Grist on McRae's 2001 heartbreak: 'It was a disaster – but the people loved Colin'

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Colin McRae was tantalisingly close to a second WRC title, but for a disastrous split-second decision – Nicky Grist recalls that topsy-turvy 2001 WRC season

McRae lead

Colin McRae had one of the most up and down seasons of his career in 2001, in some ways encapsulating his WRC tenure


Six inches – that was all there was in it, but that’s all it took. That was the difference between Colin McRae achieving his dream of a second WRC title and seeing it extinguished in a moment.

But as his co-driver Nicky Grist described to Motor Sport, 20 years after the crown slipped from their grasp, the margin between glory and “disaster” was agonisingly small.

This weekend will also be remembered – and rightly so – as the 20th anniversary of Richard Burns taking his WRC crown, but it wasn’t the only incredible rallying story that happened that season. In 2001 McRae and Grist went from despair to delight and then back again several times on the Scot’s mission to prove that he wasn’t just a “Subaru man”. Retiring three times in a row at the start of the year, then winning three rallies to lead the championship, seeing it almost slip from his grasp mid-season before that none-more-dramatic ending – 2001 had it all for McRae and Grist in terms of emotion.

Two years of troubleshooting the Ford Focus WRC car had brought success in fits, but not enough to challenge for the title – Grist says the renewed impetus at the start of the 2001 season in Monte Carlo meant there was optimism in the air at the Ford camp.

“It’s always nice to start the season afresh,” says Grist. “All the disasters or the issues of the previous year have been forgotten. When you get to Monte Carlo there’s new cars, new liveries, new overalls – everybody is starting with a clean sheet and there’s a buzz in the crew.”

This back-to-school feeling didn’t last too long unfortunately for McRae and co.

McRae Monte

A win at Monte Carlo looked on the cards under throttle failure struck…


In perhaps a microcosm of his season, McRae started slowly, only setting 17th-fastest time on the first stage, but then soon started to set hotter times – by SS6 he was leading by 30.6sec. Then Mitsubishi rival Mäkinen did a ‘Tommi’.

“Monte Carlo is always a bit of a lottery,” explains Grist. “You can have disasters in those conditions, one tyre choice can cost you dearly.

“Tommi always had that racy ability of taking the risky tyre option, getting away with it and claiming in 30-40 seconds in a stage. He did that on Stage 8, but then we pulled it back – probably the only Monte Carlo event we led.”

From the archive

McRae had reasserted himself and taken the lead back from his Finnish foe by 3.5sec to start the final day in the lead – but then it all went wrong…

“We were confident that we could pull off the win,” remembers Grist. “But nobody could have foreseen the fly-by-wire throttle failing on the first stage of the last day. It seemed we always had issues of one thing or another on this very same side of the mountain, the Col de Turini.”

All was well with the stationary car, apart from the throttle simply not working. The frustration only grew for the Ford pair.

“Imagine us with sitting right on the apex of a hairpin, then being able to see Mäkinen drive up in front of us, take the hairpin and accelerate away with the lead!” laughs Grist. “And there’s us with a car just ticking over. It was the most frustrating experience. We were on the verge of winning the Monte Carlo.

“It rebooted itself and got going again, only for it to fail once we’d gone over the top of the Col and down the other side.”

Scenes of McRae kicking his Focus in frustration became well-circulated amongst WRC fans, but what happened next wasn’t captured.

“When it happened the second time you know, Colin was enraged,” says Grist. “He ended up throwing our tools at the TV helicopter that was filming us, hovering 200 meters to one side!

“We trundled down the road a bit more, but we had hardly any throttle. The team asked us to adjust the cable. Colin said ‘Where’s the spanners?’ and I said ‘We haven’t got any because you threw them off the side of the mountain!”

As Grist highlights, the randomness of Monte meant it was viewed as somewhat of a free pass, but the next round in Sweden didn’t end up much better, with the Focus embedded in a snowbank early on.

“Just a question of just trying too hard,” says Grist. “Sometimes, just being that little bit cautious, just getting through a situation and coming out the other side of it would have paid dividends. That one incident in itself cost valuable championship points.

