Ten years ago the late Richard Burns became England’s only World Rally Champion. He’s not forgotten, as our very personal road trip showed
In many ways, it feels like more than just 10 years have passed since Richard Burns won the 2001 World Rally Championship — the helmet he wore looks impossibly fragile, for instance, while his old overalls appear to offer the fire protection of a kimono. It certainly feels like more than six years since he was taken from us by a brain tumour.
Richard’s co-driver Robert Reid, now vice-president of the World Rallies Commission, says it feels like a different lifetime. Yet the euphoric images of Richard spraying champagne in Cardiff after he became England’s only World Rally Champion remain frozen in time, as permanent as his simple gravestone at the church in Checkendon, the village near Reading where he grew up.
Because what we will remember is exactly what is written on Richard’s gravestone: ‘Always and forever, a gentle man and a brave champion’.
To celebrate Richard’s achievements, a decade on from his greatest triumph, we took a road trip together with Reid to see the people and the places that meant most to `RB’. There was only one vehicle to do it in: the limited edition Subaru Impreza RB320, built by Prodrive as a tribute to their late World Champion in 2007. Chassis 001 (of 320) belongs to Alex Burns, Richard’s dad, and has covered fewer than 6000 miles since it left the factory four years ago.
8am: NEAR WANTAGE, OXFORDSHIRE
A farm track leads to an unprepossessing barn, although the impressive barrage of security equipment provides the first hint that there may be something more to it. Once the clattering metal door rolls open, what’s inside is enough to take your breath away. All of Richard’s most famous cars are here, sleeping under dust sheets.
Lift Off: Burns’ WRC career takes flight with 7th at the 1993 GB round
There’s the Peugeot 205 — essentially a glorified road car — that he used to win the 1990 Peugeot Challenge, the Peugeot 309 he drove on the RAC Rally (as it was still then known), and the Subaru Legacy with which he won the British Championship. Then of course there’s the iconic blue title-winning Impreza WRC, looking exactly as it did when it rolled off the finish ramp in Cardiff, and a Peugeot 206 WRC: Richard’s final rally car, which he drove until his career was cut short at the end of 2003.
Facing them are his road cars. There’s an Impreza RB5, the first limited edition RB Subaru, introduced in 1999 to celebrate his return to the team with competition number five. Richard had chassis 001 (of 444), mothballed at zero miles. There’s also a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 5, a Peugeot 206 GTI and his favourite car of all: a 1969 6.5-litre V8 Chevrolet Camaro, imported from the States. Naturally, it’s not quite standard. Richard took the car to Prodrive shortly after he bought it, from where it emerged sporting a big red button on the central console. The purpose of this button is to lock the front wheels but free up the rears, enabling tyre-smoking burnouts to be effected. Even after Richard became ill, his friends used to take him out in it — and it never failed to put a smile on his face.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the garage, though, is a room to the side of it. Here, all of Richard’s trophies, overalls and helmets are perfectly preserved, with the African dust still clinging to his Safari boots. Most poignant of all is a Subaru holdall, which still looks conspicuously new. Inside is Richard’s team kit for the 2004 season, neatly wrapped up in plastic packets, which was delivered at the end of ’03 but which he never got to wear.
For a cosmopolitan champion, enjoying life in London and Barcelona (“he was very… European” was how Burns’s friend and mentor David Williams put it) Richard’s background seems surprisingly rustic. Bumping down the long track towards his dad’s farmhouse (“I’ve been driven down here at some truly terrifying speeds,” Reid recalls) we eventually get to the farm. But the cowsheds have long since been replaced by something more useful: workshops.
Alex, Richard’s dad, is waiting to show us round. “The funny thing was, I never really got the car bug until Richard got into it,” he explains. “Then I became slightly infected.”
Make that an epidemic. There are three large workshops in the gardens where Richard’s first rally cars were built, and which now house Alex’s diverse collection of Peugeots and Talbots, in various states of restoration.
You could wander round it for hours. True to his meticulous nature, Burns stuck all his old rally plates on the wall, where he would record the overall and class result in felt-tip pen. Richard also insisted on fabricating mudflaps to his perfect design. But it didn’t always go to plan. “This is a room I mostly associate with Stanley knives, plastic and blood,” says Reid.
