13 August 2018

Colin McRae: Gone but never, ever forgotten

1994 was a great season for McRae but it didn't yield him the championship

Jerry Williams has been covering rallying for more than 40 years, attending World Rally Championship events across the globe to get all the insider knowledge.

He was always unpredictable, reminding me of Churchill’s description of Russia: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Unless you knew him pretty well it was virtually impossible to predict what Colin McRae might do next. Even for those of us who had the privilege of a more than passing acquaintance with him that still held true. All you knew was that it would almost certainly test the limits of human experience.

One thing almost everybody knows though is that this 20th Century Braveheart could stir the emotions of 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 have turned 50, but for a catastrophic misjudgement in his helicopter on September 15, 2007 that shocked the rally world like no other moment. 

It also ensured that his star would remain bright as ever, untouched by the inevitable slowdown of advancing years.

If you Google his name now you’ll still get 7,330,000 returns - a total no-one else in rallying has ever got anywhere near. Sébastien Ogier, five times a world champion, gets 1,190,000, his predecessor Sébastien Loeb, a few more with 1,970,000 but still not in McRae’s league. 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, I want you to meet my son Colin. He’s going to be very good.”

A very volitile line-up to manage, Burns, McRae and Sainz...

In fact Junior had just aced more experienced drivers with a couple of third fastest times against vastly more powerful machinery. But he still looked wary as we were introduced; just like the teenager he was meeting an alien species.

His face pulsed red. “Aye.., hiya. How’re ye doing’? Good tae meet you,” and he quickly turned away to talk to his mechanic. Thirty minutes later he had rolled the little Nova into retirement!

But only eight years later he was the biggest of the big beasts. He’d just won the World Rally Championship, humiliating his teammate, the great Carlos Sainz, in the process on the RAC Rally. But he wasn’t yet that good a meeting the press. Post-event he was piped into the press room by a bagpiper and cornered by a pack of ravenous National paper hacks. They fired questions at him relentlessly.

After about 20 minutes he turned back to me: “Christ, Jezza; is it always like this?”

“I dunno,” I said. “We’ve never had a British World Rally Champion before!”

Eleven years later and I was in Edinburgh to interview him at his favourite eatery. 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 Rally Champion; he’d been the world’s highest-paid rally driver; he’d driven for Ford, Subaru, and Citroën. As the wine flowed I gained some dramatic insights. And my God he had some trenchant views with 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 far 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.

No, not rage, Colin just trying to get the hatch closed, again!

“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 rulers to chew over. But he was full of praise for the actual rally cars… as a driver: “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 round, the car is past you, just like that.” 

One of his favourite mantras was always the cars’ engines. “World Rally Cars are very, very expensive; a ridiculous sum. A big, normally aspirated engine is always better. Of course they’re cheaper. You throw away the intercoolers, the turbochargers, all the extra pipe work, 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 with him.

Thing about Colin was he was absolutely steeped in rallying and knew his sport from A to Z. 

Best friend, mentor and hero was his father Jimmy

He was a real racer but also 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 to try to max it just weeks before the RAC Rally. Apparently, he got it to around 170 mph before a rough road finally defeated him…

One year on Rallye Deutschland I was chatting to him at the finish. I think it was 2002, when he came a fairly distant fourth in a 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 Murcielago outside and I’m going to have a lot of fun driving it back to my chalet in Verbier.” 

In Edinburgh that long day of drinking and eating I asked him his three best memories and three worst. The answers were rather instructive.

His Three Best:

1. “Winning my first ever WRC event in New Zealand in 1993.”

2. “Winning the World Rally 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.”

His Three Worst:

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.”

Colin always attracted large crods of fans wherever he went

At 27 and world champion, he was a global superstar, the flamboyant risk-taker taking rallying to new heights of popularity. A decent slice of his income now came from video game sales. Apparently he got a good royalty on each one. I remember him speaking 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” as he put it. But McRae paid him back handsomely, British Open Champion two years running and his first WRC win – New Zealand – a year later; then World Champion!

On the Safari Rally in 1992 he indulged in his favourite sport of winding up his rival Richard Burns. He’d 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 free provided you got Burnsie to sign it. 

I showed it to Richard. “What do you think?” I asked him. “Waste of time,” he snapped. “Tell you what, if I had a cartoon of Colin I’d wear it on my arse!”

Another seminal moment came later, when I went up to Burns’s beautiful house in the Cotswolds to interview him. Halfway through our morning-long chat he suddenly went off on one. “I don’t know what’s wrong with Colin… the helicopter, the plane, the cars, the motorbikes, the yacht, the house in Switzerland. What the f***’s he going to do with it all when he stops driving. He’ll have spent all his f****** money. Mine has to work for me.” 

Colin McRae, World Rally Champion - it had a nice ring to it!

The outburst was probably because I’d just asked him about the famed late-night phone calls he sometimes got when McRae was out drinking: “Go on, Richard, you love me really, don’t you,” Colin would wheedle. 

Burns looked at me: “Why does he do that? I can’t work it out.”

The rivalry reached its peak just before the 2001 RAC Rally, when Burns’s outburst about McRae made the National papers. Colin, typically, replied: “I’ll just let my driving do the talking for me.” As we all know it didn’t work out well. Colin was epicly fast on the first two stages. We watched at the end of St Gwynno and, as he flew past turned to each other and said: “He’ll go off, can’t keep that up”. Two stages later he was off the road 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 rough 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 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 where the McRaes were having fun just in time to see a chair fly from one end to the other. “We’ll give that place a miss,” I said to my mate David.

He was most at home, flat out and sideways, giving it everything

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 kicking 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 that is!

On the other hand, who but McRae would idly flick through a magazine in the Prodrive motor-home while Sainz spoke exhaustively about damper settings before asking: “So what do you think, Colin..?” 

Then the reply: “Aye, Carlos, hard, soft, it’s all the same tae me!”

All these are just vignettes from when I knew Britain’s biggest rally star. What would he be doing now, at 50? 

No idea, really. But I’d wager it would involve competition in some form...

What a driver; what a bloke.

It was a real privilege!

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