Colin McRae: the people’s champion

| 15 Apr 2021
Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

More than two million people lined the route of the 1995 RAC Rally, watching Colin McRae at his unstoppable best.

They cheered him on from Wales to the Scottish Borders, the Subaru Impreza sweeping to victory accompanied by the sound of air-horns ringing through the forests.

As McRae finished the final stage to become World Champion, co-driver Derek Ringer gave a quiet chuckle. “That’ll do for me,” he said.

The Scottish driver was still only 27 years old at the time, but his flamboyant talent had been obvious for a while.

He grew up around the sport as the son of five-time British Rally Champion Jimmy McRae, and having competed in motocross and autotests his focus immediately switched to rallying when he turned 17.

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

One of nine WRC wins with Ford

“The first rally he did, I didn’t know about it,” says Jimmy, now 77, from his Lanark home. “I was over on the Isle of Man for the Manx Rally. Colin was already into the local car club and one of the lads had a Hillman Avenger with a knackered gearbox.

“A guy who was a mechanic and did a bit of rallying said to Colin that they could put a ’box in it and do the Kames Rally.

“They thought all the stages were within Kames race circuit, but when they got there they found out there were a couple of farm stages and I think there was a quarry stage. The car had to be taxed and MoT’d, and it wasn’t, so they took the numberplates off the Avenger service car, fitted those, and did the rally anyway. Maybe it was a good job that I didn’t know…”

He finished 14th, having been as high as fourth.

Later came a Vauxhall Nova in which Jimmy once – and he emphasises that once was enough – acted as co-driver, then a Sierra RS Cosworth.

They’d often compete in the same rallies before Jimmy decided to scale back his own efforts in order to support Colin, and in 1989 they both travelled to New Zealand. When Jimmy crashed out, Colin, who was a couple of cars behind, slowed down long enough to say, “Bloody hell – that’s a good crash for an old man like you,” then carried on to finish fifth.

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

Drama, such as here with Ford in Argentina in 2000, was never far away, a by-product of McRae’s ‘If in doubt, flat-out’ mantra

His big break came in early 1991, when Jimmy ran into Prodrive boss David Richards. The general assumption had been that Ford would sign Colin to drive a Sierra RS Cosworth 4x4, so Richards was surprised to hear that he had nothing lined up for the coming season.

“We’d just set up the Subaru team,” explains Richards, “so I said: ‘We haven’t got a budget but let’s do it and we’ll work out how to pay for it later.’”

The focus was initially on the British series – Colin won it twice, in 1991 and ’92, driving a Legacy RS – but there was the occasional outing at World Rally Championship level. In 1992, Richards sent his young charger to the 1000 Lakes Rally.

“It’s one of those events where you can’t beat the Finns on their home territory until you’ve done it three times at least; then you start to get on the pace,” Richards continues.“I had Colin in my office and said: ‘Look, we’re going to invest in this event for you. We wouldn’t normally do this, but we want you to go over there and learn the roads because you will be staggered by how quick it is. If you do this year to learn your way round, maybe next year you’ll go a bit quicker and by the third year you’ll be very competitive. Remember those words, will you please?’

“I turned up on the day of scrutineering and they told me that the car was just coming out of the paint shop – he’d rolled it while testing. He then proceeded to roll it on three other occasions during the event!

“This was a rally where he was supposed to be taking it easy and learning the roads. When he got to the finish, though, the Finns took him to heart – he became an honorary ‘Flying Finn’ after that.”

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

A pensive McRae in the ’97 Acropolis, where he claimed the first stage but went no further after striking a rock on SS2

McRae’s first win at the top level came the following year in New Zealand, and by 1995 he was fighting for the title with teammate Carlos Sainz, a double World Champion. Tensions boiled over at the penultimate round.

“We were after the manufacturers’ title for Subaru,” says Richards. “That was what we were paid to deliver. The drivers’ title was very important as well but the manufacturers’ was key to them. I needed both cars at the finish in Spain, so when they were in a dominant position before the final day, I said: ‘That’s the end of it, guys. I want you both to slow down and you’ll cruise round to the finish in the order you’re in now.’

“No one is very happy about these situations, least of all the person who’s second at the time, and that was Colin. He clearly thought he could beat Carlos, and Carlos clearly thought that he didn’t need my instructions to beat Colin.”

As Richards followed the action on the final day, it was obvious that neither man was adhering to team orders, and McRae was ahead as they arrived at the control in Lloret de Mar. Sainz was unimpressed – as was Richards.

“I sat down with Colin and said: ‘This is not on. We have team discipline, we have professionalism and you’re part of a professional team.’ It was a very firm discussion, to the point where I said that I’d have to consider withdrawing him from the final event if he did this.He was never quite sure whether I meant that…”

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

Citroën gave McRae his final full WRC season in 2003

In the end, McRae checked in late and accepted a penalty that dropped him behind Sainz, and the two men arrived at the RAC Rally tied on points. Now it was the Scot who was on home turf, and he romped to victory.

