McRae’s Rally GB legacy, a quarter of a century on
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We’re obviously biased but it’s pretty safe to say Rally GB in its various guises has hosted some of the sport’s more dramatic and significant moments over the years, not least for domestic talent. The punishing nature of the forest stages combined with often challenging weather make it a tough test for the drivers, while its traditional late-season billing means it’s often been the place where championships have been settled. Few more dramatic than the one 25 years ago this year when Colin McRae demonstrated his combination of grit, raw speed and burning ambition was about more than spectacular one-off wins.
“McRae’s style has since been celebrated for its win or bust drama but there was a
more focused and mature side to his character too”
The significance of this achievement was a huge one for McRae personally, of course, but also for the sport in this country and the culture, community and industry supporting it, given this was a British driver winning his home event in a car prepared by a British team using British expertise. Rallying has always been popular in the UK but, before McRae’s victory in the event the previous year, the last local driver to win the home world championship event was Roger Clark back in 1976. This was the perfect stage for McRae’s talents to shine on too.
The sixth place he scored in a privately entered Group A Sierra in 1990 might not have registered too highly in the championship battle but coming home ahead of the factory Fords demonstrated he had the talent to compete at the highest level. As Colin’s father Jimmy would have known only too well, it’s one thing to be a multiple national champion and another to make the leap onto the world stage. He’ll have realised Colin’s performance in 1990 was enough to merit the attention of Prodrive and offer a path to the WRC.
Whether he could have dreamed this would have resulted in a title within four years is another matter. As we all know the ride there was far from smooth. And, in some ways, McRae’s home win in 1994 was of near-equal significance, marking as it did a turnaround in fortune in a season where his future on the Subaru team was very much in the balance. Paired with a driver of Carlos Sainz’s stature and talent on a full factory team McRae was always going to be under scrutiny and, by mid-season, his erratic form was a cause for serious concern.
McRae’s style has since been celebrated for its win or bust drama but there was a more focused and mature side to his character too, evidence of this coming as he knuckled down with a repeat of the previous year’s maiden WRC win in New Zealand, victory in the non-WRC Australian rally and sealed with a triumphant finale in the Network Q RAC Rally of Great Britain, as it was then. Still only 26 years old, 1994 marked the point McRae’s youthful exuberance evolved into the maturity necessary to mount a title challenge against the best drivers of his generation. Even so, few would have expected this to have played out within just 12 months.
1995 was, of course, an incredible year in the WRC. The field was packed with multiple champions like Kankkunen, Sainz and Auriol but also featured up and coming names who would dominate the next 10 years, including McRae, Mäkinen, Grönholm and Burns. Nowhere was this overlap – indeed, conflict – between youth and experience more evident than on the Subaru team. Validated by his late-season surge and fame his home win attracted, McRae entered 1995 with a point to prove. Meanwhile Sainz, after coming second to Auriol in 1994, had scores to settle and Subaru’s ambitions to satisfy. And, with two titles to his name, a sense of entitlement he would be supported in his pursuit of both. In what looked like a repeat of the previous year McRae’s early stumbles and bad luck appeared to validate Sainz’s position and, by mid-season, it looked like the Spaniard was on course to achieve the titles both he and Subaru craved.
“With his smooth, studied style and analytical approach to pace notes Burns was a very different character inside the car to McRae, though his determination to win was no less strong”
What happened in the penultimate round in Catalunya has become part of rallying legend of course, McRae petulantly ceding to team orders to gift Sainz a home win, but not before demonstrating he was the faster driver on the day. With Toyota embroiled in scandal, both drivers reached Britain on equal points and it seemed certain Subaru was on for both manufacturer and driver titles. But which driver? In any other circumstances, the absence of Toyota and drivers of the quality of Kankkunen and Auriol from the final round of the championship might have tainted the achievements of whomever prevailed. It’s a measure of McRae’s charisma and the style in which he took the win that nobody ever raises that question.
Diminished field or not, McRae’s most fearsome competitors 25 years ago were both his own impetuousness and the formidable resolve and determination of one of rallying’s most consistent performers, on equal points and in
identical machinery. It may have been effectively a two-man fight by this point. But what a fight. With McRae’s performance in Catalunya in his mind and a contract to drive for Toyota next year in his back pocket (the team had yet to be disqualified at this point), Sainz will have calculated victory and a third title were no longer his by right. He was going to have to unleash that matador spirit and fight for it. And his Scottish teammate was going to make every brutal mile ahead a battle to the end.
McRae will have known he had a home advantage, both in support from the hardy fans lining the stages and in an appreciation for the unique demands of British forest stages across Northumberland, the Lakes and Wales. He’d made his name driving on terrain – and in conditions – like this. But could his temperament handle the pressure? By the end of day two it looked like Sainz’s experience was going to win the day, having mitigated the impact of radiator damage on the first day and capitalised on McRae’s puncture on the punishing 37-mile Pundershaw stage on the second to build a 39-second lead. Proof that the manner of victory can be as important as the win itself was to come in the Welsh forests the next day, the fact McRae ended it having taken the best part of a minute out of a driver of Sainz’s quality the icing on the cake. “I was up against one of the toughest competitors you could get,” said McRae in a characteristically reserved finish line interview. “It was never a certainty,” he admitted, before saying, “It seems a bit strange, I think it’ll take a couple of days to sink in.”
For all that apparent humility out of the car, McRae didn’t just win the rally and the WRC title in 1995, he dominated it and the iconic combination of a British winner in a Prodrive prepared Subaru would become as evocative to fans and the wider public as the successes of Clark and his Escort two decades previously. There was, of course, another British driver in blue and yellow overalls on the podium that day. Sealing that Subaru 1-2-3 alongside Sainz was a fresh-faced Richard Burns, an even younger talent who would himself find glory on the same podium. With his smooth, studied style and analytical approach to pace notes, Burns was a very different character inside the car to McRae, though his determination to win was no less strong. Following McRae’s third British win in 1997, Burns took the first of three successive wins here the following year, sealing the homegrown domination of the event throughout the 90s.
Third place in 2001 was meanwhile enough to seal the championship for that year and make him the first Englishman to win the WRC. In both life and death Rally GB held particular significance for Burns, his tragic early demise coming four years to the day after he took that title in Cardiff and simply underlining what a terrible loss that was to British rallying and the wider motorsport community.
Looking forward, there’s hope the event’s proven ability to launch homegrown talent into the big time may well play out again. Welshman Phil Mills was a four-time podium topper as Petter Solberg’s co-driver in the early 2000s and that achievement should not go unrecognised but it took until 2017 before another local driver was to taste success, Elfyn Evans taking a proud victory on his home soil and his first in WRC to repeat a previous success here in WRC2. Like McRae with Sainz at Subaru and Burns with Mäkinen for Mitsubishi, Evans proved himself here against a multiple champion as a teammate, beating that season’s title winner Sebastien Ogier into third place in the process. They’re now reunited on the Toyota team, where Evans has signalled his speed and intent with a second place in Monte Carlo, a win in Sweden and strong fourth in Mexico. Once again victory on home soil proves our domestic talent has what it takes to take on the world’s best in the WRC and any British driver who wins in Wales should be viewed as a potential future champion. 2020 will be remembered for different reasons and Evans has a long way to go yet.
But if he can triumph here again and carry that momentum forward we could once again see British rallying as springboard to global success.
“Like McRae with Sainz at Subaru and Burns with Mäkinen for Mitsubishi, Evans proved himself here against a multiple champion as a teammate”
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