Colin McRae’s third World Championship rally victory was unquestionably his most important. So where does he go from here?
Colin McRae held out a glass with a slightly resigned air. This was the whisky glass – not the one he was drinking from at that moment as it happened – but then it doesn’t do for a Scot to turn down a whisky when in England. This was the post-RAC Rally party in a Chester night club and he seemed as much in control now as he had during the previous four days.
Ask McRae if winning the RAC has changed him and he will answer, “No, and I hope it never does – apart from more money!” In practice, he may find that he has to change, whether he likes it or not. Rather like another shy but gifted Scot, Jim Clark, McRae is finding that the price of driving brilliance is fame and tax exile. Just as Clark was obliged to move to Paris, McRae is Planning to live in Verbier, Switzerland. It’s not easy for someone who lived with his parents in Lanark until the demands and rewards of driving for Subaru dragged him into a nomadic existence that takes him to the four corners of the globe.
That’s only the start. McRae has the makings of a popular sporting hero. At a time when British teams aren’t doing too well in the traditional ballgames, his plainspoken, down to earth manner and spectacular talent might even set the tabloid posse on his trail, just as it did for Nigel Mansell. Being a household name as well as a tax exile would create an entirely new set of circumstances, certainly for a British rally driver; they haven’t sparked much recognition with the man in the street since the ’60s.
The important change has already occurred though and, while it had everything to do with winning the RAC, it most certainly preceded it. Outwardly, he is the amiable if slightly reserved man he always was, but there has been a significant change in attitude over the last six months. By the beginning of 1994, there was no longer any doubting McRae’s speed. This wasn’t confined to the rallies he knew well, such as the RAC and New Zealand. He has set equally impressive times on events as different as the Rally of Portugal, the Tour of Corsica and the Rally of Argentina, but he drove his team boss, David Richards, into a fury with costly accidents that betrayed a persistent lack of judgement.
Richards is usually the master of his feelings and is quite capable of using journalists to dress down a wayward driver. If Colin was going as quickly as Carlos Sainz in Corsica, or setting four successive quickest times in Argentina, on stages he had never driven at full speed, why on earth couldn’t he see that he was perhaps pushing his luck? The word “immature” was used like a brand; even the mechanics were close to despair.
McRae has taken this like a guilty schoolboy. When the press asked him if he had “matured” after the RAC, he replied that he thought he had; there was no hint that this was an impertinent question to a 26-year old.
The results certainly suggest that he has grown in stature. Since Argentina, he has scarcely put a mark on an Impreza. He has won three of his last four rallies, faced down Juha Kankkunen in a direct confrontation in Australia on a rally that the Finn has lost only once before and scored the most convincing World Championship victories of the 1994 season, in New Zealand and Britain. His opponents will be delighted if he stops maturing right now. They can no longer sit back and wait for the impact.
In the post-RAC euphoria, both Richards and McRae himself spoke of winning the 1995 World Championship. This tends to happen when a young star wins his home rally; people were describing Tommi Makinen as a future World Champion after he won the 1994 1000 Lakes, possibly forgetting that Juha Kankkunen was often as quick in a corkscrewed Celica with the handling properties of a supermarket trolley.
McRae is realistic enough to know that there are a number of other drivers with as much or more chance of winning the 1995 title. He says that he won’t be disappointed if he doesn’t. That said, he will start the new season with a serious chance of winning the title for the first time and the RAC victory will be a significant factor. Every win is a confidence boost and his first World Championship success in Europe was proof that he is more than a New Zealand specialist. It has also lifted the burden of winning his home event. Now that that is out of the way, he is free to concentrate on his wider ambitions.