WRC driver Kris Meeke takes the wheel of McRae’s 2003 Citroën Xsara and remembers his mentor and friend
People associate Colin McRae with Subaru, understandably. But he also drove for Citroën in the 2003 season, alongside team-mates Sébastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz – and that’s not a bad line-up!
All three of them drove a Xsara, and I recently had the chance to try Colin’s car myself. It was incredible. It was one of the last WRC cars he ever drove, because after one season at Citroën the rules changed – teams could henceforth have only two drivers. Citroën opted for Loeb and Sainz for 2004 and so Colin didn’t have a drive.
Even though it is more than 10 years old, the Xsara is not that different from modern WRC cars, though now we have more horsepower and more aerodynamics. Back then they had paddles to shift, for example, which we have now. So these cars were quite advanced. It is not like going back a few generations to the old Group A Impreza and Legacy models Colin drove. Those cars have an H-pattern gearbox and zero aerodynamics, the diffs are quite primitive and they had a load of horsepower and a load of torque. That made them hard to drive, not like the Xsara.
All WRC drivers like to sample different cars, and those from that era are rewarding because the more you put in the more you get back. With cars with from the mid-Nineties you can be quite aggressive and they allow you to express yourself as a driver. Today speeds are higher, but it’s easy to over-drive, which is when you lose speed. It was a different era.
The Xsara is from the in-between generation, with sequential gearshifts and everything. That’s the era when Sébastien Loeb began to dominate. You could say this car represents a transitional phase between the simpler cars of the mid-Nineties and the cars we drive today.
One of the biggest developments between then and now was suspension technology. Today, you can take a lot of bumps and big compressions completely flat out and not even think about it, because the suspension works so incredibly well. Back then you had really short-stroke suspension and the technology inside wasn’t so great to absorb bumps. Yet the car could be so much more rigid, so though it wouldn’t have the performance they do now, it was much more rewarding to drive.
DRIVING THE XSARA was especially rewarding because it was one of Colin’s cars. I remember there were thousands of spectators at the event. It was amazing to see the following he still attracts, so many years after he won the world title and since his passing. That was emotional, to be able to do it in that environment, and in front of his brother Alister and father Jimmy, too.
I had close connections with all the family and I actually lived at the family home for two to three years. In fact, I wouldn’t have made it into rallying if it wasn’t for Colin.
I didn’t really follow the usual path to being a rally driver. I went to university and trained to be a mechanical engineer, then got a job at M-Sport as a design engineer at the time Colin was driving for the team.
But I still had the burning ambition in the back of my head that I wanted to drive rally cars some day, so I entered a competition with Peugeot in 2000 and won. The prize was to do a rally – I won my class and then wanted to do more.
It was difficult to raise the budget, though. Then one day towards the end of 2001 I attended a test near Dumfries. It was a Super 1600 Ford Puma run by Chris Birkbeck Motorsports. Colin and his father Jimmy were there with three other drivers. They let us recce the course and make notes, and they checked them, then chatted with us and I sat in the car with Colin beside me. I grew up with Colin being my idol, so looking across at him sitting beside me was a surreal experience. But you just go and see what you can do. I just went and drove like hell, and tried to keep it on the road. A few days after that, his father Jimmy called me and said he was looking to do something, and that’s just how it went.
There were many people on the way helping with sponsorships and trying to get me to do more rallies, but without Colin I wouldn’t have made that step into the international scene. He took my career from the junior categories to the junior world championships.
COLIN WAS GOOD at using his influence with manufacturers. We’d done the first BRC season with Ford and that all worked quite nicely. I was still working in M-Sport’s design office and designing parts for Colin’s rally car for the world championship. In between, I was doing the BRC in a Ford Puma and I thought it was working quite nicely, but the following year Colin had departed Ford and moved to Citroën, but he managed to get me a deal with Opel to drive a Corsa Super 1600.
That’s when it got a bit complicated. I was working in Ford’s design office, Colin was driving for Citroën and I was competing with Opel. Something had to give, so I gave up my engineer’s job at M-Sport and just winged it from there, all under the guidance of Colin.
I think Colin is still one of the biggest names in the sport, the most recognised. Colin was one of those iconic figures back in the day. Everybody took a step back when they heard Colin driving. He was just using the road as a rough guide. His style and approach were something to watch. At one time he held the record for the most rally victories. His ‘never say die’ attitude, always flat out… it really sat with people and endeared him to them.
There have been a lot more successful drivers in WRC since: Sébastien Loeb rewrote the rulebook for consistency and performance in driving a rally car, with nine world titles in a row and 78 WRC victories, which is colossal.
Sébastien certainly eclipsed Colin in terms of overall records, but in terms of fans and how they reacted to drivers, I think Colin is number one.
His driving style was unique, too. I was lucky enough to sit with him a few times but even watching him you could tell that he was using lines other people wouldn’t dare to try. He was second to none. Often it bit him and he ended up in the trees, but he was something else. You’re standing watching this bit of road moments before the cars arrive and you imagine what they’re going to do; then Colin arrives and does something you’d never imagine was possible. He was in a league of his own in that way.
In that era of rallying, there were maybe 10, 11 rallies a season, and three smashes a season was pretty acceptable. Tommi Mäkinen, Juha Kankkunen, Richard Burns, Carlos Sainz… all these guys would have three or four fairly bad accidents a year. Now, after Sébastien Loeb rewrote the rulebook for everybody, if you make one mistake you’re on the naughty step. It’s a different ballgame.
Part of the reason is that technology has evolved so much. Twenty years ago it was fairly primitive and that allowed the driver to make the difference. You could over-drive the car and be quicker. Nowadays if you over-drive you can be slower. It’s a fine line you’re treading. Back then it was about who could stretch their legs the furthest. And Colin was certainly one of the best at doing that.
But people often forget that he was a mechanic, too. He could work with engineers very well and understood the set-up and the car’s underpinnings. All the talk was about wild, aggressive style, but if you watched him drive on tarmac he was really quite smooth. He won two Safari rallies, which takes a really clever driver with a lot of car and driver sympathy.
He’d take a line through a corner and if there was a bad bump or something, he’d know how to take the maximum speed without hurting the car. That’s not to say he never went too fast or off the road…
The Xsara didn’t bear any scars from its time with Colin. But driving it, all these memories of Colin came back to me. He was a one-off. He was my mentor but also my friend.