Colin McRae’s death this weekend has left the motorsport world mourning one of its most loved characters. McRae, the 1995 World Rally Champion, was killed when his helicopter crashed on Saturday afternoon.
There are not many people in sport who can be considered genuine legends but Colin McRae is one of them. He is not only just a hero of the rally scene but of motorsport in general. He was as spectacular as he was quick, and his good sense of humour made him a popular figure both inside and outside the car. No other rally driver has inspired or captured the imagination of so many people as Colin McRae.
He will be remembered as one of the most talented and most respected drivers the world has ever seen.
Part of McRae’s enormous popularity was due to his ‘win it or bin it’ style. He could drive faster than anyone else on the planet, but in doing so would push himself and his machinery to the absolute limit. This was evident in all of his twenty five rally victories but also in his many spectacular accidents. When McRae was able to tame his flair into outright pace he was unbeatable, but often paid the price for his speed with self inflicted retirements.
His driving was always exciting to watch.
Colin McRae became the youngest ever man to win the World Rally Championship in 1995 when he took victory for Subaru. He went on to finish runner-up a further three times and looked certain to win in 2001 until he crashed during the very last rally of the season. He has also competed at Le Mans and in the Paris-Dakar Rally.
It was not McRae’s achievements that made him such a legend, but how he accomplished them.
His 1995 Championship was secured at the final round of the year in front of his home fans. Halfway through the season he was thirty points behind teammate, Carlos Sainz, but fought back into title contention with two events remaining.
In the first of those two rallies, Sainz was leading McRae by a slim margin when team management ordered both drivers to slow and hold position. Subaru boss, Dave Richards, figured it was not worth either of his championship contenders crashing whilst fighting each other for the win.
McRae was furious at the prospect of slowing down for his teammate, especially when the title was at stake, but he was a gentleman and a team player. Colin set some blistering times just to remind everyone that he should be challenging for victory before slowing down and handing the win to Sainz as ordered.
McRae used the experience for motivation and at the final round he was in devastating form. He dominated the British event to win by over thirty seconds. What made this all the more incredible is that he suffered a puncture on one of the longest stages and had to claw back a deficit of two minutes. It was arguably McRae’s most impressive victory and it was a very fitting way for such an exciting driver to win the World Championship.
He was, without question, one of the greatest rally drivers of all time.
There are quite a few people that believe McRae would also have succeeded in Formula One had he been given the chance.
In 1996 British American Tobacco were sponsoring Subaru in the World Rally Championship along with Jordan in F1. They arranged a publicity stunt with Jordan’s Martin Brundle, who would swap machinery for a day with Colin McRae. It was nothing more than an opportunity to get a bit of exposure for Bensons and 555, but McRae was revelling in the chance to get behind the wheel of a Grand Prix car.
He drove 25 laps around Silverstone and set a time that would have seen him comfortably on the grid for that year’s Grand Prix. He was just two seconds off Martin Brundle’s pace which is amazing after only his first short attempt in the car.
To put that into perspective, Mika Hakkinen drove the McLaren F1 car at Barcelona in November last year. Hakkinen won twenty Grands Prix in 165 attempts, with three of those victories coming at the very Barcelona track he was driving.
Mika completed 79 laps but could only manage a time three seconds off the pace.
Colin’s efforts at Silverstone were awesome and he knew as well as everyone watching that he could make it in Formula One.
For a brief moment it looked like that might actually happen. McRae left Subaru and joined Ford in 1999, at which point the Blue Oval were supplying engines to Stewart Grand Prix. Ford were keen to get as much out of their investment in McRae as possible and set about putting him in one of their F1 cars to generate a bit of publicity. Others within the company saw this as an opportunity to value McRae’s worth to their F1 program because they believed he was the real deal.
Ford’s Martin Whitaker said at the time “This test is not for fun. Colin is streets ahead of F1 drivers in terms of being a complete driver. You could put him in any car and he would be quick.”
Unfortunately the planned test never went ahead, probably because McRae had too much to lose in switching from the World Rally Championship. Despite this, no one doubted Colin when he said “If I am committed, there is no reason why I couldn’t drive in F1.”
Great drivers are always great, regardless of what they’re sitting in. That is why Colin McRae is so popular throughout so many forms of racing and why his loss is so significant. His skill transcended rally driving.
A sign of the respect throughout motorsport for Colin McRae is that Valentino Rossi dedicated his victory at this weekend’s Portuguese Moto GP to him.
“Colin McRae was very important for me. He was one of my great idols when I was young. I always followed him because he was the Kevin Schwantz of the rally cars. He gave me a lot of passion for that sport; always a great show, sometimes some mistake, but always very fast. Yesterday he died in the helicopter, but I dedicate this victory to him.”
Current Renault Formula One driver, Heikki Kovalainen, was also a fan of Colin McRae growing up and spoke very eloquently about his feelings this weekend at Spa.
“His driving style and his way of even living was what captured people’s imagination. He was really daring, always pushing it further. I always liked his attitude. It was maximum attack always and he had some big rolls sometimes. Every time he had one, though, it was like: ‘Oh well, it’s just a roll’, and he just carried on. That’s what people will remember and that’s why he captured so much attention. He was a real character, a real racer. It goes beyond racing. I think he is the most well-known rally driver in the whole world because of his big accidents, or his attitude. The first time I met him was the Rally Finland in 1995, when he rolled his Subaru twice. I went to ask for his autograph, and I still have it.”
The sentiments of Kovalainen and Rossi have been echoed the world over.
Colin McRae is a legend who will never be forgotten.
Perhaps McRae’s close friend, David Coulthard, put it best when he said “Colin was a remarkable man who wore his heart on his sleeve and was the epitome of a racer; fearless and attacking, yet he remained true to his roots and grounded despite the international fame and recognition that he achieved. The world is a sorrier place without him.”
Colin McRae is survived by his wife Alison, and daughter Hollie.