With no live rallying to entertain us at the moment, Motorsport Week’s rallying doyen Jerry Williams casts his mind back to some of the best drivers he has got to know over past 35 years of his reporting on the World Rally Championship…
Colin… Braveheart of the Stages
He was always unpredictable, a bit like Churchill’s description of Russia: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Unless you knew him pretty well, it was often impossible to predict what Colin McRae might do next. For those of us in the media who had a reasonable acquaintance with him, all you knew was that he would almost certainly test the limits of your comprehension.
One thing almost everybody knows though is that he could stir millions in a way that no other rally driver has before or since. And it was a shock to find that last week he would be approaching his 52nd birthday but for that catastrophic misjudgment in his helicopter on September 15, 2007… But that moment also ensured that his star would remain bright as ever, untouched by the inevitable slowdown of advancing years.
Last week, just as an exercise, I Googled his name. There were 8,150,000 returns. No-one else in rallying has ever got anywhere near. The two Sebs, Loeb and Ogier got just under 2,000,000 each. That tells you a lot about how McRae gripped the popular imagination. Of course, a lot of it was down to the Colin McRae video games but I still remember the day I first met him. It was on the Skip Brown Rally, in North Wales. His dad Jim told me: “Here [Jerry], I want you to meet my son Colin. He’s going to be very good.”
In fact Junior had just aced some more experienced drivers with a couple of third fastest times in his little Nova against vastly more powerful machinery. But he still looked wary as we were introduced, just like a teenager meeting an alien species. His face pulsed red. “Aye, hiya. How’re ye doing’? Good tae meet you,” and he turned away to talk to his mechanic. Thirty minutes later he had rolled the car into retirement!
But only eight years after that he was the biggest of the big WRC beasts. He’d just won the 1995 FIA World Rally Championship, humiliating his teammate, the great Carlos Sainz, on the process on the RAC Rally. But he still wasn’t yet that good at meeting the press. Post-event he was piped into the Media room by a bagpiper and cornered by a pack of National paper hacks. They fired questions at him relentlessly.
After about 20 minutes he turned back to me: “Christ, Jerry; is it always like this?”
“I dunno,” I said. “We’ve never had a British World Rally Champion before!”
Over 10 years later and I was in Edinburgh to interview him at his favourite eaterie. We talked for well over three hours. After a while his wife Alison joined us. McRae’s career was now winding down. He’d been the world champion; he’d been the world’s highest-paid rally driver at around £6m+ a year; he’d driven for Ford, Subaru and Citroën. And as the wine flowed I gained some dramatic insights. And my God he had some trenchant views and pithy opinions on practically everything about the WRC.
He said the championship had far too much politics!
“It’s very difficult to see what to do with the sport because who knows what the people in charge really think? Most people would agree there are too many WRC rallies and you save real money by reducing team personnel and events. But the WRC rights holders say more rallies means greater coverage and more money. That would be OK if some of that cash went to the teams.
“With central servicing you spend more time driving up and down bloody road sections than you do in the stages. All it does is make half a day’s rallying into a day and a half, while we’re dodging speed cameras. One of the best rallies I ever did was Ypres. On some road sections it was so tight you couldn’t even take your helmet off. At your service van it was like a Formula 1 pit stop. That was a far bigger buzz.”
Phew! That was something for our FIA rulers to chew over. But he was full of praise for the actual rally cars.
“They work so well, they’re so responsive and react to your input so well. But watching them, yes, they can be very boring and LOOK slow. When I went to watch as a kid you could hear the cars for five miles. Everybody felt the excitement building. Now, if you turn around, the car is past you, just like that.”
One of his favourite topics was always the cars’ engines.
“World Rally Car engines are very, very expensive. A big, normally aspirated engine is always better. Of course they’re cheaper. You throw away the intercoolers, the turbochargers, all the extra pipework; you can throw away half the data you need for the present engines. You can also chuck away traction control, launch control, centre diffs and semi-automatic gearboxes. When a car is on the stage the fans watching can’t tell if it has an auto-launch and semi-auto gear change or whatever. With the cars I want, you could go to a rally with half a dozen good mechanics and an engineer to oversee them.”
Maybe he had a point, not that any of the manufacturers would ever agree. Thing about Colin though was he was absolutely steeped in rallying. He was a real racer… and a genuine nutter. There are many stories of his exploits down the years that I couldn’t possibly relate here. A few of them I witnessed and marvelled at his sheer chutzpah. Girls were a fascination. He couldn’t clap eyes on a pretty one without wanting to conquer her. I’ve watched him in action. The name helped, of course! But he had only one love of his life and that was Alison.
Part of his devil-may-care makeup was a love of motorbikes. “How many have you had?” I asked that day in Edinburgh. “Oh, I don’t know, fifteen or sixteen I expect!” I heard in 1995 that he had bought a Honda Fireblade and taken it to France on a trailer to try to max it just weeks before the RAC Rally. Apparently, he got it to around 170 mph before a rough road defeated him.
