10 years on from his death, the world of motorsports stops to remember the life of Colin McRae. The youngest ever World Rally Champion was taken far too soon and the absence of his mesmerising talents continues to be felt by those close to the sport. He remains Scotland’s greatest ever sportsman, writes Luke Barry.
Where were you on Saturday 15th September 2007? I was in the back of my dad’s car heading to Edinburgh, and as we were passing through Dalkeith the 4 o’clock news bulletin came on.
“Former World Rally Champion Colin McRae has died in a helicopter crash near his home in Lanark…”
Suddenly I’m alert. Did I hear that right? Surely not?
For the world this was a shock; for a rallying fan this was incomprehensible.
Today marks ten years since the tragic day when Colin McRae, his son Johnny and two family friends lost their lives, and still the 1995 World Champion’s legacy burns strong.
Worldwide, you won’t find a more recognisable rallying name than ‘Colin McRae’ despite his last full season in the sport ending 14 years ago.
Sebastien Loeb may dominate the record books, but it’s Colin McRae that many will cite as their rallying hero. No rally driver has ever had such a following and we’re unlikely to see the likes of it again.
The Scot’s global appeal is tremendous, and it’s not hard to see why. His driving style was truly unique, warming to the hearts of rally fans with his on-the-edge, fully committed technique to approaching corners, sticking to his famous mantra: “If in doubt, flat out.”
Had he reigned it back even 2%, he would almost certainly have more than one world title to his name. But for Colin it was all about being the fastest on each and every stage, and that’s what made him so great.
As the son of a five-time British Rally Champion, Colin was destined to get involved in rallying. But bikes were his first love, with the switch to four wheels coming due to his mum’s concerns about safety on two wheels.
McRae quickly began to make a name for himself in a Vauxhall Nova, taking the Scottish Rally Championship title in 1988. He then switched to four wheel drive and the British Rally Championship, signing a deal with Prodrive and Subaru to compete in a Legacy RS.
The man from Lanark duly took the title in 1991 and wouldn’t be beaten in 1992, taking all six rally wins on his way to a second consecutive national title.
Just a year later, Colin was a winner on the world stage, edging out the Ford Escort RS Cosworth of Francois Delecour by just 27 seconds in New Zealand to take his and Subaru’s first World Rally Championship win.
Shortly afterwards Subaru’s new model, the Impreza was born, a car that would become iconic in the forests and on the public roads due to McRae’s and then fellow Brit Richard Burns’ successes.
McRae would become a world beater in 1995, beating his illustrious team mate Carlos Sainz to the title after a controversial penultimate round of the season in Sainz’ backyard. Carlos was leading ahead of Colin after the second of the event’s three legs, and in order to ensure the team took the manufacturers championship, team principal David Richards ordered both drivers to hold station and not fight each other on the Sunday.
With both men battling for the driver’s title, McRae refused to listen, and took the lead early on the final day. Members of the team even resorted to frantically waving him down as he crossed the stop line of one of the stages, but to no avail. In the end, McRae handed his time cards in late so to ensure a penalty that would drop him to second behind Sainz. He was furious, but knew if he didn’t comply then he would be dropped from the team.
There would be no denying him a few weeks later though on the Network Q Rally of Great Britain. McRae, co-driven by compatriot Derek Ringer, was sublime, and became the youngest ever World Rally Champion and the first British driver to conquer the series, doing so in front of a home crowd. The iconic images of McRae’s Subaru doing donuts in Chester are forever implanted in our minds. To this day he remains the youngest man to win the title.
1997 and 2001 were the ones that got away. McRae and new co-driver Nicky Grist took five wins in 1997 in the all new Impreza World Rally Car, but mechanical issues meant they lost out to Finn Tommi Makinen by a single point.
The 2001 season will forever go down as one of the best in World Championship history. Four drivers headed to the final round in Wales with a shot at the title. McRae, now driving for Ford, started as favourite, and led the standings. With team mate Sainz and old foe Makinen dropping out early, it became a straight fight between McRae and Richard Burns. Scotland vs England: the battle of Britain.
McRae drew first blood, charging out of the blocks in a fashion only he knew how. But three stages later, with the Focus WRC hurtling through the Welsh forests, McRae misheard a pace note from co-driver Nicky Grist and cut a corner that he shouldn’t have done, resulting in a terrifying barrel roll. Both he and Grist were unharmed, but the championship was to be Burns’.
Colin’s WRC career ended with Citroen in 2003 before one-off returns with Skoda in 2005 and Citroen in 2006. After leaving rallying, he tried his hand at the X-Games and rally raid, while also developing his own rally car: the Colin McRae R4. He became a virtual hit too, with millions playing Codemasters’ rally games named after him.
His last public appearance was to be in his own creation at the 2007 Goodwood Festival of Speed. Little did we know that a sensational return to Subaru in the World Rally Championship was in the pipeline. Sadly this wasn’t to happen. Just days before his first test in the car, McRae was taken from us.
One of my biggest regrets in life is never seeing the great man do what he did best. I had the chance, but I turned it down. Only a six year old me can explain that one to you. I hate six year old me for it.
No words can truly describe the hole that has been left in his absence. The World Rally Championship has had and will continue to have its characters, but none have had the mesmerising effect Colin McRae did.
To me, he is Scotland’s greatest ever sportsman alongside Chris Hoy, and has moulded himself into such an icon that few other sportsmen or women have managed to do.
To borrow the phrase from an emotional Kris Meeke following his maiden World Rally win a couple of years ago: “This one’s for Colin.”