Memories of Colin McRae

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The spirit of Britain’s most famous champion still stalks the Welsh forests

It was one of those ‘JFK’ moments. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard that Colin McRae had died (I was having a picnic with friends in Oxford), although there was so much initial uncertainty: both premature speculation and false hope.

More than 10 years have since passed – hard to believe, that – but it’s perhaps even more stupefying to realise that it’s been a whole 20 years since Colin McRae won the Rally GB – an event he truly made his own.

In the foggy corners of those dank Welsh forests, it feels as though he never went away. Go and watch the rally this year and you’ll still find Scottish blue hats and scarves keeping spectators warm (or at least less cold), while parked at haphazard angles on the access roads will be ageing, mud-spattered Subaru Imprezas, many sporting gold wheels and Saltires.

Britain’s rally might run through Wales these days, but for a while it was the national sport of Scotland, making front-page headlines and packing forests with the sort of fanatical crowds reminiscent of the Group B era. And those days, though distant, seem far more recent than two decades ago. If you ask the proverbial man in the street to name a rally driver – any rally driver – they are unlikely to say ‘Sébastien Ogier’.

McRae burst into the public conscience in 1995, when he became the youngest world rally champion (aged 27), and the first Brit to take the title. Those who were there in Chester to witness him accept the honours (complete with bagpipe soundtrack) will never forget scenes that have never been repeated in this country. A star was very definitely born.

But if the 1995 championship was his ultimate triumph, the 1997 Network Q RAC Rally, as it was known back then, exemplified McRae at his very best. It was a majestic performance that swept him into a lead he wouldn’t lose. Of the 26 stages that were run on the season-closer, from Silverstone to Margam Park, McRae won 15 and beat Juha Kankkunen by almost three minutes.

Even that wasn’t quite enough to win him the world title: he finished second to Tommi Mäkinen by one point, despite having been on a seemingly unstoppable roll by winning the last three rounds of the world championship (Italy, Australia and Britain).

Nicky Grist, alongside McRae on the 1997 RAC, says: “We’d led after the first day, through all the stately home stages, which meant that we were first on the road for the first proper day in the forests. That was nearly a disaster: it was still dark for us for a few minutes of the opening stage, whereas everyone else had some daylight, and then on the high ground it was foggy. Colin was trying everything, flicking the lights on and off, and sure enough we ended up in a ditch. I think it was at that point that I told him to leave the lights either on or off, but not both… Richard Burns took something like 30sec out of us on that stage. Richard was always brilliant in fog, partly because his pace notes were so comprehensive, whereas Colin tended to rely a lot more on what he could see. But afterwards we made all that time back over Richard – and then some. The reception we got when we returned to the service park after winning the rally a few days later was like nothing I have experienced before or since.”

There would be other wins of course, and many more close calls, but this would be the last victory for McRae on home turf, although nobody would have suspected it at the time. And it’s funny how circular everything is, because the Subaru Impreza that won in Britain exactly 20 years ago, P12 WRC, was back in action at Goodwood this year – and Goodwood 2007 marked the last occasion that McRae drove a Subaru in Britain.

By all accounts, the Scot could have been back at Subaru in 2008: it was one of the deals he was pursuing at the time of his death (along with a possible move to Ford to replace the retiring Marcus Grönholm). He might even have driven on the 2007 Rally GB, probably in a Subaru. We’ll never know how that would have worked out, but when he appeared for the last time on his home event, with a Skoda in 2005, there was no doubt who was the star of the show. It wasn’t Sébastien Loeb, at the beginning of his incredible run of nine consecutive titles.

McRae, of course, came nowhere close to mind-bending statistics of that kind, but for him it was never about the numbers. How he won was far more important than how much he won, with no room for modulation. If in doubt, flat out. Just four years after his 1997 triumph, for example, McRae could have guaranteed himself the 2001 title on Rally GB by finishing in front of Richard Burns – who was some way behind him during the opening stages. But with his lead growing, McRae had an enormous accident on the Rhondda stage, after mishearing a corner cut that he had no need to take. “That’s probably been the most disappointing moment I’ve had so far in my career, because it was completely my fault,” he said in an interview shortly afterwards. “That’s the thing with this place: I’ve had my best and my worst moments here!”

One of McRae’s most endearing characteristics, often forgotten in the face of such a forceful personality, was his ability to make a joke out of more or less anything. Including himself, when the occasion warranted it. For a driver with such towering self-confidence, he had a brilliant line in self-deprecation. That confused a few people, but the two sides to his personality were absolutely connected: it was because he was so self-confident that he was able to make jokes about turning cars into balls of scrap.

But when it all came together, McRae was untouchable. That’s why the crowds loved him – and that’s why he’s remembered on the Rally GB. As memories fade and fact blurs into fiction, the legend will only grow.