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Colin McRae

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Tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of the death of my first motorsport hero, Colin McRae. It still hasn’t sunk in.

Colin was a part of my life from late 1993 when I was just 2 years old when I discovered rallying when the RAC Rally appeared on television via the BBC’s Top Gear Rally Report – yes, I know, actual nightly coverage of rallying on terrestrial television. The two main protagonists that year were recently-crowned World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen of Toyota, and a young McRae in the then-new Subaru Impreza, bidding to become the first British driver to win his home event since Roger Clark (who shared the same birthday) in 1976. It was a year of considerable snow and ice, which favoured the Finn, but McRae, the underdog and home favourite, took the fight to him and may well have beaten him but for engine problems in Grizedale Forest, where he had also been denied wins over the previous two years.

I was probably a bit too young to understand at the time, but my mother had taped the Rally Reports, and like all young children, I watched it again and again and again until I did understand – and what I understood was that McRae was the good guy, the hard-charging hero on whom all British hopes depended. There seemed like no other choice – he had to be my favourite.

So when the 1994 RAC came around, I wanted it taped again. This time, McRae was number 2 to team leader Carlos Sainz, who was trying to overturn the deficit to Toyota’s Didier Auriol, the RAC being the title decider. McRae dominated from the start. Sainz settled into a battle for 2nd with Kankkunen, a battle he seemed to be winning, while Auriol was beset by numerous issues over the first couple of days. But as Auriol recovered through the field, it looked as if McRae would this time be cost by team orders, with the need for him to slow to allow Sainz to win the rally and the title. However, a bunch of foolish spectators left some logs lying in the middle of a Mid-Welsh stage, and Sainz ended up in a ditch. The title was Auriol’s, the rally was McRae’s.

1995 saw a different scenario. McRae was now battling for the title with Sainz, bidding to become the first British World Rally Champion. It had been a close championship battle, with Kankkunen and Auriol battling with the Subaru pair until the penultimate round in Spain, where the FIA discovered Toyota had included an illegal turbo restrictor in the Celica GT-Four and were banned for 12 months. The drivers’ title was thus between McRae and Sainz, while Mitsubishi, led by Tommi Makinen and Kenneth Eriksson, could still snatch the constructors’ title from their Japanese rivals.

Fate tried to snatch the title away from McRae, but he was never going to be denied. Makinen lead early on but exited the fray early on day 2. A puncture in the notorious Kielder Forest cost McRae time to Sainz but he quickly made it all back up again, and eventually won comfortably. The young Englishman Richard Burns made it a 1-2-3 for Subaru.

After that, for me, rallying slipped off the agenda a bit in favour of F1, in part due to the fact that the RAC wasn’t part of the WRC in 1996, with all the top drivers electing not to take part. But in 1997, I was hooked again for two main reasons: firstly, McRae was back on the title hunt again, 10 points behind Makinen (who had won the title the previous year) with 10 points for a win; and secondly, because it was coming past my house – not quite literally but close enough.

I went up there to get my first taste of live forest rallying early on the third day on this, and stood opposite an s-bend in the road. McRae was first car through, after he ended the second day tied with Burns, now Makinen’s team mate at Mitsubishi bidding to prevent McRae from winning the rally. Out of the early morning gloom he came – first the noise, then the headlights, and then the car. And he went straight on at the s-bend. Luckily there was nothing substantial there, and he drove on, but he had lost crucial time. Every other car through that we saw negotiated it, including Burns, who was about to inherit the lead.

My dad then took me to the Resolven services – as we had stayed to watch many of the cars come through (back when there were over 100 entries as opposed to 30 – thanks a bunch, FIA), by the time we got there the Sun was up and the cars had done two more stages. I was quite pleased to find out that Burns had suffered a puncture in the third stage of the day, dropping him from 1st to 4th and handing the lead back to McRae, virtually guaranteeing him the rally.

And there he was – stood there in a light blue coat and a yellow Pirelli bobble hat being interviewed for the TV (again, this was shown on Rally Report that evening). I’ll never forget that – the first time I saw my hero in the flesh.

In the end, he won the rally of course, but Makinen finished 6th to pick up the point he needed to clinch the championship. From there on, it was downhill all the way – as with all romances, the initial euphoria gave way to a series of let-downs. In 1998, engine failure. In 1999, a crash. In 2000, a crash (not long after I’d seen him leave the Swansea services). 2001 was the worst, though – McRae was in a 4-way title fight with Sainz, Burns and Makinen, and my dad had booked tickets for the Thyssen Super Special stage in Cardiff Bay. But once again, McRae crashed – this time on the third stage, pushing too hard to open up an early lead.

It was Burns who took the title – the “other” British driver. It’s not that I didn’t like him, as he was a nice guy (as were all the other top drivers), but if you were a British rally fan at the time (and at this time, rallying was enormous in Britain, taking a similar role to cycling today), you had a choice between two camps – you were either a McRae fan or a Burns fan. As a youngster when McRae was at his peak, there was no contest for me. But after 2001, Burns was the big star, with a big money move to Peugeot. McRae had an inconsistent last year at Ford in 2002, before his big money move to Citroen. Neither driver won a rally (officially) for their French manufacturers, and both their full-time careers would end there: Burns, as we all know, was forced out of the sport by the illness that he would succumb to in 2005, while McRae was squeezed out by the new rules restricting manufacturers to two cars each, before his senseless death in a helicopter accident five years ago.

The word “tragedy” is used far too often today, but the fact that we have neither of them around today is definitely one. It has also destroyed British interest in rallying – we no longer have any top drivers in the WRC, a championship that has destroyed itself with rising costs, restrictions, cheap gimmicks and a series of poor choices of broadcaster. To find coverage of this weekend’s rally, you have to go to Motors TV or Welsh language channel S4C.

The loss of Colin in particular was enormous, because he was one of the great charismatic figures of rallying, the Gilles Villeneuve of the WRC. Though there were drivers more successful than him, he defined the sport, not only because he built a successful brand around his video games, and helped launch rallying to the US, but because he was the bravest and fastest of them all. The hardest of the hard-chargers – the greatest daredevil in modern motorsport, where the culture of consistency takes precedence and aggression is frowned upon.

Colin McRae will forever be a mythical figure. He let me down more than once, including in death. But it’s largely irrelevant – he is almost certainly still the greatest rally driver ever. Sebastien Loeb will probably forever be the best and most successful driver ever, but he will never match Colin for greatness. Give people a choice between which of the two they would rather have in their Fantasy World Rally Team, I should think most would go for McRae. I certainly would.

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Written by James Bennett

September 14, 2012 at 18:40

Posted in Motorsport

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