Burns in his Impreza, en route to the 2001 WRC title
Stuck in the back of the garage is a tired-looking Subaru Legacy estate. “That was my old company car,” says Alex, with a grin. “When I got home from work on a Friday we used to load it up with rally car spares and it became our chase car. Then on Sunday I’d clean it out and go off to work on Monday…”
Overlooking the garages of course, at the back of the house, was Richard’s bedroom.
10.30am: DAVID WILLIAMS’S OFFICES, IPSDEN, OXFORDSHIRE
A converted barn opposite a small airfield was an unlikely venue for a plan to be hatched that ultimately led to the World Championship. But David Williams’s studio (his company MD designs stands for exhibitions), and specifically his glass table, was where the Burns council of war regularly met. When he turned professional, Richard was managed by Mike Greasley and then Julian Jakobi’s CSS outfit, but David — the man who started him off in rallying — was the person he always turned to for advice.
“I rallied for fun myself; it was clear from the beginning that my enthusiasm far outweighed my talent,” says David. “But that’s not always a bad thing. Early on, when Richard first started rallying with the Peugeot 205, I thought he was driving it too delicately, like an old woman. So I said to him at a test: ‘You co-drive, I’ll show you how it’s done.’ And of course I rolled the car into a ball. But it still drove. Then I said to Richard: ‘Of course I’ll sort all this out. But for now just do what you want with the car. Find the limit. Go over rocks, stones, roll it — it doesn’t matter.’ Richard spent the rest of the day driving it on the ragged edge, wearing goggles because the windscreen had shattered. He won his next rally. That day, I think he learned not to be afraid of damaging the car.”
Ipsden was also where Richard’s famous silver and orange helmet was designed, based on the colours of Mario Andretti.
11.30am: NEAR STOKE ROW, OXFORDSHIRE
In the heart of Oxfordshire there are some phenomenal driving roads: this is just one that Richard used to try out his cars on, often with volunteers stationed next to humpbacked bridges and blind corners to check that nothing was coming. Richard would drive around alone or with friends, such as touring car star Jason Plato. “We used to be thick as thieves back when Richard’s world rally career was taking off and I was coming up through touring cars,” recalls Plato. “We had a lot of fun; stupid stuff: young guys having a laugh. There was a lot of messing about with cars and motorbikes: I used to have a Ducati 916, which I parked in my kitchen because it looked cool. Richard would come round and often start the bastard up. I had to get the kitchen redecorated before I sold the place. Then there was the time when I had an orange bazooka: a bazooka that fires oranges. We used to go out at night to set the thing off. Oh man… there was one night when we took the back out of a wooden bus shelter in the middle of the countryside. And there’s a huge old metal road sign near Thrupp, near where I lived, that’s still got a huge dent in it now. Made by an orange. So I just remember that time with Richard as a great party. And Richard himself as an awesome driver.”
These were the roads he learned to drive on.
12.30pm: KIDLINGTON, OXFORDSHIRE
Kidlington is a suburb to the north of Oxford, perhaps best known in popular culture as the location of Inspector Morse’s police station. But for Richard it was all about Cots Green, a farmyard converted into 10 properties. He lived in two of the houses: number five, which he shared with his friend the rally photographer Colin McMaster from 1997 to ’98, and number 10, which he bought at the end of ’98 before eventually adopting non-dom status and moving to Andorra. Richard enjoyed some very happy times during his Kidlington period, with the possible exception of the occasion when his new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 4 was liberated from outside number five…
The sight of the future World Rally Champion wearing an antiquated motorcycle helmet while being beaten around the head with a frying pan must have been a memorable one, but it was in Kidlington that the game of `kop the wok’ was invented. Unsurprisingly it was a drinking game, where the loser had to don the helmet and take his punishment.
As McMaster remembers: “These were some of the best years of our lives. After we first moved in there was quite a raucous housewarming. I had to take the call from the letting agent threatening eviction, but we all got on well in the end.
“In the later years one of the neighbours had to suddenly go to Budapest in tragic circumstances and Richard was asked to help out with the school run. In order to lighten the mood, he picked the little girl up from school in a different car every day: ranging from the Camaro, to a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, to a Porsche 911 GT3.”
