‘If in doubt, flat out’ was his mantra and nowhere was that more evident than when Colin McRae was behind the wheel of a Ford. Here’s why.
Colin McRae, who was so tragically killed in a helicopter crash near his home in Scotland in 2007 (along with his son, Johnny and two family friends, when he was flying the craft), had no time to do anything slowly. Everything in his life seemed to be enjoyed at top speed, the toys had to be big, complicated, and fast, and his career reflected all of that. Maybe his top-line rally career was already over in 2007 when he was so cruelly taken from us, but there was still much enjoyable motorsport to be enjoyed.
Before he took up rallying, he had indulged in motorcycle trials and scrambles, but it was after watching his famous father win so well, and so stylishly, in rally cars that he took up that sport. He never let his rallying life be dull, and his sport was never tackled cautiously. Along the way he notched up an impressive total of crash bills, and seemed not to care how much this was sometimes costing his employers, an attitude which eventually weighed against him.
The first time I saw Colin McRae on a British rally, he was picking tree branches out of the bodywork of his battered Vauxhall Nova, the second time he was doing the same to a Sierra RS Cosworth, and the third …. well, why do you think that his long-standing nickname was ‘McCrash’? David Sutton once described Ari Vatanen’s progress as ‘Crash, win, crash, win…’ — and Colin was like that too. Although, like Ari, Colin matured (and became a hero to millions of rally fans), in many ways that sequence was rarely broken.
Colin was the eldest son of five-times British Rally Championship winner, Jimmy McRae who, along and against Russell Brookes, had dominated British events during the 1980s. It was when Jimmy was at his peak, driving works-blessed Ford Sierra RS Cosworths, that in 1986 Colin (then only aged 18) started out in the Scottish Rally Championship in a Talbot Sunbeam, soon turning to a Vauxhall Nova with help from DTV.
Ford, who had Jimmy McRae on long-term contract, then decided to encourage Colin too, providing a Group N Sierra RS Cosworth for the British Rally Championship (where it struggled, and often crashed), but his most astonishing performance was to take fifth overall in New Zealand in D933 UOO, an ex-works Group A Sierra (on an event where four-wheel-drive cars were already considered essential). Ford, still indulging him, in spite of his frequent costly crashes, then gave him full backing in 1990, where he started the year in a rear-drive Group A Sapphire Cosworth, and ended it in a Sierra Cosworth 4×4.
Although he took second place overall in the British Rally Championship of that year (a seven-event series in which he had one victory, two seconds and two third places), his first Ford works car came to an end immediately after he had badly damaged yet another Sierra Cosworth 4×4 in the RAC rally. Although he took sixth place at the end of the event his car was really a rolling write-off after a typical excursion, and Boreham seemed relaxed when they heard that he had turned to Subaru (and Prodrive) where he would stay until 1998
To be honest, it was at Subaru that he firmly cemented his relationship with the British rallying public. Not only did he win the British Championship twice in four-wheel-drive Legacies, but he began winning at World level, using steadily-improving Imprezas .
Not that his demeanour, nor his treatment of his cars, improved in that period, for although he became World Rally Champion in 1995. and finished second in that Championship in 1996 and 1997, he was often add odds with his team management, with his team-mates (in particular with Carlos Sainz), and even in the car, where he dumped co-driver Derek Ringer in favour of Nicky Grist in 1997.
His demands on the team and, coincidentally, his financial demands on Prodrive, eventually led to them releasing him at the end of 1998, by which time he had already concluded a mega-contract with M-Sport and Ford, where he was made team leader at a then-colossal fee
of reputed £3 million a year. You may be sure that Martini, which was the headline sponsor
of these cars, had to spend much of their budget on him!
No matter, the financial outlay was seen to be worth it, for by grappling with the new Focus WRC, he startled everyone by winning the 1999 Safari and Portugal events, these being only the third and fourth events ever tackled by the complex four-wheel-drive car.
Nevertheless, Colin always seemed to be hard on his cars, expecting them to put up with his methods, and expected the team to put up with his sometimes sullen temperament. When things were going well he could reputedly be the best of hosts, and the soul of any party, but when the gloom descended (which it sometimes did) he was better avoided.
Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport organisation, which loved him because of his unstoppable ambition to win, and to keep a battered car going, rose above this as the car kept on improving. Colin was always on the pace until or unless the Focus WRC let him down, which it often did in 1999, for there were 11 retirements in that first year, three of them due to crashes — but whenever and wherever he appeared in the Focus, he set standards and — usually — fastest times.
His second season with the M-Sport Focus (2000) was so typical of his flamboyant career at Ford. Having started all 14 World Championship rounds, he won twice (Spain and Greece), and took second on three occasions, but his cars suffered four engine failures (Cosworth were not best pleased) and had two big accidents. He was apparently so unhappy about this that he threatened to leave at the end of the year.
Things got much better in 2001, when he won three World events, all three on the run -— Argentina, Cyprus and Greece — and amazingly there was only one accident, in front of his adoring fans in the RAC rally at the end of the season.
Even so, Colin always seemed to give everything to his sport, and his employers and, in fact, for Ford he came close to death after a high-speed crash in Corsica in 2002, which left the car upside down in the trees and below the level of the road, with him trapped inside and fuel dripping on to his overalls. It was a miracle that co-driver, Nicky Grist was able to get out of the wreck and summon help.
Even so, and to the very end of his Ford career, he was the darling of the national and motorsport press (like Nigel Mansell, they didn’t necessarily like him as a man, but he certainly provided many good headlines). It was especially a great thing for his personal publicity, especially as the media encouraged the myth of his rivalry with Richard Burns (for the two were friends, and thought the idea of a feud laughable). With a total of 25 World victories and many other podium placings, one can see why.
Bargaining on his worth to the sport, Colin soon became rallying’s richest driver, and because more than 10 million copies of the PlayStation Colin McRae Rally video games were sold, he wisely became a tax exile in Monaco for some years.
Even so, it was financial demands which eventually forced him out of Ford at the end of 2002, and he was never happy, nor successful, with Citroen in the following year. After he lost his Citroen contract after only one season, there were no other substantial rally offers, and because of his known character, he found it impossible to gain any further works drives.
Apart from dabbling with the design of a new clubman rally car, the McRae R4, which he personally demonstrated at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2006, a one-off drive in the Le Mans 24 Hour race, and the commissioning of an ultimate Mk2 Escort, his motorsport career was effectively over.
Words Graham Robson
Read the full story of the Ford career of Colin McRae in the Summer 2016 issue
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