The James Dean of rallying

A celebration of Colin McRae’s life attracted a galaxy of stars. We asked them how they remembered the man and the legend

To some observers the World Rally Championship has lost its way in recent years. The fact every driver’s title since 2004 has been taken by a Frenchman named Sébastien is impressive, but hasn’t helped the sense of stagnation. And a well-intentioned attempt to make the cars faster and more exciting is yet to deliver the anticipated spectacle. For all the metronomic brilliance of Loeb and Ogier, the ever-increasing capability of the cars and the attempts to make it more spectator-friendly, there remains a nostalgic sense that rallying isn’t what it used to be.

For a taste of the sport’s glory days, the annual San Marino-based Rally Legend event offers a sense of what’s been lost. Fast stages on closed roads, passionate fans packing the routes and a huge spread of classic rallying. And in 2017 it had an extra element, too: a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the death of one the sport’s most charismatic performers, Colin McRae.

The fact that it was Colin meant a galaxy of stars turned out to pay their respects, including 10 former world champions. Surveying a paddock filled with iconic rally cars and the drivers who made their reputations with them, Colin’s father Jimmy McRae was quite overcome at how many had chosen Rally Legend to pay their respects. “It’s emotional for us,” he said. “There’s never been a gathering like this and I don’t think there will be again. It’s something else.”

But what is it about Colin that captures the imagination of both fans and fellow drivers, even those too young to have met him or seen him compete? Occasionally hot-headed, sometimes prickly with the media and stubborn to the core, he was not without his flaws. And although his extraordinary talent was never in question, in statistical terms his record has been surpassed by many.

Ari Vatanen, the 1981 world champion, has his theory. “He is the James Dean of rallying,” he said, that sense of a huge and charismatic talent taken prematurely perhaps playing its part. But time and again, from fans to fellow drivers, it’s McRae’s driving style that unites opinion. From Biasion to Auriol, Blomqvist to Solberg you get the same response – all use words like “spectacular” and “flamboyant” to describe McRae’s approach and it’s clear from the fans’ response that they also appreciate this style. After all, you don’t spend hours on a cold, dark hillside or climb a tree to watch a car carve past you clinically on a perfect line – you do so because you want to be showered with stones from one being pushed so hard it’s dropping a wheel off the road, spitting flames and teetering on that fine line between glory and disaster.

Modern WRC machines have higher limits and are faster than ever but demand a more calculating style. Getting the most out of the cars in the McRae era often required going over the ragged edge, a characteristic that suited Colin’s style and endeared him to the fans. But it was more than that – McRae’s victories did not come from tactics or playing the long game, they simply came from an utter determination to go as fast as possible and be quicker on the day than anyone else. This romance is what keeps the passion for rallying alive, and what brings fans in their thousands to an event like Rally Legend. Here, they see the flame still burning.

“It’s easy for people to identify themselves with someone like Colin,” said Vatanen. “He worked his heart out and that is what sport is all about. It’s what humanity is all about – you push limits and you don’t play some calculated games. He never did and you may win fewer rallies but maybe you live a richer life.”

Here – in the words of family, friends, team-mates, rivals and those he inspired – is what made Colin McRae so special.

Ari Vatanen
Former world champion and one of McRae’s Subaru team-mates

“I’m sure it is true that we had a similar style. It is easy to observe and one reason we got on so well is because we found ourselves on the same side – we discussed it with David Richards. Colin’s raw talent was very obvious and I remember when he came to our first Prodrive session in Wales – his first proper test with the Subaru Legacy. So I took him out – Colin and Ari in the same car! – and said to myself, ‘I’m going to show this young guy a thing or two, I can still teach him.’ So we go one time out and one time back and I am coming too fast into a corner and we rolled – that was the end of that test. That was how I introduced him to the Subaru team! Very, very embarrassing...

“There are of course issues that are far above the numbers, the octane, the brake horses or whatever. If you have a kind of a perfect life it’s not a real life. People may respect you for winning, but they can’t identify themselves with you, because they know in their own lives it’s very often an uphill struggle and they can identify with someone who is needing to fight. And then, of course, like very often with shooting stars in life, they remain with us just because humanly speaking they leave too early. You don’t measure the value of life by its length.”

