Colin McRae – Rally Legend
The Scot’s name is legendary in the world of motorsport. A spectacular, flamboyant and totally committed driving style brought him to the attention of Motorsport enthusiasts at an early age and there was to be no denying the natural talent that ultimately rewarded him with the title of Britain’s first World Rally Champion in 1995 and an MBE from The Queen for his outstanding achievement.
Colin’s fascination with cars began at the age of two and was not necessarily even connected with his father’s exploits in a rally car, the elder McRae ultimately winning the British Rally Championship five times. By the time he was seven, Colin was on motorbikes and within five years competing in trials, winning junior and intermediate championships by the age of 14. The trials bike then became a fair swap for an autotest Mini and then his first rally in 1985; but he had to pay for it by fitting a new gearbox to a friend’s Avenger. His debut was on the Kames Stages in Scotland and despite dropping off the side of the road, the Scot finished 14th overall and first in class in his first event.
In support of their son’s initiative, the McRae’s acquired a Talbot Sunbeam but there were still no free rides. Unable to secure an apprenticeship in a local garage, Colin joined the family heating and plumbing business and, although more time was spent in the garage helping to maintain the company vans and preparing the Sunbeam, Colin still had to spend time earning a living as an apprentice plumber.
It was in 1986 that seasoned observers began to suspect that Colin had something special, with his first World Rally Championship event coming in 1987 in Sweden, where he finished 36th overall and third in class in his Vauxhall Nova despite several visits to the inevitable snowbanks. Ironically his first outright rally victory came in 1988 on the Tweedies Rally, when he was co-driven by longtime girlfriend and wife to be, Alison Hamilton.
More WRC outings followed in 1989 and Colin was a sensation in Sweden , climbing as high as 10th overall before gearbox problems eventually dropped him to 15th at the finish. Fifth in New Zealand in a Sierra Cosworth and two wins at national level proved enough to impress Ford, who offered him a works Sapphire Cosworth, which was run by RED the following year.
His major breakthrough however was eventually facilitated by David Richards, the 1981 World Champion co-driver alongside Ari Vatanen, and the man who brought Subaru to rallying . Richards, having spotted some of the same natural ability and raw talent that had attracted him to Ari Vatanen, took a huge gamble in signing Colin for Subaru, in order to give him the grounding in the British Rally Championship that would prove essential in his on-going development and ready him for the step up to the WRC. His faith was repaid, if not the repair bills, as he steered Colin to meteoric success. The British Rally Championship crown was quickly achieved in 1991 and the Scot was to prove totally unfazed by the enormity of the world stage when he finally entered the scene in 1992. He and the Rothmans Legacy had again grabbed the headlines in Britain with a clean sweep of victories on each of the six events, but the spotlight was firmly and unexpectedly on him in his first World Championship rally with Subaru, in Sweden, when lead driver Ari Vatanen crashed on the opening test. The pundits were confounded; against all odds and formidable competition in a rally historically dominated by Nordic drivers, Colin had victory in his sights before a puncture on the last day. Even so, he beat the likes of Stig Blomqvist and Markku Alen fair and square to finish an astounding second overall.
The campaign was stepped up in 1993 with a World and Asia-Pacific programme and although it proved to be a year of highs and lows, it did encompass his first-ever win in the World Rally Championship. Even today, his utter command and demolition of the opposition on New Zealand ‘s infamous Motu stage live in the minds of all who witnessed his sheer commitment and natural driving ability. A two-year contract followed in 1994 and accidents in Corsica and Argentina were more than compensated for by victories in New Zealand and Great Britain.
The team’s wildest dreams were however realised in 1995 when he won the World Championship and became Britain’s first and the youngest ever World Rally Champion.
The following two years were character-building finishing second in the Championship in both seasons, despite winning more events than any of his rivals. Success was mixed with significant and repetitive mechanical failures, which added to his desire to seek a fresh challenge in 1999.
A switch to the M-Sport run Ford World Rally Team took place for the1999 season, where he immediately made an impact by astounding all the experts with the maiden victory for the Ford Focus WRC in the toughest event on the calendar – The Safari Rally in Kenya. He proved this was no fluke by winning the following event in Portugal before a string of mechanical failures mixed in with a couple of accidents saw Colin failing to finish no fewer than eight consecutive events. He remained with Ford until the end of 2002, claiming his 25th World Championship rally victory in Kenya that same year to become the world’s most successful driver. The switch to Citroen came in 2003 and while the Scot claimed points in all but three events, he was ultimately to became a victim of new FIA regulations which introduced two-car teams for 2004.
His success in rallying had brought him worldwide recognition in motorsport circles, and led to the introduction of his eponymous computer game, through which his appeal reached a much more diverse and wider audience. Initially some of those who played the game were unsure whether Colin actually existed. The game has now sold well over 10 million copies and is still the market leader in rally games worldwide.
Success continued to follow Colin around, underlining his all-round aptitude behind the wheel of a competition car. Racing or rallying, the Scot’s desire to succeed was evident and when he departed the World Rally Championship in 2004, the lure of two of the world’s most demanding motorsport events The Dakar and Le Mans was too much to ignore.
The legendary Dakar provided the sense of adventure Colin craved and on his first attempt at this marathon rally he set two fastest stage times and ran as high as third overall before transmission problems left him stranded in the desert for two days. At Le Mans, sharing a Ferrari 550 Maranello with Rickard Rydell and Darren Turner, the trio achieved a podium finish.
Determined to return to his home event in the 2005 World Rally Championship he thrilled the thousands of spectators who turned out on Wales Rally GB to support their hero driving a Skoda Fabia WRC 05. He recorded Skoda’s best result of the season finishing seventh overall.
Following this success Colin returned to the Skoda works team to drive the Fabia on Rally Australia. This partnership of Colin and Skoda rejuvenated the World Championship when he recorded stage times which put him in third position at the end of day one. With only three stages to go and challenging for second overall, a routine clutch change took longer than was anticipated and the Scot was out of the event. A cruel blow for the whole team when such a fantastic result was within reach.
Having inked his signature on a Nissan contract for the 2005 Dakar Rally, Colin and co-driver Tina Thorner drove the Nissan Pickup 2005 to victory on its debut event, the Baja Portalegre during October. This gave the team great confidence in it’s attempt to finish on the podium in Dakar.
In confident mood Colin recorded two fastest times on the 2005 Dakar Rally and was leading the event by over six minutes at the start of stage 6 when he hit a hidden ledge and the Nissan catapulted end over end at high speed. The strength of the Nissan central cell protected both crew members and they escaped with no serious injuries.
Meanwhile Colin had turned his attention to producing the ultimate rally machine by utilising his many years of experience testing and developing rally cars for the top WRC teams, allied to his own considerable engineering knowledge.
The main objectives were identified as being to produce a car at a realistic price that was fun to drive and also would produce a buzz in terms of noise and performance for the spectators. He was insistent that there should be no active differentials or artificial driver aids as he wanted a car that placed the emphasis on driver ability and would get back to the sort of sideways action that the fans craved.
The result was the ‘Colin McRae R4’ which he debuted at the “Goodwood Festival of Speed’ to great effect in July 2007, setting a time that was only a fraction slower than that which he set in the works Subaru Impreza WRC of Petter Solberg.
Given that the car was only at the very start of its development this performance gave Colin a huge boost as he knew that he was on the right track with the ‘R4’
Sadly, it was only to be 2 months later that we lost our greatest ever rally driver, the likes of whom we will never see again.