8-11 Feb 2001: Colin McRae of Great Britain driving the Ford Focus during the World Rally Championship Swedish Rally around Karlstad in Sweden. \ Mandatory Credit: Grazia Neri /Allsport

…Sweden hopes were stymied by a trip into a snowbank

Grazia Neri /Allsport / Getty Images

“But in hindsight, you’ve got to try as well. You can’t just drive around.

“In the face of adversity, Colin would always push harder and harder where a lot of people would perhaps have a different approach.”

Mechanical failures put McRae out in Portugal and Spain too, meaning that after four rounds Mäkinen was leading the championship with 24 points, whilst Ford’s Scottish charger had none.

“At that stage of the season, we were nowhere to be seen,” says Grist. “It was a disaster.”

What came next though was one of the finest phases of McRae’s career, a demonstration of crushing dominance facilitated by jaw-dropping talent coupled with rallying nous.

The next three rallies were some of the ultimate examples of rally car breakers: Argentina, Cyprus and Greece. The latter two in particular were known for their heat and unforgiving terrain. In 2001, McRae won them all. Grist explains how a slight change in approach made it happen.

“This was something that stemmed back to when I first teamed up with Colin back in 1997, when the sprint events were historically always his best,” he says. “The rough, tough ones weren’t so much.

“When I joined him for Safari Rally in ‘97, it was evident that his pace notes didn’t describe the rougher sections very well. So I said, ‘Well, if we’re going to succeed at these events, we need to make some changes.’

McRae towel

Desperate times on tough Greek rally called for extreme measures…


“I suggested what we should do and implemented it: always driving at the perfect pace to get through, but also looking at the after the car in the rougher sections, to make sure you don’t do any damage or cause any breakages.

“And lo and behold, we went on to win the Safari Rally!

“On the back of that victory, over the next few years the Acropolis and Safari became his events.”

Now, all of a sudden, McRae was leading the championship. Tied on 30 points with Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz loomed four points further back. Three DNFs followed by three wins in a row seems quite McRae-esque – it was all or nothing.


…but a nuanced pace note approach with Grist (left) brought wins on the toughest rallies


“In those WRC days, where the cars technically are not as good as they were today, to have three, back-to-back victories on these notoriously tough events put us in a great frame of mind,” says Grist.

The Welsh/Scot rallying axis were confident of doing the same at the notorious Safari Rally in Kenya, until reliability issues him them again.

“Colin was just playing his normal waiting game for this kind of rally,” remembers Grist. “We were third-quickest on the first section, then we were third-quickest on the second section.

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“But then we just hit some ruts just before a stage finish. The steering broke and we went straight off. We had to try and drag the car as best we could back over the finish line with the steering pulling at all angles…”

That was McRae’s Safari Rally done for, but a third at Rally Finland and runner-up finish to Richard Burns in New Zealand – “he played a blinder on that rally” – hauled the Scot back into contention.

He was level with Mäkinen once more on 40 points, with Burns now nine points behind.

Struggles for all the title contenders in San Remo and Corsica (McRae finished 11th and eighth respectively), with only Sainz and Burns picking up a handful of points across the two events meant the table closed up, but only slightly.


Australia only yield a fifth, but helped take back title lead


Australia came next, which the Focus pair were confident of doing well on, but an early running order meant the pair were subjected to road sweeping, creating a clear line for other drivers. It limited them to a fifth place finish themselves. Again no rivals scored big, apart from an ominous Burns, who took a runner-up spot.

The two points scored had edged McRae ahead again: he now had 42 points, Mäkinen 41 and Burns 40. The title race, after 13 rallies, was balanced on a knife edge, but now the Scot and Grist were heading to a finale at the perfect location: Rally GB, an event that for them felt like their rally.

“Support for Colin when you came to Rally GB was phenomenal,” says Grist. “The people loved Colin.”

McRae later admitted he was taking a Mansell-like boost in confidence from the home crowd.

“There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to win,” the Scot said in an interview years later.

Things started well for the pair who won the first stage in typical swashbuckling fashion.

“We did the super special down in Cardiff in the most horrendous conditions,” remembers Grist. “They’d made up this new stage on some waste ground in the Cardiff docks. We were leading, albeit only by 0.1sec. Burns was 2.5sec back. We could sleep well, whilst the others thought about our performance.”

McRae GB 2

Nothing less than full commitment was shown by McRae on early Rally GB stages


Another stage win on St Gwynno followed: “We thought ‘Right, this is it, let’s catch them asleep’. The onboard footage from that run is probably some of the best onboard that you’ll ever see of Colin in full flight.”

