A Pillock In Charge

Andrew remembers a giant of the special stages.

Colin McRae’s Subaru 555 gets some air. (c) dukevideo

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.

McRae celebrates his 1995 championship victory. (c) dailypost

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.

(c) dailypost

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.

1995 WRC. Lombard RAC Rally. (c) Autocar

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

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

20 thoughts on “A Pillock In Charge”

  1. Terrific recollections Andrew, thanks. For Australians of a certain age like me, who really had their automotive consciousness awakened in the 1990s, it’s hard, perhaps impossible, to overstate the impact of the Impreza WRX, and by extension McRae, 555 and the WRC in playing a formative role.

    I still have my copy of Motor from 1994 that had the first drive in Japan of the initial Impreza WRX (Turbo, for the Euros). That double-page spread was more than well-thumbed; so much so that more than a quarter-century later, I can still reel off the key specs. In the Antipodes, we had been denied the Integrale or Escort Cosworth, and the Celica GT-Four was limited-run and expensive. In a time when a standard two-litre family four was doing well to get within shouting distance of a hundred kilowatts and European two-litres like an Alfa Twin Spark were maxed out at a hundred and ten on a good day, one hundred and fifty-five kilowatts for forty-five grand (well below asking for a bare-bones 318i) was nothing other than market-shattering. For that sort of money, there was absolutely nothing to touch it at the time – it simply left the local Ford and Holden six-pot ‘hot-rods’ for dead. This remained largely true for the duration of the first generation’s run – to put things in context, a Celica GT-Four or RX-7 were over 80k. A mid-spec family-oriented Commodore, Falcon or Camry V6 would run you 35k. It was true to the extent that the WRX became something of a cultural marker. Not just something the cops struggled to outrun, I remember local ABC radio presenters – not even those newfangled 2JJ ones! – referencing possession of a ‘Rex’ as a sort of shorthand for a certain sort of individual who may have been keen on doof-doof music and backward wearing of basketball hats, etc. There aren’t many cars that can claim to be shorthand-ready Australian cultural icons like this – it’s an honour reserved for the truly special, like the Nissan Cedric, or 120Y, or Holden Barina, or Valiant Charger.

    The specs alone would have sold every Impreza that came off the boat, but I don’t doubt that the TV deal that put WRC highlights on midday weekend TV from 1996 onwards was tremendously significant in raising the profile of the Impreza. There is no doubt, either, that McRae helped make it. The thing about rallying is that for all the length of the stages and events, it’s split-second moments that live in the memory – McRae’s lunar launches over the jumps in Bunnings in 1997, or his similar efforts in Sanremo in 1996, or the simply breathtaking car control on display on the final day in Sanremo in 1998 in his battle against Sainz, not to mention the trail of crumpled metal that inevitably resulted on occasion. I suppose everyone remembers the pumped-up World Rally Car evolutions from 1997 onwards, but for me the iconic status of the Impreza begins with the 555 Group A and McRae.

  2. Colin’s drive on the RAC in 1995 really was one of those where-were-you moments for a generation of rally fans. There is a solid case to be made that Sainz was one of the most transformative drivers in the history of world rallying in terms of the completeness of his approach, his spearheading (along with Biasion and Auriol) of the Latin Revolution, and his awesome speed. But Colin simply destroyed him on that event – the stage times he was cranking out were like they were from a different dimension, you almost couldn’t believe what you were seeing. Sainz had absolutely no answer to McRae, and admitted it – not something that happened too often.

  3. Thanks Andrew, a great read, especially for someone like me who knows almost nothing about rallying (although I do remember Colin McRae). Anytime I see rallying on the TV, I think it looks absolutely terrifying, both for driver and navigator, and highly dangerous for spectators lining the route, with no protection at all. How it hasn’t been legislated out of existence is beyond me (not that I’m advocating for that at all).