Alister McRae
Colin’s younger brother

“Why do people love him? I think it’s just the way he drove with such flamboyant style. He obviously proved he could be steady and consistent on the Safari and the Acropolis, but when that wasn’t needed it was 100 per cent all the time and I think that just stuck in people’s minds. Back then the cars were more sideways and they didn’t need to be driven the way the cars are driven today. They were more spectacular and the fans loved it.

“I think wherever you go they’re all very passionate. When you go to Argentina or Spain, they’re all very passionate about motor sport and Colin’s style. And this event almost goes back in time the way it’s run, the spectators just love it and people have travelled such a long way to be here. I met a woman who came over from Australia – she went to MotoGP, Formula 1 and then here.”

Didier Auriol
1994 world champion who lost his title to McRae the following year 

“I was fighting with Colin a lot of the time so I think of him very often. He was a spectacular driver and what I remember is that we had a little bit of the same style. It was his style of driving the fans love, maybe the crashes too but that was Colin. But you know it was always full attack and he wanted to be the best. Of course everyone wants to do that, but if there was a jump Colin would be in the air more. If you were on motorbikes he just wanted to go faster than anyone!

“I think the people at this event like the old-style rallies, the passion of the cars and what the drivers do with them because everyone would like to do what we have done. It was such a nice job and I think people have a good memory of this time. It’s incredible how people like the stories of the old rally cars and drivers, but we all have a good feeling about Colin and if we can do something with his family it is important.”

Sébastien Loeb
Nine-time world champion and one of McRae’s Citroën team-mates

“Colin is a legend. I really discovered rallying through the Colin McRae game and I had some seasons where I was team-mate with him and he was a nice guy, a funny guy.

“I was at Citroën before him, but when Citroën told me he would be my team-mate I thought it would answer a lot of questions. Was I really good? Was my car better than before? Finally, I had my first real point of reference. The first time I won we were driving the same car on the same rally, so it was some good news!

“We had different styles but that didn’t matter – you can still work together to improve the car and we can see what works better. If he was flying then you can identify yourself, we understand what happened. He helped us a lot to develop the car because I didn’t have any experience of WRC machinery at the time - we had the electronic diff and had to do all the set-up, so his experience helped.”

Petter Solberg
Former world champion, two-time WRX champion and ex-McRae team-mate

“Why are we here? It’s all about history. Colin was my team-mate, he helped me massively because I came in the car with him when I was very young and then we developed the Colin McRae game together, went on vacation together. We have been very close and here we have all the drivers together. It’s incredible, it won’t happen very often.

“He’s a special guy, big attack, very competitive and especially his driving style.”

Miki Biasion
World champion in 1988 and 1989

“Colin was so crazy, his style was so entertaining for everyone to see. He was an acrobat, that is why people liked him so much. He had many spectacular accidents but he would always try and get back on the road. For me or the other drivers, if we have a problem in the car we stop immediately. He could have 20 rolls, come back from the forest and be fighting again. He has been one of the most spectacular drivers and it is so nice for all of us to join together – this is a great opportunity to have a drink all together after a few years. I’m enjoying it.

“As you can see, this event is full of rally fans. People say rallying is not as popular as it was in the past, but look how many spectators have come to see young and old drivers together. Rallying is still alive!”

Stig Blomqvist
1984 world champion

“We didn’t compete together but he was an incredible driver, a really talented guy, totally instinctive and always giving it 100 per cent. He was a guy who came from a motor sport family too and absolutely never gave up, always trying.

“It’s good fun driving at Rally Legend, especially with the chance to drive my Sport Quattro S1 after so many years - it’s my car from Argentina 1985 and lots of fun.”

