the year had put him into such a strong position that not even a run of bad luck in the second half of the season could stop him going into the final round, Rally GB, at the head of the field with a one-point lead over Tommi Makinen and two over fellow Brit Richard Burns. Once again, it was a straight fight to the finish.
Leading, McRae’s speed through the early miles of Rhondda – stage four – still makes you shiver now. But then came an infamous right-hander with a ditch inside. Co-driver Nicky Grist called “Don’t cut,” but McRae misunderstood the note – thinking it still referred to the previous bend – and launched the Focus into the corner. The front-right wheel dropped into the culvert and the impact sent the Ford into a terrifying series of rolls.
It’s a tragedy that we can’t ask Colin what he remembers about all those emotions. But we can ask Grist. “The stupid thing about 2001 was that we didn’t need to win; we just needed a solid finish. But Colin wasn’t particularly interested in that.”
And that’s why the people loved him: he was the Gilles Villeneuve of rallying. It was this mass appeal that Ford bought into, when he moved there on an unprecedented multi-million dollar deal. His last win, on the Safari Rally in 2002, made him the most successful driver in the sport at the time, with a career total of 25 victories.
And that’s probably what’s most misunderstood about Colin. Yes, he was a yumping, flat-out, maximum attack mentalist. But he also had the kind of methodical consistency and mechanical sympathy required to win two Safaris and three Acropolis Rallies. That last Safari victory, for example, was taken without a single stage win. Which makes it all the more incredible.
Would there have been more wins? Quite possibly. His final Rally GB was 2005 in a Skoda Fabia WRC, where he finished seventh: an event touched by disaster as another British rallying hero – co-driver Michael ‘Beef’ Park – left us.
Just a couple of years later Colin too was gone – and as was the case with Richard Burns as well, it was nothing to do with rallying.
At the time of his death, on 15 September 2007, Colin was planning his comeback, aged 39 (it’s incredible to think that he would be 47 now...)
There were two very hot irons in the fire: one with Subaru – which would have been the most prodigal return in the history of the WRC, had it come off – and another with Ford, as Marcus Gronholm was due to retire at the end of the season. Either car would have given him a shot at another GB victory in future, but first the deal had to be done.
Like many journalists at the time, I’d called him to find out more, in early September 2007. It’s hard to remember the exact words of the conversation after eight years, but it finished along the lines of: “there’s not much I can say for now but it’s looking quite good; give me a call in a couple of weeks.”
Sadly, that never turned out to be possible. And the 1995 championship-winning Subaru that crossed the start ramp of Rally GB ahead of all the other cars, two and half months later, was driven instead by his five-time British champion father, Jimmy. As a mark of enduring respect.
Colin McRae's victorious 1995 Subaru will be on show in the Service Park at this year's Wales Rally GB as part of a significant 20th anniversary celebration. Derek Ringer will be there throughout with Jimmy competing in the Network Q National Rally in his Magnum
Our thanks to Certina Watches for their help with this feature.