Obituary - Richard Burns

On the fourth anniversary of winning his WRC title, Richard Burns died. He was just 34. John Davenport pays tribute to a British rallying icon.

I never had the chance to sit beside Richard Burns in a rally car. But I did watch the RAC Rally in 2000, when he collected his hat-trick on the event. It was a revelation to see just how much his style required the Subaru to go sideways, like an old-time rally car. Not as far admittedly, but quite a way when compared to 98 per cent of the other cars in the event. It was particularly noticeable on Epynt where, after the short stretch of tarmac away from Dixies, the cars had to swing left onto gravel and then downhill through two fast left-hand bends. Richard never quite had the Subaru straight nor, once he had made the junction, did it appear that the throttle was anywhere but wide open. It was worth all the hassle of getting there just to watch him.

As the last decade of the 20th century dawned, British rally fans felt like they were waiting for that number 92 bus that never seemed to come. Despite lots of promising signs, Roger Clark’s victory on the RAC Rally in 1976 was the only WRC event to have been won by a Brit. And then all of a sudden, just like the good old number 92, there were two coming at once. No sooner had Colin McRae burst on to the scene, winning the British championship in 1991 and ’92, than we had a second British potential World Champion appearing on our radar: Richard Burns.

We expect our rally drivers to come from the heart of rally territory, learning all about snowy and gravel-covered roads at their grandfather’s knee. Richard, though, was born in Reading, Berkshire, a long way from the centres of rallying action. But fortunately his father, Alex, was an indulgent parent with a passing interest in cars. It was fortunate, too, that when he was eight years old his parents allowed him to drive an old Triumph in a field near their home and he experienced for the first time what it means to be in control of a car. At 11 he was enrolled in an under-17 driving club, and four years later his father took him to a rally school in Wales. This latter experience was also the formative one and becoming a rally driver soon turned out to be his burning ambition.

With his father’s help and support, Burns started out on the long road to glory by doing local club rallies as soon as he was able. His driving abilities were such that he attracted the attention of a more senior rally driver, David Williams, who was sufficiently taken with the young man’s evident talent and drive that for the 1990 season he bought a Peugeot and gifted it to Richard for the 205GTi Challenge.

His instinct proved right: Burns wound up as champion by the end of the year. On his prize drive in a 309 GTi, he finished the RAC Rally third in class. In ’91 he won the 205 Challenge again and this time took class honours on the RAC with a 309 GTi. Williams suddenly started to think of new plans for 1992: he had bought a Group N Subaru Legacy with which he himself was to tackle the Mintex National Championship, but he realised it was likely to be much more competitive in Richard’s hands. As an experiment he lent it to Burns and co-driver Robert Reid for the opening round, the 1992 Mazda Winter Rally based in Bournemouth.

Burns came home second overall, only 50secs behind Trevor Smith’s Group A Ford Sierra Cosworth 4×4. With Smith not registered for the championship, Richard was now leading and it seemed sensible to leave him in the car for the rest of the year. Again he delivered, winning the title. Not bad for a 21-year-old with a Group N car!

His Subaru performances had not gone unnoticed in Banbury, home to works team Prodrive. After discussions at the end of 1992, it was announced that Burns would be joining for the ’93 season to drive a Group A Legacy in a team alongside Mister McRae in the British International Rally series. If the responsibility was increased, it seemed only to inspire him. Of the five rallies he won four outright to become the youngest driver to ever hold the top British rally title. And to top it all, Richard drove a sensible RAC Rally in his BRC Legacy to finish seventh, two places behind Ari Vatanen in the works Impreza. It was too good a chance for Prodrive, which promptly signed up Burns to join McRae and Carlos Sainz in the works squad for ’94.

If you need a definition for ‘in at the deep end’ in rallying, it must be to do the Safari as your first non-British outing with a factory team. For Burns it was to be in a Group N-spec Impreza VVRX. Unfamiliarity with the terrain did not seem to be a problem and he finished fifth behind team-mate Patrick Njiru. His duties in this first year also comprised the Asia-Pacific series as team junior to the eventual winner, Possum Bourne. Richard was third in the championship and his consistent results enabled Subaru to win the manufacturers’ title. With McRae and Sainz slugging it out with a full programme of WRC events in ’95, Burns’s role for that season turned out to be much the same, with an emphasis on the the Pacific Rim. When he did drive closer to home he was effective, finishing third on the RAC behind McRae and Sainz.

With the Spaniard moving to Ford, Burns hoped that he could step up at Subaru, but Prodrive was contemplating a multi-driver team that eventually involved Kenneth Eriksson, Piero Liatti and Didier Auriol as well as McRae. At the same time, Mitsubishi approached Burns and suggested that he could fit into its two-car team behind Tommi Mӓkinen, who was being groomed for his first WRC title.

The latter deal appealed most, even though the Asia-Pacific championship was to be his principal task once again. This time he was second overall after suffering an accident on the opening round in Thailand and then missing the second event in Indonesia. But Richard made a good impression in his new team, taking his first major international rally win in New Zealand.

For 1997 the Mitsubishi programme for Burns was increased a little, but still the Asia-Pacific series loomed large, although on the Safari Richard came good with a second place behind McRae after Mӓkinen’s retirement. Finally, in 1998, he got the full WRC programme he coveted. The only problem was that, though he was now a very experienced driver, there were a considerable number of major WRC rallies on which he had never competed. The Monte Carlo classic was a good example, and his fifth place was in truth an outstanding achievement. The same could be said of an even more specialised event — the Swedish Rally — where Richard set three fastest times.

