Masterful, awe-inspiring and frankly breathtaking, Colin McRae’s all-out attacking style stole the hearts of motorsport fans – not just in Britain, but much further afield.
With my old primary school friend Nick Harden, I’ve rarely missed a year of what was once called the RAC Rally and is now known as Wales Rally GB – and we agree the McRae years were a golden era for British rallying.
It truly was a blistering spell for the sport – a period that began in the early 1990s, was typified by the Scotsman’s remarkable allure, and continued into the noughties – quite appropriate because part of McRae’s mass appeal was, indeed, his slightly ‘naughty’ streak.
After all, here was a man who broke rallying’s last taboo by famously disobeying the dreaded team orders in Catalunya, who rolled his car more times than anyone could imagine but finished those events in respectable positions, who allowed motorsport fans to dream that the impossible was possible.
The curious thing about being a rally fan – out in the middle of a freezing Yorkshire or Welsh forest in winter, with limited visibility due to dense trees – is that you hear the cars a good minute before they come into view – and you know who’s really ‘on it’ before the car whizzes past.
While you’d nod approvingly as some drivers approached, it was different as McRae came onto the special stage. Everyone would listen intently to his Subaru or Ford Focus on full chat, marvelling at the way it echoed round as he worked his way up the mist-filled valley towards us. ‘Has he crashed’, someone in the crowd would ask, as the sound of top revs descended into a large bang from the exhaust and then silence, only to be reassured by another engine roar as the Lanarkshire legend hit the accelerator again while emerging from a hairpin bend.
The crowds flocking to Wales to watch McRae on these shores grew and grew. We started to see lengthy traffic jams as the roads of mid-Wales struggled to cope. On one event, there were said to be 2 million people in the Welsh forests.
It was a feeling that felt like it would last forever, but we knew that British rally drivers had enjoyed limited success over many decades – second best to their illustrious Scandinavian rivals – so we were determined to make the most of every moment of it.
I hadn’t quite realised the broad appeal of McRae until I made my first appearance at a foreign rally. With Englishman Richard Burns in the hunt for the championship and McRae also well-placed, I travelled to Catalunya expecting to see fever pitch support for Spaniard Carlos Sainz, another strong contender for the World Rally Championship that year.
However, during the shakedown in the hills near Lloret de Mar, it was clear that the Spaniards had only come to see one man – McRae. He couldn’t so much as walk between the canteen and his team’s tent without being mobbed and, with the Colin McRae Rally computer game at the height of its popularity, I realised I wasn’t just watching my own personal hero, but a global sensation.
Nick, who followed McRae’s career more closely than most, said his favourite memory came on the 1997 RAC Rally, with McRae and his great rival Burns going for glory.
Displaying a Union flag in support of McRae in the late 1990s, Nick takes up the story: “Burns, who was a fog specialist, had raced into the lead while Colin was struggling in the Focus, turning his lights on and off to see which worked best.
“No one has or probably will come close to how he entertained and excited the spectators. Damn I miss him!”
Another favourite recollection of Nick (pictured below at the 2017 Rally GB) related to McRae’s unquestionable bravery.
Rolling down a ravine in San Remo, McRae spent 45 minutes upside down trapped in his car.
Eventually escaping a near-death situation, McRae had serious surgery on his cheekbone and faced a race against time to be able to fit a crash helmet over his badly-swollen head by the time the next rally arrived.
Warned that he might lose his badly damaged finger if he drove in the next rally, McRae reportedly told team bosses he was prepared to have the digit chopped off if it meant he could maintain his title challenge.
“When you hear things like that it’s easy to see why he won the hearts of real rallying fans,” added Nick.
Killed in a helicopter crash in 2007, McRae will be remembered for his raw driving talent and cheeky smile. His ‘if in doubt flat out’ philosophy inspired a generation.