Mäkinen then ripped apart his suspension on the same stage, meaning the title fight was now purely between McRae and Burns. Things were going well in Ford camp, not that it was satisfying born-winner McRae.

“We came out of the Tyle stage (SS3), having had a half reasonable run,” says Grist. “And we were getting the stage times and Marcus was quickest. Then Didier [Auriol], he’d beaten us too, and Richard had taken 0.1sec out of us. So we were still leading the rally, albeit by 0.2sec.

From the archive

“Colin said ‘F*ck, f*ck, f*ck! We’ve been beaten by all these guys.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. The two guys that were dramatically quicker in there, we’re not in a battle with them for the championship. All we need to do is keep Richard behind us.”

Grist was trying to keep his man calm, but this was proving more and more difficult as they headed towards Rhonda, the third stage.

“Colin said ‘but we need 30sec if we have a puncture of something.’ I replied ‘Well, get 30sec at the end of the day. But no way that we are we ever going to get that sort of buffer on one stage. It’s impossible!’

“All of a sudden some fog had blown in. Richard always had very detailed pace notes, so he was always pretty quick in fog – he’d once taken 30sec out of us at Rally GB ’97. Colin’s notes were based more on speed, what he could see, but when he couldn’t see he didn’t have the detail in the notes to allow him to ultimately commit to them.”

McRae GB

Fog blew in on Rally GB’s Rhonda stage, putting Burns at an advantage


Things were getting tense inside the Focus: “I just sensed a bit of urgency in the driving from Colin. A little bit more aggression, a bit later on the brakes. From that point on [start of SS3], we just seemed to get quicker and quicker.”

As the Focus flew through the forest, past the log piles and legions of McRae fans, the pair were about to strike catastrophe dead on.

“About three kms later, there was a series of very fast corners, with the pace notes coming at you like bullets – ‘bam, bam, bam!’

“Colin said later that he picked a line and he was just cutting the apex a little bit. He had a choice of changing it, should he have wanted but thought ‘No, it’ll be OK.’

“But through this little bit of grass on the inside, there was a hole. We just slammed into it, and it just started to corkscrew us through the air.

“Then it was a series of sky – trees – road – tree – sky – road. We were barrel-rolling down the road, eventually coming to rest on our wheels the way we came.

“The bonnet was buckled, there was steam billowing out from under the bonnet. That, basically, was it. The World Championship was finished, a sad end to what have been a very good season.”

The sight of the crumpled Focus became one of the shots of McRae’s action-packed career, the Scot describing it in no uncertain terms

“It’s the biggest disappointment of my career to date,” he said afterwards. “We had a cut into a corner where I went six inches more in than I normally would have, but there was a hole and it flipped the car. I feel terrible about it, the team have put in a hell of a lot of effort, right from the start of ’99. We were so close, but that’s the sport, it can be very cruel.”

Looking back, Grist is still as bitterly disappointed as McRae was for the rest of his life, who described it in similar terms years later, but the Welshman still remains philosophical about it too.

“Colin was such a tryer,” he says. “And, in this particular case he just tried a little too hard in the wrong place.

“But the one thing that a lot of people underestimate is how much luck plays a big part in rallying, because it’s so unquantifiable.

“In rallying, you’re facing all these different tyre choices, different surfaces, snow, slush, rough gravel, rocks, ditches, houses, walls, trees.

“Perfect seasons come very rarely, you need to grasp them with both hands.”

As if to illustrate the tension, Burns had an off just after passing McRae’s stricken car. Grist admits that he was hoping a failure might hand him and McRae the championship, but he said his team bore no ill will when the Englishman was deservedly crowned by finishing third.

“If Colin didn’t win the championship, it was absolutely superb that Richard did – he was the consummate professional.”

In many ways the 2001 WRC season, whilst not yielding a title, sums up McRae best. The highest highs, the most bitter lows and nothing less than full commitment.

“He was one of life’s very naturally talented drivers,” says Grist. “He could make it look so easy, it was like in slow motion from inside. If it had an engine and wheels, he could make it go fast – even motor bikes.

“People love Colin McRae because he was not scared of trying his hardest – no matter what the consequences.”