    1. Good morning one and all. I’m not a big fan of watching sports on TV and that includes rallying. Having said if someone were to say ‘555’ I immediately make the connection between Colin McRae, the Impreza, a particular shade of blue and gold wheels. The Subaru was praised by the Dutch motoring press at the time and soon gained cult status. I think they started at 49,995 guilders in pre-euro times and there was one version that sold, wait for it, 55,555.55 guilders.

      How different times have become. Now Subaru only offers the XV, Forester and Outback on the Dutch market. They sold 263 cars over here in 2020, even less than Alfa Romeo.

    2. I remember an interview with McRae (after a sizeable accident, in fact it may have been his one on the 2001 RAC) that really shifted the way I thought about these guys. You or I look at the footage and think, oh, yeah, these guys have more than a couple of screws loose, that’s suicidal. (And I still think the co-drivers are nuts.) But in this interview, McRae was explaining that the accident occurred because he had misheard a note and put the car about six inches further to the right on the apex than he otherwise would have done. Six inches! This was referencing an apex he hit in fifth gear, at probably 175km/h plus, coming off a flat sixth-gear 200km/h+ approach. Hearing that, it made me realise the level they operate at – it’s incomprehensible to you or I as mere mortals, and I do mean that literally. The actual driving, if you like, is done on a different plane – it is utterly second-nature, such that all of their mental effort can be devoted to ensuring they can extract maximum performance.

    3. Daniel, as a rule it is more dangerous to go to a racing event than to be there.
      Of course something can happen, and a lot has happened, but statistically it’s not dangerous to be there in any way because the guys driving there know exactly what they’re doing – unlike the traffic on our doorstep. Stradale wrote it pretty well in his post how exactly these drivers know what they are doing. If you analyse the accidents where spectators were involved, they were usually part of the problem.
      We are brought up to think “high speed” is synonymous with “high danger” and usually that is true for our road traffic, but racing is not the same as road traffic just because cars are used in both cases.
      On U-Tube you can find videos with footage from inside the car during a rally. You can see the co-pilot reading the road book* without looking at the road, shouting out data such as which gear, revs, curve radius, length of the curve and at which point there is a stone on the side of the road. He knows exactly where the car is without looking. And the driver carries out these announcements to the tenth of a second and to the centimetre.
      They are not human beings, even if they look like it and behave like it outside the racing car, they are aliens with extraterrestrial abilities.
      I once had the pleasure of doing a lap with Walter Röhrl in Weissach. Since then, I’m far more afraid to take a ride with any of my friends. Because what many call “skill” is in most cases just “luck”.

      * In German, the roadbook is also called “Gebetsbuch” – Prayer book -, one of the few situations where the German language says more about the situation.

    4. Good afternoon gentlemen. Thanks all for your comments which do give me a better understanding of the (controlled) dangers of rallying. My limited knowledge is skewed by seeing unrepresentative footage of things going wrong and spectators rushing to get out of the way of a wayward car. If it were as unsafe for either spectators or competitors as this impression would suggest, then I’m sure it would the H&S zealots would have been all over it.

    5. Normally I’m no great motorsport fan and if at all I prefer motorcycle racing with several visits to the IoM TT in my youth (recommended video footage: ‘Take it to the limit’ or ‘One day in June’ – from Geoff Duke Videos). But I’m old enouth to have watched the transition from relatively harmless Group 4 devices like an Alpine A110 or Fulvia HF to purpose built cars like Stratos and Group B projectiles like 037 or 205T16. These cars were really dangerous for drivers (remember Attilio Bettega and Henri Toivonen/Sergio Cresto?) and visitors who were completely uncontrolled and stood in the middle of the road in Portugal or Corsica. The Peugeot team once found a ripped off little finger lying on the intercooler of one of the 205T16s in Portugal. Group B was cancelled for safety considerations and the much tamer Group A events had much better visitor control.
      Walter Röhrl once said that he had to imagine the walls of visitors were not living beings because otherwise he could not drive as fast. But Walter also stated after his night drive at Arganil (where he was a full eight minutes faster over 48 kilometres than Markku Alén in fog with zero sight) that when he couldn’t see anything he was not afraid of anything.

