They say you should never meet your heroes. And McRae Kimathi had only a very fleeting encounter with his, asking Colin McRae to sign a copy of the Colin McRae Rally video game in the early 2000s.
The 27-year-old Kenyan, born in 1995, 10 months before McRae became the world’s youngest rally champion – also at the age of 27 – doesn’t remember much now about coming face to face with the man he was named after. “I was quite young, there were big crowds of people wanting him to sign something at the Safari Rally, and I was so pleased that he had signed my video game,” Kimathi remembers.
But so many other things about Colin McRae would go on to influence his life: when Kimathi passed his driving test, his first car was a 2006 Ford Focus – the car he still drives today in Nairobi.
“It’s not the model of Focus that Colin drove; it’s the later model,” he says, almost apologetically. “But it’s because of Colin that I got it. From when I was young, I watched lots of tapes of Colin and I admired his commitment, his bravery, the jumps he used to take. I said to myself that one day, I want to drive like him.”
Kimathi caused a stir in February when he competed in Rally Sweden – the first time he’s competed outside of Africa. He and his co-driver Mwangi Kioni finished fourth in the Junior World Rally Championship category, becoming the first Kenyans to finish the WRC Rally Sweden. His presence was notable not just because of his first name but also because it was the first time he had competed on snow. Kimathi was also the only black driver competing in the race, and indeed in the full Junior WRC season – a point that is worth mentioning at a time when the whole of motor sport from Formula 1 to grass roots karting is consciously trying to be more inclusive and attract a new generation of fans and competitors.
For rally enthusiasts Kimathi’s appearance is a timely reminder of the return of the Safari Rally, which was reinstated to the WRC calendar in 2021 after a 19-year absence. And it turns out he indirectly has something to do with that too: his father – Phineas Kimathi – was the 1997 Kenyan Formula 2 rally champion, who now runs the Kenyan motor sport federation that was responsible for bringing the epic Safari Rally back to the WRC calendar last year.
It was on these rough African rallies that Kimathi cut his teeth, driving a variety of machinery that ranged from a Subaru Impreza – naturally his favourite car, due to the Colin connection – to the Formula 2 Hyundai Coupé (which was also driven by a Scottish McRae in period: Alister this time).
Having resumed his career in his early twenties, it was clear that Kimathi had talent, but the big breakthrough came last year when he drove on the Safari Rally with a Ford Fiesta Rally3: the same four-wheel-drive car that is being used for the first time on the Junior WRC this year. Thanks to some influential backers and the FIA Rally Star programme, he has now managed to secure a full junior world championship campaign – alongside the defence of his African junior title – which was how he ended up in Sweden in February: the first of around 14 rallies he will compete on this year.
His very first drive in a rally car on snow came at a test in Norway this year, just before the Swedish Rally that formed the opening round of the junior series. To guide him, he had factory M-Sport driver Craig Breen, who was forthright with his advice.
“I had a lot of fun with Craig,” beamed Kimathi before the start of the rally. “I couldn’t believe the amount of grip from the studded tyres. Craig was a good teacher: if I was doing something stupid, he was telling me very clearly that there was no way I would finish the rally!” Remembering some of his wilder excursions, he dissolves into fits of giggles.
Kimathi did actually make it to the end of Rally Sweden, finishing fourth in the juniors, albeit a long way off the podium. But he had some good people on his side. His mentor was another Kenyan champion, except this time from Finland: Tapio Laukkanen. The 52-year-old Finn – a hugely experienced and adaptable competitor, who also won the Finnish and British championships in his time – says that Kimathi has a big heart, with his passions and ambitions running high.
“If you’re called McRae, you’ve got to be fast: you’ve got to take big chances,” Kimathi jokes. “But this year is just going to be a learning year. I’m taking it as it comes.” Especially because he still has his day job as an accountant for a large events company in Nairobi to think about.
In future, the bar will be raised considerably higher. “It would be amazing to be in the history books and become the first African to win the WRC,” says Kimathi. “Like the Lewis Hamilton of rallying.”
And this seemingly unstoppable optimism tinged with humour is perhaps his biggest strength as a driver: the determination to extract the positive from everything and enjoy each second of his driving. Ask him what he admires about McRae and the answer is obvious: the flamboyancy and commitment that we all loved about the 1995 world champion.
But Kimathi also lists McRae’s mechanical sympathy as one of his greatest qualities, which is something that not everyone appreciates. Despite being just seven years old when Colin won his last rally (the 2002 Safari) it is clear that beneath the laughter, Kimathi is a serious student of the sport.
Both McRaes share a natural affinity with those African roads, which bodes well for Kimathi’s future. The Safari is a specialised event, but if you can drive well in Africa, you can drive well anywhere.
“Even Rally Sweden, on the second pass through the stages with deep ruts and more gravel, is a little bit like Africa in places,” says Kimathi. Now there’s a sentence you never thought you would hear…
Apart from that, what else do the two McRaes have in common? “Colin always seemed very relaxed; I think we share that,” said Kimathi. “We also don’t like to fiddle with things too much. If I feel confident and the car is good, then I don’t touch it.”
Like the icy wind that sweeps into Rally Sweden from the Arctic Circle, McRae Kimathi is a genuine breath of fresh air. And even if he achieves just half of what he hopes, he could change the sport forever. Just by being there, he already has.