The UK has a long history of producing world-class racing talent, from Dick Seaman, Sir Stirling Moss and Jim Clark through to Nigel Mansell and Lewis Hamilton. Last month, however, the eyes of the motorsport world were firmly fixed on the World Rally Championship, and the first Briton to score a win at that level since Colin McRae – Kris Meeke.
McRae’s one-time protege is the latest British rallying talent to emerge on the international stage, and his victory has served to remind us of the incredible gift the English, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh have for going sideways very quickly.
Here are some of the best.
It is difficult to picture Clark in anything other than a very sideways Ford, and he won three of his four British Championships in Escorts. The other, in 1965, came at the wheel of a Cortina GT.
At a time when Scandinavian drivers were coming to the fore, Clark was a genuinely world-class competitor, taking famous wins on the RAC Rally in 1972 and ’75. Certainly the most famous British rally driver of that decade, his spectacular style made him a household name as well as a crowd favourite.
If Roger Clark was Mr Escort, then Hopkirk was without question Mr Mini. The Belfast-born driver competed on circuits as well as stages, but his most memorable victory came on the latter at the 1964 Rallye Monte-Carlo. Hopkirk and Henry Liddon stormed to victory in ’33 EJB’ - their Cooper ’S’.
A natural raconteur, he was once asked by an earnest reporter what would be his perfect combination of car and co-driver for the London-Sydney Marathon. He replied: “A Bedford Dormobile and Brigitte Bardot.”
A lifelong motorsport fan, Ambrose learned to drive and read maps during WW2 while accompanying his father – who owned an agricultural machinery business and had a supplementary fuel allowance – on visits to local farms. His interest in racing blossomed at Oxford University, and he went on to have the University’s Motor Drivers’ Club reinstated in 1952.
Ambrose won the 1956 RAC Rally with Lyndon Sims in an Aston Martin DB2 and went on to drive for BMC from 1960, chalking up a class win on the ’61 Tulip Rally, and an outright win on the same event in ’64.
Equally adept as a co-driver, he won the 1964 Spa-Liege-Spa with Rauno Aaltonen at the wheel of an Austin-Healey 3000, and the following year helped the Finn to the European Rally Championship title.
If you ever find yourself with a couple of minutes spare, type ‘Colin McRae Bunnings Jumps’ into YouTube and see for yourself why the Scotsman became such a legend. Having attacked the famous Australian stage in 1997, he turned to his co-driver Nicky Grist and said: “Did you like that, wee man?!”
The Gilles Villeneuve of rallying, McRae had few peers in terms of outright speed, but with the flamboyant style came plenty of accidents – the price to pay for being always on the limit.
Best remembered in Subarus, he twice won the British title, in 1991 and ’92, and did the same at World Championship level after a battle royal with team-mate Carlos Sainz in 1995.
One of Britain’s best-loved rally drivers, Pond stormed to victory in the Manx Rally no fewer than four times, in addition to scoring 37 World Rally Championship stage wins throughout his career. He’s best remembered for his exploits behind the wheel of British Leyland’s Triumph TR7 V8, as well as the short-lived MG Metro 6R4.
He retained his links with Austin Rover and, in 1990, became the first driver to average more than 100mph around the Isle of Man TT circuit in a standard production car – a Rover 827 Vitesse.
Looking back at Jimmy McRae’s career, it’s clear to see why the apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it came to his son Colin’s driving talent. The elder McRae won the British Rally Championship in 1981, 1982, 1984, 1987 and 1988, as well as placing second in the European Rally Championship in 1982.
McRae’s career began in a Ford Cortina, quickly graduating to an Escort Twin Cam, Vauxhall Magnum, Chevette HS, and then HSR. The popular Scot continues to compete in historic rallying.
Think Russell Brookes, and it doesn’t take long for an image of his cars’ famous Andrews Heat For Hire livery to come to mind.
Brookes’ first motorsport foray came on the 1963 Birmingham University Mermaid Rally. After passing his driving test, he moved on to sprints and hill climbs in his 848cc Mini before being drawn back to the rally stage.
His greatest successes came during the 1970s, winning the British Rally Championship in ‘77 with a Ford Escort RS1800 and scoring podium finishes on the RAC Rally three years in a row, from 1977-’79.
His second British Championship win came in 1985 at the wheel of an Opel Manta 400.
‘Dai’ Llewellin was one of the leading lights in the British Championship through the 1980s, and won the title twice. Having competed in the likes of the Audi quattro and Metro 6R4 – in which he won the ’86 Circuit of Ireland – he got into his stride behind the wheel of a Toyota Celica GT-Four, claiming overall honours in ’89 and ’90.
Llewellin continued to compete into the mid-1990s, but his final victory came in ’91, during which he drove a Sunny GTi-R for Nissan Motorsports Europe.
When Burns was just eight years old, he cut his teeth driving his Dad’s Triumph 2000 around a field near his house. By the time he was a teenager he was campaigning a Talbot Sunbeam and, later, a Peugeot 205 GTI in the Peugeot Challenge series. By 1993 he had become the youngest ever British Rally Champion.
From 1996-’98 the Englishman drove for Mitsubishi, winning his first World Rally Championship event in his last year with the Japanese team, and took a while to emerge from Colin McRae’s shadow.
Emerge he did, though, finishing second in the championship in 1999 and 2000, before finally capturing the title in 2001. It seems inconceivable that, little more than six years later, both Burns and McRae would be gone.
Aitken-Walker’s career began in 1979, when, unbeknown to the Scot, her two brothers put her name forward for Ford’s ‘Find A Lady Rally Driver’ competition. She beat 2000 other entrants to claim the prize.
Having won the famous Coupe des Dames prize on the 1983 Rallye Monte-Carlo, Aitken-Walker went on to have a successful career at both national and international levels.
A multiple class winner in the British series, she ran as high as seventh overall on the 1987 RAC Rally and, in 1990, became the FIA Ladies World Rally Champion.
She is pictured driving in the commemorative Colin McRae Forest Stages Rally in 2008.
Still well known as the boss of the M-Sport team, Wilson was a fine driver in his own right over a long career that saw him form close links with Ford. He claimed the British title quite late in his career, taking the 1994 championship at the wheel of an Escort.
In almost 20 years behind the wheel, he enjoyed regular outings at World Championship level, too, competing in cars as diverse as the Escort RS1800, Audi quattro and Vauxhall Astra.
One of the most successful female rally drivers of all time, Pat Moss discovered her love of competitive sport on horseback, becoming a member of the British showjumping team. However, with Stirling as a brother, it was only a matter of time before she swapped horses for horsepower.
At the age of 18, Moss bought a Triumph TR2 and began rallying. A works MG TF drive followed and, by 1958, she had driven a Morris Minor to fourth position on the RAC Rally. She scored wins at Belgium’s Liége-Rome-Liége and East African Safari Rally, as well as the Tulip Rally at the wheel of a Mini Cooper.
Moss scored three outright wins and seven podium finishes on international rallies. She was also crowned European Ladies’ Rally Champion in 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1965.