Richard Burns: Rally GB hero


“You’re the best in the world!” said Richard Burns to his co-driver Robert Reid, as they crossed the finish line of the 2001 Rally Great Britain after 18 nerve-jangling miles of Margam Park: the last stage of that year’s World Rally Championship finale.

Their final result was third place – no big deal for a crew that had won the event three times in a row previously – but there was much more to it than just another podium.

Instead, it was the rally that gave Burns his lifelong dream: the World Rally Championship title. And crowned him as a true legend of Rally GB.

As he got out of the car at the end of Margam the drizzle still fell relentlessly but Burns hardly noticed as he headed straight towards the people who had helped him chase the ambition of a lifetime: his father Alex, his long-time partner Zoe, his mentor, friend and manager David Williams.

The rally that brought him the title had been far from straightforward.

“It’s funny how memory plays tricks on you,” says Reid. “Looking back on it now, I remember it being a fairly straightforward end to a fairly straightforward event. But that wasn’t the case at all.”

Four drivers had gone into the title-decider with a chance of the championship, and Colin McRae was leading until he crashed out spectacularly on stage four, the first proper test. That left Burns with 13 more stages to hold his nerve, often under trying circumstances.

“We did two stages in the dark the following night with no map light,” recalls Reid. “It was just a cock-up: I reached up to switch the map light on and nothing happened. You can imagine how we felt then. I tie-wrapped a mini Maglite torch to my thumb and read two stages like that.”

The drama wasn’t even over then: coming out of parc fermé on the final day their Subaru refused to fire up, meaning that they had to push it out and start it with a jump battery – at which point it suddenly fired up again.

So Richard’s explosion of joy at the finish line was prompted by sheer relief, as much as anything else.

If anyone deserved the title, it was Richard Burns. Not only did he have a silky smooth driving style that was a joy to watch – guiding the car through the merest movements of his wrists – but he also worked indefatigably hard. The sheer level of detail in his pace notes exemplified his unstinting attention to detail: pages and pages of them.

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His first Rally GB win came in 1998 at the wheel of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution V (above), when he had no less a man than Tommi Mäkinen as his team-mate. This was also only the second WRC win of Burns’s career, after he claimed the Safari earlier in the season: another event where he excelled. Talk to Reid and he’ll tell you that the first one was probably his favourite Rally GB win: a straightforward run to success, filled with the promise of a massive future.

Richard went on to dominate his home round of the World Championship for the following two years, winning in 1999 and 2000 as well, after switching to Subaru.

The 2000 win, while one of his best, was also the most frustrating – as Burns and Reid just missed out on the title by five points to Marcus Grönholm, who finished an implacable second to seal the championship.

Burns probably could have added a fourth consecutive win at home in 2001 as well, but he had his eye on the bigger prize.  At the time, he was up against drivers who were true legends of the sport, including his biggest rival Colin McRae – leading to a ‘battle of the Brits’ media frenzy every November.

The truth was that Richard and Colin, both of whom are tragically gone, actually got on very well – with a relationship that was based on heavy banter and practical jokes (the reason why a ‘baby on board’ sticker once appeared on Richard’s car at an overnight halt) rather than genuine antagonism.

Their battle on Rally GB gripped the country and made national news in a way that has never been seen since.

But the record shows that it was Richard who was more consistently successful on Rally GB than Colin, with none of the spectacular accidents that were a hallmark of the McRae legend.

That 2001 podium was to be Burns’s last finish on Rally GB: he retired the following year and never got to take part in 2003, as he collapsed on the way to the event (while still in contention for the title).

Richard’s shocking diagnosis with an astrocytoma – a violent form of brain tumour – soon followed and after a superhuman struggle he died on 25 November 2005: exactly four years to the day since he won his title. Always and forever, he will be England’s first World Rally Champion. The best in the world.

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Our thanks to Certina Watches for their help with this feature.

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