Colin McRae is a phenomenon. A purveyor of stunning stage times and spectacular accidents. A winner with a winner’s confidence. At the ripe old age of 24 he has stamped his mark indelibly on the world rallying scene, in a sport where you are not considered to be at your peak until pushing 30.
After Colin’s second place on this year’s Swedish Rally, Stig Blomqvist, a contemporary of Roger Clark, reckoned the Scot to be the best rally driver this country has ever produced. On the Acropolis Rally Armin Schwarz raved about the tyre tracks Colin was leaving behind, the German Toyota driver expecting to discover a very battered Subaru Legacy around every corner. He was to be disappointed for Colin finished fourth to match his father’s performance of 1989. The Finns are not renowned for cheering foreign drivers, especially now they have started to win their beloved 1000 Lakes, yet they took to Colin like a long lost son. Toivonen returned? The Italians lapped him up even though he put Lancia’s nose out of joint by winning the 1991 Bettega Memorial Rally in its own backyard. A man with the Midas Touch.
A man totally unfazed by big accidents, too. Two years ago he arrived in Harrogate at the end of the RAC Rally with his RED-prepared Ford Sierra Cosworth 4×4 looking as though it had been in a demolition derby. One of its rear doors was held closed by a latch from a farm gate, no corner had escaped unscathed, and yet he was sixth after setting a string of fastest times on his home Scottish stages.
Enter Dave Richards, a man whose life has been a series of goals — perceived and then attained. Sure, everyone knew Colin was fast, but could he be trusted with a works drive? Clearly Richards thought so and now he is confident enough to tip his young charge to be world champion in 1994. When Richards makes a prediction people listen.
So what does the dapper boss of Prodrive see in the young man from Lanark? Colin possesses innate car control. The impression is given that he doesn’t think too much about what he is doing, that he just gets in and goes. Watching him on the stages is a joy, and he possesses the ability to take the breath away even from the most cynical hack. Prodrive’s mechanics often allude to how their man loves to drive. Testing is not a chore with Colin, belt him into a rally car and he is in his element. On the loose the Subaru is flung round like an Escort. His lines are more flamboyant than the likes of Sainz, Kankkunen and Biasion, but they are usually totally accurate. This is achieved with an apparent minimum of effort. Whereas Auriol, Biasion and Delecour sit hunched over the wheel, urging their mounts on, Colin adopts a very relaxed stance at the controls. He is helped in this by the Subaru, which is regarded as the best chassis in the pack, its turn-in visibly better than the rest. In-car camera work gives credence to the belief that the car’s speed is indirectly proportional to Colin’s input; the use of the semi-automatic gearbox, which is operated by two buttons on the steering wheel, increases the feeling of Colin’s laid-back, total control.
Only Auriol of his contemporaries has a similar ability to pull mind-numbing stage times out of the bag. Today’s World Championship rallies are won by seconds not minutes, and to pull out 10 seconds over a single stage is a rare occurrence nowadays — yet Colin has done it at home, on the ice and snow of Sweden, in the rough and tumble that is the Acropolis, and over the high speed roller-coaster of the 1000 Lakes. Furthermore a dazzling time is usually recorded immediately after a problem, often a roll, as on the 1991 RAC Rally following his much publicised off in Grizedale. In terms of sheer speed only Auriol can match him.
The photographer’s dream he may be, the journalist’s dream he certainly isn’t — no king of the one-liner here. Basically a 24 year-old who lives with his mum, Colin is shy. There are no sides to him, however, and approaches at service halts are generally met with an affable response. Naturally, he has come under glare of the national press, and the Fleet Street hacks have been impressed by the way in which he has dealt with the pressures heaped upon him; not by a flurry of glib throwaway quotes, with which they love to pepper their articles, but with the underlying self-belief he possesses without any of the prima donna affectations often present in such precocious sport stars. Colin is a nice guy.
The £100,000 prize put up by Lombard should a UK driver win this year’s RAC Rally clearly increased both the pressure on Colin and the media coverage. Outwardly he maintained his “what will be, will be” approach. He took the lead with a series of stupefying times through Wales and the jackpot loomed. Then Grizedale and disaster. TV pictures of Colin sitting disconsolately in a service van, hand on chin, may not have had quite the same mass appeal of Gazza kissing his country’s emblem after England’s semifinal defeat during Italia ’90, but it showed that he is no ice man. Missing out on the money was a blow, missing out on the victory provided the heartache.
Thirty six hours later he was thrilling the Chester crowds with a series of spectacular power-on do-nuts. Handbrake turns into controls — a kid in a sweetshop. A talented kid.