Nicky Grist
Former McRae co-driver – they shared 17 victories together

“I think the reason people here love him so much is that he was a very competitive person in the car, out of the car - if it was four wheels or two wheels he was your man. He drove with such flair. I think that is why people admired him so much - his driving style was very individual, very fast but very flamboyant and the spectators just loved him for it. I was fortunate enough to spend some great time with him, won a hell of a lot of rallies, and I am one of the lucky ones to have experienced it as his passenger. Okay, it wasn’t all plain sailing but to be honest the good times were fantastic and the not-so-good times were acceptable.

“I found myself in a position where I was head-hunted from Juha [Kankkunen] to go with Colin and, at that time, it was arguably a little bit risky because of this ‘Colin McCrash’ reputation. But there were a few things I brought to the table, so it was definitely the right move. I think David Richards wanted to have someone who could be a calming influence on him as much as anything else and I think that’s where I came into the equation. But when I joined him we hit it off straight away and I didn’t really have to do that much really, other than telling him to take it easy or be calm at certain times. Colin knew the change of co-driver meant he had to change his ways and concentrate a little bit more. Our relationship just gelled and we ended up winning five rallies in our first year.

“As a person you needed to know him before he let you in. He was quite guarded and quite shy around strangers, so I think a lot of people didn’t see inside him, probably saw him as quite grumpy and quite moody. The press always had a hard time but as a co-driver we bonded straight away and we got on very well because we rallied hard, we partied hard and we worked hard as well. Socially he was a bit of a timebomb – you never knew when it was going to happen, or where, but when it did you knew you were going to have a hell of a funny time and I think that’s a side very few people had an opportunity to see.

“I think the one thing for which people know him best is his driving style, because he was so incredibly flamboyant. He’d always be the highest and furthest over the jumps, he’d always be the most sideways and in modern terms the way Colin drove was very uneconomical against the clock. But even in the middle of a rally, if Colin saw a crowd there would be a big slide. Don’t get me wrong, if you were in a fight for the lead he wouldn’t squander wins for the sake of having fun, but if we were having an average rally and he saw some spectators he’d just showboat a bit – and that’s why they loved him. He never stopped trying.

“When he had an opportunity to win he had an enormous passion to be the fastest, to win as many stages as he could, to be leading at the end of the first, second and third legs and to win the rally. It was all about being first, and while we all love him for what he’s done, in rallying terms that was his biggest downfall because if he could only have accepted second place sometimes he would probably have achieved far more in terms of results.

“Malcolm Wilson said the one thing he can remember more than anything else was the 1999 Safari, when we started with the Focus. It was brand-new, it hadn’t finished a rally. Colin never even had a puncture in it and although we were not fastest on one section of that rally, we won it by a huge margin. He applied himself so well to these rough events - we won the Acropolis three times on the trot, we won Cyprus which was a rough event and we won Argentina, also generally a rough event. He applied this system and suddenly Colin McRae wasn’t this Scottish lunatic driving flat out, he was using his head. He turned all these rounds that weren’t his strong events into his strongest – and that’s where I think I brought something to the table.

“He died 10 years ago, he was a world champion 22 years ago but look at all these world champions who’ve come here to support and celebrate him. It’s tremendous and I think if anybody had half his following they would be happy.”

Sébastien Ogier
Current world champion

“I think Colin has always been a role model. I’m from a generation who never met him, but first knew him through a video game as a kid and then, of course, I knew he was a big champion of our sport with a lot of charisma and very spectacular. When Luis Moya contacted us to bring all the champions together in memory of Colin, I immediately thought it was a good idea and that is why we’re here today.

“The fans like you for your success and everything you achieve and, of course, you attract a lot of respect this way. But you also catch a lot of fans by the way you drive and the charisma you have and that’s the main thing about Colin – he was spectacular, he was driving to the limits and I think the fans enjoyed it even if he won ‘only’ one title.

“Here at Rally Legend the passion for motor sport is very big, especially for rallying, and when you come to Italy you know you’re going to be celebrated and people are going to appreciate what you do. They have an interesting concept with this rally – you can see a lot of cars of every generation and this year we managed to unite nearly all the champions, which makes it really special.”