Even better was in store. Burns won the Safari (his first WRC win) after a mammoth struggle with Mӓkinen and McRae and then also triumphed on the RAC. Again McRae was his main rival but, by winning the majority of the stages and keeping the Scot under pressure, Burns was there to pick up the spoils when McRae’s engine failed. Mitsubishi was World Champion for the first time and Mӓkinen had picked up his third drivers’ title, while Richard had to be content with sixth place.

His career had now reached another crossroads — or was it a U-turn? Without a promise of better things from Mitsubishi in terms of either car or status, he received an offer from Subaru. McRae had just departed for Ford, Juha Kankkunen had joined and Burns was to be his new team-mate, with a programme of 14 WRC events. After a cautious start to the season, Richard won three events (Acropolis, Australia and the RAC) and finished the year just seven points adrift of Mӓkinen, who was champion once again.

He kept up that form going into 2000. By mid-season he had won three events from six and looked set for the championship title. But then engine failures in the normally super-reliable Subaru, trying a bit too hard in Finland, plus the advent of faster versions of the Peugeot 206 and the Ford Focus all combined to make the second half of the year a bit of a struggle. Even second place in Australia and his third win in a row on the RAC were not enough to clinch the WRC title. This time Burns had to play bridesmaid to Marcus Grӧnholm, despite the unique distinction of having set at least one fastest time on every event during the year.

The outset of the 2001 season didn’t look too promising. Subaru had engaged two young chargers — Markko Mӓrtin and Petter Solberg— to back up Burns, who was now recognised as team leader. But dramas set him back, and if it had not been for second places in Argentina, Cyprus and, most impressively, Finland, thoughts of a title for Richard would never have existed. After all, his main rivals both had three wins each by this juncture. Second place in Australia was enough to put the three of them in line astern — McRae, Mӓkinen and Burns — separated by single points. Coming into the last round, the RAC, any one of them could have won the title, and there was even a fourth contender, Sainz.

With three wins in the past three years on the RAC, Richard could have been forgiven if he had gone all out, but when both of his main rivals were out after three stages it was clear that a sensible approach was needed. And Richard, still in partnership with Robert Reid, could never be faulted in that area. It was no surprise therefore to find that they didn’t set any fastest times on their way to third place and that the only tiny flutter in the dovecote came on the second morning, when their Impreza was reluctant to start. They were World Champions who had only won one qualifying round (New Zealand) from 14, but in the end they had been more consistent than all the others in a year that had seen remarkably erratic performances from the world’s top drivers. At the age of 30, Richard Burns had finally collected the crown.

Being at the top of the world brings problems as well as accolades and it was no different for Burns. As a result of his negotiations for the 2002 season, both Subaru and Peugeot had his name on their lists when it came time to nominate drivers. The tussle was eventually sorted in favour of the French équipe as team-mate to Gronholm and Gilles Panizzi. That the Peugeot 206 was competitive cannot be in doubt, since Gronholm and Peugeot won the two WRC titles, but Richard found it harder to adjust to the car than he had anticipated, with blistering cockpit heat and the seating position proving especially problematic. Add in the fact that it always seemed to be his car that developed the hydraulic problem or lost its brakes, and it’s not so hard to see why he could only make fifth place in the title race. Richard was even denied his singleton ‘victory’ in Argentina when the Peugeot was excluded for having an underweight flywheel.

Things went better in his second year with Peugeot. Still the outright wins proved elusive, but a consistent podium finishing record meant that, with just two events left, Burns lay second in the WRC, equal on points with Solberg and just three behind Sainz. Then in Catalunya he lost concentration on the last day and went off. Worse was to come on the way to the Rally GB when he had a blackout while driving on the M4. Only the quick action of Martin alongside him saved the day. Burns was later diagnosed as having a brain tumour and his long fight for life began. It finished on Friday, November 25. He was just 34.

Colin McRae

“There were so many good moments with Richard, both as team-mates and rivals. The one that really sticks in my mind was 2001 when he won the championship. Of course there was always rivalry but it was in good spirit. There was a lot of digging going on, you know, getting at one another, wind-ups and that kind of thing. But beneath it all, at the end of the day, we were good friends and it was a nice balance between personal and competitive relationships. He will be greatly missed and most of all from the point of view of British hopes within the World Championship.”

David Richards

“Richard was one of those guys who just put his head down and got on with the job. The thing that struck me most was watching him develop from joining our team in his early twenties to winning the British series and then returning to ultimately win the World Championship. To me the most intriguing bit was that he came back very much as the understudy to Juha Kankkunen, but halfway through the year it became obvious that Juha had lost his edge and that Richard needed to take on the mantle of team leader.

I remember having a long chat with him in Corsica about what that entailed and immediately his confidence soared: he took on the opportunity and a year later he was World Champion.

“He was a thinker, meticulous in his preparation before an event and tactical in the way he drove during it. He and Robert Reid brought a very high level of professionalism to rallying.”

Robert Reid

“I always remember the first time Richard drove the lmpreza WRC 2000. It was in Spain and we were testing back-to-back with the previous version. Richard always wanted me in the car reading pace notes when he was testing. That way I knew as much about the car and what was going on as he did.

“We could hardly believe the time on the stopwatch. Richard thought I must have made a mistake so we tried again and it was faster still. We went to Portugal and were leading until we had to do several stages with no power-steering. The great thing about Richard was how cool he kept in those situations. We clawed back time until, with three stages to go, we were right behind Grӧnholm in the Peugeot. Richard stormed it and we won by six seconds. Richard was at one with that Subaru and he simply flew in it. Mind you, he was at home in all the Subarus. It was a real shame that he could not get hooked up with the Peugeot 206. He used to say that it was like sitting on top of it. It’s so difficult to explain to an engineer why a car is very good but you just don’t feel right in it and don’t know why.”