When a legend dies, it’s always hard to find words adequate to mourn his passing, It is doubly so in the case of Colin McRae, killed in a helicopter accident near his home in Scotland.
McRae was no ordinary man but someone whose charisma and enthusiasm extended beyond the world of international rallying, to genuinely enthuse a whole generation with excitement and ambition.
It would be simple to imagine that his career was mapped out by virtue of being the eldest son of five-times British Rally Champion Jimmy McRae, but the truth is that his father never particularly encouraged him to take up motorsport, while his mother Margaret worried when he started to move up the ranks of motorcycle scrambling and trials. While Jimmy was in the ascendant in British rallying in Vauxhalls and Opels, Colin still too young to have a licence switched to cars, and autotests. After winning the 1985 West of Scotland Championship at age 16, as soon as he was 17 Colin acquired a Group A Talbot Sunbeam Ti and started rallying. He shared the spanner work on his cars with Barry Lockhead and thus quickly learned how the machines functioned… and how he could get the best out of them.
With the Sunbeam, he often led Group A, but the old car was fragile and retirements were frequent. In 1987 and 1988 he drove a Vauxhall Nova and began to get results. He won his class twice on the BRC and, crucially, got the backing of the British Junior Team to compete in two WRC rallies. During 1989, he drove a Group N Sierra RS Cosworth, finishing second in the group to Pentti Airikkala. Moving up to a Group A Sierra for 1990, he took second place in the BRC with this twowheel-drive car to David Llewellyn’s all-conquering Toyota Celica GT-4.
But it was on the RAC Rally of that year when the Colin McRae legend really got going. With the help of Shell Oils, he got a drive in a Sierra 4×4, and, while Lancia and Toyota battled it out for the World Championship, all British eyes were on the progress of the McRae Ford. It did not come through the rally in pristine condition, but it did finish sixth overall and well ahead of the factory Sierras. It was a performance that finally attracted a works drive from David Richards at Prodrive.
In a Subaru Legacy, McRae won the BRC in 1991 and 1992. In that second year he had a memorable run on the 1000 Lakes Rally where he added to his own legend by having three major accidents and yet still finishing eighth in a car that looked as if it had been rescued from a scrapyard. There was no doubting his speed and tenacity and for 1993 he moved up to drive alongside An Vatanen in the WRC.
It was just six months before he won his first event, in New Zealand, a feat he repeated in 1994 with the new Impreza before going on to win his home event, the RAC Rally. He was fourth in the WRC and hungry for more. In 1995, his season started slowly and it wasn’t until he won New Zealand for the third year running that his championship charge took off. In Spain, only extreme action by his Prodrive bosses forced him to suppress his natural desire to win, and he ceded victory to Carlos Sainz. This left them equal on points at the head of the WRC table. To be champion, he had to beat Sainz on the RAC Rally, which he proceeded to do in great style, setting fastest time on 18 of the 28 stages and eventually leading home a Subaru 1-2-3 with himself firmly at the front as Britain’s first World Rally Champion.
In 1996 it was the year of Mitsubishi and Tomml Makinen. Despite winning three rallies outright, McRae could only finish second in the WRC, but the following year he very nearly took a second title after another epic drive on the RAC Rally. He came back after losing a wheel to drive through the field and win, finishing the year a single point behind Makinen. After eight years with Subaru, McRae decided to accept an offer from Ford, joining it for the 1999 season to drive the then-new Focus WRC. Although McRae won Safari and Portugal, it was obvious the Focus was not immediately ready to win a title. The 2001 season was his best with Ford, during which he won three WRC events Argentina, Cyprus and Greece but he could only manage to come second again in the Championship, this time behind his old team-mate from Subaru days, Richard Burns. The following year, he won Acropolis and Safari but there were too many retirements. So, with just fourth place in the WRC and Ford steam-rollered by Peugeot in the Manufacturer’s title, there were suggestions of financial cutbacks for 2003, which were manifested chiefly by hiring cheaper drivers.
Still convinced of his value, McRae found a berth with Citr6en for 2003 alongside Sainz and a new boy, Sebastian Loeb. On the Monte Carlo Rally, Loeb won, with McRae close behind in a car that was entirely new to him. The young Frenchman kept that advantage over the two most
successful drivers the WRC had ever seen 25 wins apiece at that point but, despite that, everything might have been well for 2004 had not the FIA decided, from then on, that each team could only register two drivers to score points. Someone had to go at Citroen, and it turned out to be Colin McRae. At that point, his WRC career was virtually at an end. He did Rallye Raids with Nissan and, in 2005 when Skoda looked as if it might have a sudden renaissance, he drove two events for the Czech marque, finishing seventh on his beloved RAC Rally, and retiring close to the finish in Australia with third place virtually guaranteed. His last outing in the WRC was a one-off in Turkey 2006, when the weather and road conditions saw him retire.
In recent weeks there had been speculation that Colin McRae was on the point of signing a new contract to go world rallying. The buzz generated was indicative of the immense following he still had worldwide, despite not having been in a full works team for four years. His fame was spread by his involvement with Xbox and Playstation, but his heroic status within the sport was entirely due to his uncompromising approach, his desire to be fastest and, above all, his honesty. Colin McRae was a worthy hero to young and old; he’ll be sorely missed.
Motor Sport extends its condolences to his family in their double loss, to wife Alison and daughter Hollie, to brother Alister, and to Colin’s parents Margaret and Jimmy. John Davenport