Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Remembering Colin

Colin McRae first made an impression on me back in 1990, on the supposedly 'Mickey Mouse' Chatsworth House stage at the RAC rally. To my knowledge, it was the first time that Colin had gotten hold of a pukka Group A car, and certainly the first time he had rallied one on a round of the World Rally Championship.

Yet his utter confidence was immediately apparent. He had the big Sierra Cosworth 4x4 more sideways, closer to the edge, than any of his rivals. Even at this early stage of the rally, the rear of the car was already looking rather battered, victim of the young McRae's over-exuberance, but nonetheless, his performance that day stood out. It seemed almost foolhardy. After all, his vastly more experienced father, Jimmy, had crashed out on Stage 3. He kept it up, too, and his battered RED-run Sierra finished up 6th, the best British finisher that year, and as it happened, the bes result by a home driver since his father had brought home his Sierra Cosworth in 3rd in an attrition-hit 1987 event.

It is easy to forget just what a poor state British rallying was in when Colin McRae emerged on the scene in the early 1990s. There hadn't been a British winner in a round of the World Rally Championship since Roger Clark won the RAC Rally in a Mark II Escort back in the early 1970s. Every year, there was the forlorn hope that one of the British favourites - Jimmy McRae, David Llewellyn, Gwyndaf Evans, Russell Brookes or Malcolm Wilson, might upset the apple cart. The results, though, tell a different story. In 1988, there were no British drivers in the top 10. A year later, only the exclusion of Per Eklund's Lancia promoted Malcolm Wilson into 10th, and in 1991, when McRae fell off the road towards the end of the event, the best British finisher was Louise Aitken-Walker, again only just on the fringe of the top 10.

1993 marked the year in which British rallying's fortunes began to take a turn for the better, and naturally, it was Colin McRae who led the charge. After driving selected events for the Subaru team in 1992, McRae found himself with something much more like a full-time drive with the team. The early season produced merely average results in the ageing, and heavy Subaru Legacy, but New Zealand marked the birth of a new era, in more ways than one. The 1993 New Zealand rally saw both the debut of Subaru's Impreza, perhaps the most successful line of rally cars of all time, and the first win for Colin McRae, who would go on to become Britain's most successful rally driver, at the wheel of the Impreza.

After that, successes came thick and fast, both for McRae, and for British rallying more generally, as Subaru's other protege, Richard Burns, rose to prominence. In 1994, Colin became the first British driver to win the RAC Rally in over 20 years, and a year later, despite a bad start to the season, he took the world title. Amazingly, though Colin McRae would go on to become one of the sport's winningest drivers, the 1995 title would remain his only World Championship win. He would come close on a number of occasions, twice losing the title by 2 points or less, but he would never quite get to the top of the table again. Why? Its an oversimplification, admittedly, but McRae never entirely ridded himself of his early reputation as 'McCrash'. He did get more consistent over the years, but he was always a shade more accident prone than rivals like Makinen, Burns, Sainz or Gronholm.

Perhaps it was the flip-side of his speed. After all, when he wasn't falling off the road, he won an awful lot of rallies, and often in cars, such as the early Ford Focus, which didn't really belong on the winner's rostrum. In a one-off comeback drive at the Rally Australia in 2005, he ran as high as second in the unloved Skoda Fabia WRC before it broke on the final day of the rally.

In competitive terms, we had probably seen the best of McRae. His final full championship season, in the Citroen Xsara, was something of a disappointment. Whether it was that McRae, a monoglot, couldn't communicate effectively with the French engineers, or that he simply didn't get on with the Xsara, or that his wild, spectacular style simply wasn't suited to the latest, most technically advanced generation of WRC cars, which required more precision that was in his nature, I don't know. What I do know is that McRae failed to win a single rally in a car that Sebastien Loeb nearly took to the World Title in his first full season. After that, he split his time between odd WRC appearances, attempts at the Dakar Rally, and even at Le Mans in a GT1 Ferrari. In terms of the record books, then, his death might not have been as important as that of compatriot Burns, who was still at the peak of his ability when he was hit by cancer.

There is more to life than the record books though. It goes without saying that Colin McRae will be sorely missed by his family and his friends. Usually, the harsh truth is the wider world can absorb the death of one man easily enough, no matter how important he might have been. The British rallying world, though, will feel McRae's absence very keenly indeed. It is not just that he was the first British world rally champion, it was the fact that he was a real enthusiast of, and ambassador for, the sport.

At a time when British drivers seem to be struggling to make any impression on the sport, he provided considerable assistance to a man I reckon to be amongst the best of them, Kris Meeke. The computer games which bear his name (and very playable they are too - Colin McRae Rally 2 helped me stay sane through my finals some years back) helped to introduce thousands of mainly young fans to the sport of rallying in a way that brings out much of its fundamental appeal. At a time when so many top racing drivers appear to be in it only for the money, and to consider the actual driving something of a chore, McRae was noteworthy for his willingness to run pretty much anything that took his fancy in local club events up and down the country. Over the years, I can remember him turning up in his own Metro 6R4, in a Mark II Escort and, at one demonstration, in his own home-built buggy. I can't see Fernando Alonso doing a sport in the Thoroughbred GP Series in an old Mclaren...

Six years ago, two British drivers vyed for the World Title in one of the most open and close fought world championship battles I can recall. It is a crying shame that neither man is with us any longer.

End Note - Neil over at Fastest Lap has done a particularly good piece on McRae - The Meaning of Legend which captures exactly why he will be missed.

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

Thanks for sharing how Colin touched your world, Patrick. I'm sure that your sentiments are shared by untold rally and video game fans throughout the world.

These things usually heal fairly quickly for people who didn't personally know someone who has passed away, but reading your post makes me just as sad as I was on Sunday. This is a really tough one to take...

4:05 PM  

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