  4. A lovely, evocative article – thank you, Andrew.

    I vividly recall the Top Gear Magazine cover with McRae on it. McRae came across as a modest, no BS Scot.

    I also recall the sound the cars make – very distinctive, and a lot like a SAAB 96 V4, which I thought was appropriate for rallying. I ought to watch more rallying – I’m sure it’s on YouTube.

  5. Seeing those pictures prompts me to ask: Colin McRae was a British driver, driving a Japanese car prepared and registered in the UK. So why was it left-hand drive? It puzzled me at the time and it puzzles me now.

    1. It’s a good question. The short answer is that the majority of the events are held in left-hand drive countries and it’s simply a numbers game – you don’t build separate cars for events in countries that drive on the left, so LHD wins out. A secondary consideration may also be that when the time comes to sell the cars to private campaigners doing national championships and the like, there is a bigger potential market if you build in left-hand drive.

    2. Britain was the only country where the Subaru had such a cult status and te truly interesting versions like the ultimate Impreza the RB 22 three door (424 made) was only ever available in the UK and in RHD form.

  6. Great article Andrew. Brings back happy memories of marshalling the Lombard in the Kielder Forest in the late eighties. We used to have to race from one stage to another in deep snow. Very hairy for us Marshall’s too but great fun and of course we got grandstand views of the competitors hurtling past. Happy days.

  7. Rallying was clearly in the McRae genes. Colin’s dad, Jimmy was a noted rally ace in his own right during the ’70s and ’80s, winning the British Championship a number of times and became synonymous with the mark 2 Escort, but drove for Vauxhall (Chevette HS) and a number of others as well.

    On the subject of rally entrants not being cut from the same cloth as the rest of us, I urge people to look up the footage on the web of Ari Vatanen in a Manta 400 during the 1983 Manx Rally. His navigator/co-driver, Terry Harryman’s (who previously raced alongside Paddy Hopkirk) reaction as Vatanen almost loses it on a narrow concrete bridge is priceless – not only for his verbal restraint, but also for how he then immediately gets straight back to the job in hand. They are not like us.

    I have a Russell Bulgin article from the early 1980s where he had arranged for Ayrton Senna to drive a variety of rally cars, from a Group N Nova up to a Sierra Cosworth in the Welsh forests. Senna, still seeking his first Grand Prix win (I think?) was circumspect at first, but quickly got the hang of things, setting times that impressed the hard-headed rally boys who had provided the cars. But Ayrton himself was not convinced. Too dangerous he concluded. ‘Maybe when I retire, I’ll come back and try’.

    1. Somebody once asked Eric Carlsson why he drove his Saab flat out all the time even when he could not see anything. Answer: ‘road must go somewhere’

  8. Another excellent article Andrew and thanks for posting. I recently watched ‘Colin McRae: 25 Years A Champion’, which features interviews with McRae’s team boss at the time Dave Richards and McRae’s father Jimmy, who is reunited with the title-winning ‘L555 BAT’ car at Kames Race Circuit.
    Apparently without his parent’s say-so, Kames was the place McRae Jr made his competition debut aged just 10, at the wheel of an untaxed Hillman Avenger bearing fake registration plates. No surprise there then!

  9. A wonderfully evocative article, thank you.

    Having taken part in several rallyes as an amateur driver, I can
    confirm that the true set of skills for a rallye driver does indeed differ vastly from those needed for a racing driver (although seemingly one would say it is a very similar set, it is actually not).

    What is most fascinating to me, from a dynamic engineering point of view, is the specific way Rally cars are setup: so as to sacrifice ultimate grip for a constant clarity of grip-level ‘feedback’ – if that makes sense.

    A Rallycar’s handling, therefore, is rather a dynamic ‘measuring instrument’ of sorts, as opposed to a Racecar’s, which is purely a grip producer & speed machine.