One year on Rally Deutschland, I was chatting to him near his hotel. I think it was 2002, when he came a fairly distant fourth in an M-Sport Ford Focus, while his “frenemy” Richard Burns was a very close second to Seb Loeb.
“You must be feeling a bit pissed off,” I said.
“Nae, not at all,” he shot back with a sly grin: “I’ve got a Lamborghini Murcialago outside and I’m going to have a lot of fun driving it back to Verbier.”
In Edinburgh that long day of drinking and eating I asked him his three best memories and three worst. The answers were both instructive and intuitive:
1. “Winning my first ever WRC event in New Zealand in 1993.”
2. “Winning the world championship in 1995. That was very special as I was so young.”
3. “My first ever victory on the Tweedies Stages in a Nissan 240RS in 1988 with [wife-to-be] Alison co-driving.”
1. “Rally GB in 2001, that towers above everything because the big crash was entirely my fault; over-confidence got hold of me.”
2. “The Kayel Graphics Rally [in South Wales] when I could have won the national championship and went off right at the end.”
3. “Catalunya in 1995. Nowadays I’d stand up for what I believed in, that I’d driven best and should win; Inexperience made me back down, but on Rally GB afterwards it would have taken a nuclear bomb to stop me.”
At 27 and crowned World Rally Champion, he was a global superstar; the flamboyant risk-taker taking rallying to new heights of popularity. A pretty big slice of income now came from video game sales. He told us he earned a good royalty on each one. And I remember him speaking to me of a moment when he phoned a friend in America. The man’s young son asked who he was talking to: “Colin McRae,” said his father. “Hey dad, was that Colin McRae 1 or Colin McRae 2!”
Who did he owe most to for his stellar career, I asked him. The reply was unhesitating: “My dad for his guidance and David Richards for backing me.” That came after 1990 when he both scored his first international win and was also THE story on the RAC Rally in a Sierra Cosworth that grew steadily more battered…
Sixth overall was a great result but Ford showed little inclination to sign him. He’d trashed too many cars. Then David Richards “took a punt”. But McRae paid him back handsomely, British Open Champion two years running, his first WRC win – New Zealand – a year later, and then world champ in 1995.
That New Zealand victory was very important. I was told that Subaru Technica International wouldn’t allow the Impreza to be used in rallying until the Legacy had taken a victory. On the Safari Rally in 1992 McRae indulged in his favourite sport of winding up Richard Burns. He’d even had a batch of T-shirts made up with a Jim Bamber cartoon of Burnsie as a shoeshine boy, polishing Macca’s racing boots. You could have one for free, provided you got Burnsie to sign it…
The rivalry reached its peak just before the 2001 RAC Rally, when a Burns outburst about McRae made the National papers. Colin, typically, replied: “I’ll just let my driving do the talking for me.” And as we all know it didn’t work out well. Colin was epically fast on the first two stages. We watched at the end of St Gwynno and, as he flew past, we turned to each other and said: “He’ll go off, can’t keep that up”. Two stages later he was off at 100 mph.
He was always unpredictable and you knew he could never resist a challenge. On one Prodrive media day before the RAC Rally in the early 1990s he took me round a farmland road circuit quite fast. Then I looked across and foolishly said:
“Come on, mate. Let’s give it some real welly?”
He grinned: “Aye, why not then.” Moments later we were in a right-hander much faster than before and I was looking down at him with the Legacy in a big two-wheel moment.
There was just time to think “Oh, shit!”
But he was laughing. He’d deliberately clipped a grassy outcrop to throw the car up and balanced it on two wheels. At the end he said: “Go on, admit it, your arse went a wee bit tight there, didn’t it?”
McRae would guardedly admit later that for a while he was a touch wild. And when Alister later started driving internationally as well, the pair of them became renowned for partying.
On an Acropolis I well remember wandering past a late bar in Delphi and spotted Colin and Alister as a chair flew from one end to the other. “We’ll give that place a miss,” I said to my mate David, guiding him past the door…
One thing about Colin: he had real grit. Who but he would be back to contest the very next WRC rally after spending 45 minutes in Corsican ravine, semi-conscious, injured and trapped upside down in his Focus with petrol dripping around him? Who but McRae wouldn’t miss a single event after crashing and getting his finger trapped between the car and a tree branch? Who but McRae would crash twice on a Cyprus Rally; then be pictured booting his Focus’s hatch. The picture was wrongly captioned worldwide as “McRae’s rage”. In fact he was trying to kick the hatch closed again! Who but McRae would crash his Subaru Legacy twice on the 1,000 Lakes Rally – before the start!
On the other hand, who but Colin McRae would idly flick through a magazine in the Prodrive motor-home while Carlos Sainz spoke exhaustively about damper settings before asking: “So what do you think, Colin?” …and the reply “Aye, Carlos, hard, soft, it’s all the same tae me!”
All these are just small vignettes from when I knew Britain’s biggest rally star. What a driver: what a bloke. It was a privilege!