Andrew remembers a giant of the special stages.
Time flies: A quarter century has passed since Colin McRae famously clutched the winning trophy for not only the event but the main prize, that of 1995 World Rally Champion. Hoisting the trophy aloft, navigator, Derek Ringer had to inform Colin he’d dropped the trophy lid, the pillock.
Whilst far from the Cheshire finishing line that particular day, McRae’s, co-driver, along with the other protagonists’ results and welfare were prominent in this rally enthusiast’s mind. For the more cynical, this was also the championship where Toyota were subsequently banned; it having come to light that they were using illegal turbo restrictors, but that as they say, is another story.
During the mid-’90s, regardless of the day’s itinerary, my search for rally information would be avid; the BBC’s Teletext service (wot no Internet?), next morning’s newspaper (rarely anything), the eternal wait for the highlights television show the following weekend and that week’s Autosport magazine, which I might flick through rather than purchase.
But this time, it was different. A Brit, ok a Scottish National, had overcome the opposition and gone and claimed the biggest, mud and gravel covered trophy of them all. The twenty seven (and 109 days) year old who hailed from Lanark was not only world champion but had gravitated to the lofty heights of celebrity.
The man, the car, the sound – worshipped.
I was clearly not alone in adoring Colin McRae. His shoulders carried not only mine but that generation’s hope of steering his navy blue Subaru with the gold wheels to victory anytime he donned his helmet and overalls. That my feet were yet to tread upon a forest special stage, nor the means to drive a gravel tyred, torque heavy missile is immaterial, Colin McRae was an inspiration. So why did the pillock have to crash out so regularly?
Banbury based Dave Richards’ outfit, Prodrive made the special stage version, with U.K. Subaru Impreza sales rocketing. Lucrative British American Tobacco sponsored cars added cachet; Tommi Mäkinen aboard a Mitsubishi may have been the exiting champion but those blue bolides left a massive impression from council estates to country mansions. The buzz saw sounding boxer engine practically becoming an anthem, with that rather unfortunate sobriquet that just had to tag along. A Scooby.
The Impreza became a perfect rally (and street) weapon. The man, McRae was flawed, but deliciously so. By his own motto, “If in doubt, flat out” his mettle was, to mere mortals such as myself, far beyond comprehension. Psychologists believe racing drivers can dispel the fear, compartmentalise the what if and plough on, seemingly regardless. Be that for those extra tenths and eternal glory or the spirit of competition; since we have to ask, we’ll probably never fully understand.
The 1995 WRC was held over just eight events. Beginning as always with the Monte Carlo in January, early auguries came up short. Team mate Carlos Sainz, whilst suffering electrical maladies took a convincing win with McRae leading from the front for but one stage, out on the Sisteron ice. A fifth gear, left hander, McRae “backed off a bit” when the pace note warning of patchy ice was given, to no avail. His car firmly placed through a snow bank. Nil points.
Two weeks later, the Scot recommenced battle in the Swedish snows; Sainz with a substantial twenty point lead, only for both protagonists failing to finish due to identical engine failures. Vital championship ground lost alongside frantic investigations in Banbury.
The relative mildness of Portugal in March was the next tour with Sainz grasping another victory, his Scottish team mate (never a least likely term has their been) bagging the podium’s bottom-most step, his first points of the campaign. Languishing at the dark end of the points table spurred McRae into even more of the usual oversteering wildness that won him fans the world over.
And once again, a low-point scoring finish when the rally circus visited the island of Corsica in early May. Sainz in L555 REP was a distant fourth, L555 BAT twenty five more seconds behind. The portend of a Scottish champion seemed remote. But fate is fickle when there’s mud (and political dung) flying.
Three months from the French island shenanigans, New Zealand (round five) witnessed a no-show from Sainz, hospitalised by a motorcycle accident that affected his right arm ligaments. McRae, gifted an opportunity, taking a momentum shifting victory with his Pirelli shod Impreza forty four seconds in front. Round six saw a buoyed McRae finish a close second to victor Kenneth Eriksson (Mitsubishi) in Australia whereas the returning Spaniard was forced into retirement by a broken radiator. The chase was on.
The final two events were held on ground close to actual homes; Rally Catalunya late October and a month later the Welsh-English border crossing RAC Rally. Sainz, co-driven as ever by Luis Moya reigned in Spain, with McRae second but an acrimonious taste lingered; team orders from Prodrive enforced the Scot to hang fire accruing time penalties thus even with a Subaru 1-2-3 finish (Piero Liatti, third) the political tensions boiled. El Matador’s fingers closed in on the trophy – McRae’s ire bristled. Newspaper reports later informed of the two pugilists clearing the air which takes little nous reading between lines. This meant war.
Toyota, now banned and therefore non-competing, the points impetus lent towards champion-elect Sainz. However, the fervent home crowd lifted the Scottish spirit levels, not only to heightened skill behind the wheel, but also to previously un-evident restraint at the roadside. Even losing two minutes to a puncture early into proceedings, McRae elevated in his pomp clawed back every second and more to take Position 1 in Wales, the Sweet Lamb Hafren stage and onto the rally win and the championship.
Sainz, 30 seconds behind, the late Richard Burns third, another Subaru 1-2-3. British newspapers had a home grown hero to headline. El Matador’s bubble temporarily burst, Scotland ruled the (rallying) world by five points.
By coincidence, my feet were on the fair city of Chester’s Roman walls when I passed a television shop (Dixon’s?) as McRae’s death was announced 15th September 2007. Heading inside, the information hit hard. For someone only met on screen, for all his wayward drive, his arrogance, his short lived flamboyance, he lived as he died – pushing boundaries as only certain pillocks can.
Colin Steele McRae MBE. RIP