    The cars are made ‘twitchy’ on purpose, which creates a constant staccato of information for the road surface/grip being transmitted to the driver (in a ‘resolution’ of almost several ‘shots’ per second).

    This, in turn, creates a psychological density of time awareness that’s second to none other in Motorsports, the net result being that the driver’s & codriver’s sense of time is dilluted, and mental alertness is heightened to levels that probably only martial arts Masters (Ninjas) have been experiencing.

    Hence, the mental aspect is so strong that, unless experienced first-hand, to the outside observer it all appears as ‘mad bravery’, ‘nuts’ etc.

    It’s just an inexplicably magical coctail of the physical forces, mixed with the rhythm that the driving and pace-note reading develop one against the other.

    It is a very very special place, conducting a rallycar at maximum attack.

    A race driver, on the other hand, has to anticipate and risk the grip-level for any given corner, making it 1-2% gamble, whereas a good rally driver, while ‘in the window’, is at a higher state of mental superiority, mastering the knowledge of grip-reserve in real time, in split-second intervals.

    The Rally car is ~10% less fast in a corner than a hillclimb-spec racecar would be, but over a longer S.Stage, it all accounts for a permanent 110% attack of all corners, as there is no place for a small mistake, as there is on a racetrack. It’s all more ‘touchy-feely’ at the helm & seat-of-pants.

    This constant concentration demand, in turn, creates what essentially ia an extra-sensory perception experience.

    And the ‘mental chemistry’ between the two persons inside is paramount – it either ‘clicks’, or doesn’t, (which is probably deeply frustrating).

    A divine form of Motorsports, and one
    of the most complex sports of them all.

    1. This reminds me of some memorable (and rather dangerous) drives across the Irish countryside in a Peugeot 205. I was completely concentrated on the driving and in a state of high alertness. Luckily nothing bad happened during this hell-for-leather blast on the back lanes.

  10. Great article. I met Colin McRae only once in Cardiff outside the Millennium Stadium at the Wales Rally WRC while he was driving for the Skoda team. He was happy to chat and sign an autograph for my wife. I wasn’t really a McRae fan but he changed my opinion that day and forever. I also met an ignorant Sebastian Loeb and a very rude Chris Harris that same day. Loeb driving for Citroën and Harris driving a press leg in a Junior WRC Ford Fiesta. The news McRae and son plus two family friends had died in a helicopter crash at the family home still baffles me to this day. Reading the crash investigation and air safety reports make for a sad account. A pillock at the helicopter controls? Perhaps. Who knows? He will be best remembered by me for his charm and smile that sunny pre-Covid day. The BBC Top Gear Subaru-McRae tribute by Chris Harris of all people brought a tear to my eye.

  11. Thank you for poking the memory banks in this article.
    I was brought up as a child trudging round the stages of the Scottish rally championship, Snowman rally, Speyside stages etc, and I loved watching the skills shown but my love of motor sport never progressed beyond those heights until 1995 and the WRC battle that year. As a young teenager suddenly my eyes were opened to a hitherto previously unimagined degree of car control, and a never waning love of the sport in its wider forms began.
    I had the privilege to view Colin in action at very close quarters in the Cyprus stages of the WRC in 2000.
    My abiding memory is being stood behind a barrier right on the inside point of a 180 degree hairpin – while Colin flicked his focus through it.
    His lights were shining directly in my face through the entire corner and the front bumper tracked the barrier just a few inches clear the whole way, all at breakneck speed. I then had the opportunity to shake his hand and a brief chat back at the service halt. A real pleasant bloke ( as was Tommi Makkinen who I met at the same time ).
    Other times I especially remember was seeing all 3 Macraes competing in either a SRC or BRC rally, I can’t recall which, and another SRC rally where Colin was driving car zero, the Pace car, and at the end of the rally it was found that he had done the fastest times in most stages, despite not competing!
    He died as he lived, at speed and on the edge, and to me rallying lost something when that happened.

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