“There was no question in my mind that Colin had the upper hand,”says Richards of that showdown. “He had the support – millions of people in this country were cheering him on. I’ve never seen anything quite like it to this day, and never will again, I’m sure.”

At the end of 1996, Nicky Grist replaced Derek Ringer as McRae’s co-driver and they made a formidable team.

Five victories in 1997 were countered by a series of mid-season retirements and they lost the title by a single point to Tommi Mäkinen.

Even so, that year’s Tour de Corse stands out in Grist’s memory. They were trailing Ford’s Sainz in the closing stages, but word filtered through that the final stage was wet.

“We were six or seven seconds behind Carlos,” recalls Grist, “but we were on Pirellis and he was on Michelins. Pirelli always made a very good wet tyre and you could see the look on Carlos’ face – he was a beaten man.

“We chose an intermediate because the surface in some places was quite abrasive, and Colin drove like nothing on this earth.I think we took the time out of Carlos plus another eight seconds.

“That, for me, was what made Colin special. A lot of other people wouldn’t have pushed that hard but his confidence, his natural ability, his speed and his resilience in tough conditions got him through. Carlos would have been trying his hardest but Colin just blitzed him.”

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion
Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

McRae reunited with Prodrive for a tilt at Le Mans in 2004 and quickly neared the times of his talented teammates, Darren Turner and Rickard Rydell, in the Ferrari 550GTS – they finished third in class, ninth overall

McRae had signed for Prodrive as a raw youngster. When he left to join Ford for 1999 he was a global superstar thanks not only to his status as a World Champion, but also the hugely successful Colin McRae Rally video game, which introduced him to a whole new fan base.

“He grew up, but I don’t think he changed in his character,” says Richards of their time together. “Colin was always true to himself. He was a great individual – a free spirit. He did his own thing and was never afraid to speak his own mind. When he got married and had kids, life changed and we became good friends.”

“It was a bit risky for Colin,” says Grist of the decision to leave. “He chose to join Ford when the [Focus] hadn’t even run. All the initial base testing that a team would have done 12 months before a car was launched, we were doing a matter of weeks before the Monte-Carlo Rally.

“The car was almost undriveable – the suspension was too hard and it wasn’t working at all. They had to get some softer springs and dampers made, and it was moving in the right direction but it was still not good enough.

“We had to go back between Christmas and New Year, but then we started to see some improvement.”

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

Dakar Rally stage wins came with Nissan in 2004 and 2005

It would be a frustrating year, two wins being offset by no fewer than 10 retirements, but by 2001 the team had turned it around to the extent that McRae arrived at the final round – the Rally of Great Britain – with a narrow lead in the championship over Richard Burns of Subaru.

“Having been fastest on the Super Special at Cardiff docks,” says Grist, “we set off very early the next morning and went into a stage near Mountain Ash called St Gwynno. It was just after daybreak, we were the first car on the road and it was a case of, ‘Right – first proper stage of the rally, we’ll try to catch people asleep.’

“After a full season of battling and fighting, Colin was on top of his game. He started sensibly but fast, then got faster and faster, and the last part was very high speed – top gear virtually all the way, over crests and jumps. It was tremendous driving and we ended up quickest. Marcus Grönholm was a couple of seconds behind but we’d taken about eight seconds out of Burns.”

Frustratingly, disaster struck a couple of stages later when McRae cut a fast right-hander more than he had intended and the Focus was flipped into a series of rolls.

Their rally and season were over, Burns took the title by two points, and the Scot’s detractors once again muttered about his propensity for accidents.

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion
Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

McRae stole the show at the 2006 X Games in Los Angeles where he battled Travis Pastrana in the Rally Super Special event – it was the PlayStation man made real for many fans

Grist, however, maintains that there was nothing reckless in McRae’s approach. “It was very much calculated,” he says.

“In his mind, they weren’t risks. He just had a tremendous ability to read the road and assess what was coming – sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The scare factor for each driver would vary slightly. Colin’s scare factor was probably a bit higher than most.”

McRae could also adjust his mindset when necessary. He and Grist worked hard to develop a pacenote system that suited the unique terrain of the Safari Rally, and won it three times. There were four more victories on the Acropolis, too, plus success in Argentina and Cyprus.

None of those were rallies that you could bludgeon into submission with raw pace. Each of them required patience and discipline.

Shortly before his death in 2007, McRae struck a deal with Richards to return to Prodrive for the following year.

Even though he’d been out of a full-time drive since 2003 and Sébastien Loeb was at his dominant best, McRae was still the biggest name in the sport and everyone would have relished the sight of him back in an Impreza.

Classic & Sports Car – Colin McRae: the people’s champion

A victory drive in the famous L555 BAT at home in 1995, becoming Britain’s first WRC champion in the process

Sadly, it was never to be, but countless memories live on – none more vivid than that championship-clinching win in 1995.

Perhaps his talent deserved more than one world title, but no one who saw him in full flight will care about statistics.

“Colin will always be regarded as the fans’ favourite for many reasons,” says Richards, “and no one will ever take that away from him.”

Images: Getty Images

Thanks to Mark Constanduros (


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