Burns in the thick of it after winning the 2001 WRC crown at Rally GB
1.30pm: PRODRIVE, BANBURY, OXFORDSHIRE
What everybody forgets about Burns’s championship-winning drive on the 2001 Rally Great Britain was that he was locked in an intense legal dispute with Prodrive at the time. He had already signed for Peugeot in ’02, but Prodrive was contesting his right to leave as there was a clause keeping him with Subaru if he won the title. The 2001 Rally GB was a tough and tense event, fraught with little problems — Richard’s car refused to fire up out of parc ferme on the final day, for example — and there was an uncertain feeling about what was going to happen next. When Burns first tested the Peugeot 206 WRC, he enlisted McMaster to come with him and provide a photographic record, as he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be driving it again. So as Richard was winning the title on Rally GB, David Lapworth — Prodrive’s technical director — remembers thinking: “I wasn’t quite sure if we should be celebrating or not. It was a surreal feeling: here we were having a party together on Sunday, and then seeing each other in court on Monday.”
The biggest testimony to Burns as a driver though is the fact that less than two years later, and despite the acrimony, Subaru asked him back. “As a judge of pace, Richard was second to none,” points out Lapworth. “He knew exactly what he had to do to win a rally, or how to claim the maximum number of points if he couldn’t. You always got the feeling that he was managing the level of risk he was taking.”
So fluid was Richard’s approach — or maybe so flamboyant was Colin McRae’s, the inevitable comparison — that it’s easy to forget just how fast he was. In 1999 and 2000 Burns set more fastest stage times than anybody else.
“The funny thing was that he never really aimed to set all those fastest times,” adds Reid. “It was just a by-product.”
Chances are that Burns would have brought the number one back to Subaru in 2004 (incredibly, he only lost the lead of the ’03 title race just before Rally GB, when he was already very ill). His team-mate for the following season would have been Petter Solberg, who went on to win five rallies (one more than eventual champion Sebastien Loeb) and finish second in the title race. Richard could well have ended ’04 as a three-time champion. But we’ll never know.
Life on the edge: Burns thrills the crowds at 2003 Rally de Catalunya
4pm: MARGAM PARK, NEATH, WALES
They were the longest 18 miles of Richard’s and Robert’s life, down the muddy hillsides of Margam Park in South Wales for the final stage of Rally Great Britain. In the end they finished third: just one place higher than they needed to in order to clinch the world title. The subsequent scenes have been written into television history: Burns telling Reid: “You’re the best in the world!” and then the explosion of emotion as the drizzle fell relentlessly, while Richard hugged Zoe Keen — the love of his life — David Williams and dad Alex.
“It’s funny how the memory plays tricks on you,” says Reid. “Looking back on it now, I remember it being a fairly straightforward end to a fairly straightforward event. But that wasn’t the case at all.”
Four drivers had gone into the title-decider with a chance of the championship, and McRae was leading until he crashed out spectacularly on stage four, the first proper test. That left Burns with 13 more stages to hold his nerve, often under trying circumstances.
“We did two stages in the dark the following night with no map light,” recalls Reid. “It was just a cock-up: I reached up to switch the map light on and nothing happened. You can imagine how we felt then. I tie-wrapped a mini Maglite torch to my thumb and read two stages like that.”
Anything could have gone wrong at any point; somehow Burns and Reid held it together.
This is where the journey ended, outside City Hall in Cardiff. Or was it where it began? Burns made the mistake of wearing a grey T-shirt when he hit the town in Cardiff to celebrate winning his title. It wasn’t long before he was assaulted by his fellow competitors with marker pens, all of whom were anxious to pen their own personal ‘tributes’ to Richard. That T-shirt became one of his most treasured possessions, but when it was displayed recently at the Goodwood Festival of Speed only one side could be exhibited — Goodwood is, after all, a family show…
“It was at a nightclub in Cardiff; all of a sudden people descended on us and started to write stuff on his T-shirt with marker pens,” remembers Zoe. “The whole evening was just surreal. I remember walking down the street after we had dinner and people were saying ‘well done Richard’ but it was all quite hard to take in. It was a massive relief, that’s for sure, and I felt so, so happy for him. He’d done it. He’d achieved his dream. He’d had some rough times in the past but even if he never won the title again, nobody was ever going to take that away from him.”
And they never will. Burns remains England’s first and only World Rally Champion.