The following is a shortened version of the report from that year’s RAC Rally - as Britain’s round of the FIA World Rally Championship was then known - written by world-renowned rally writer David Williams for Motoring News, the respected British weekly motorsport newspaper.
If this had been a boxing match, the referee would surely have called it off long before it reached its end. Rarely has a driver of Carlos Sainz’s calibre been so comprehensively outdriven for the duration of a World Rally Championship event. It was as though nearly every stage was the Motu, Colin McRae’s favourite New Zealand stamping ground. In a sport where 10 seconds has become a significant margin and minutes are, as McRae says “a lifetime”, the victor of the 1995 RAC Rally defied reason, and the odds, to make Spain’s double world champion - himself twice an RAC winner and perhaps the finest all-round driver the world has yet seen - look distinctly second-rate.
It was a historic occasion. McRae and co-driver Derek Ringer had not only become the first British world rally champions but they had seized the crown after a performance that will pass into rallying legend. With Subarus sweeping the first three places for the second rally in succession, it was a result that exceeded Prodrive’s wildest expectations. After a year of second-for-second combat, it had demolished the opposition.
Leg one: 19 November, 1995 The opening day produced losers rather than winners. Richard Burns was lucky not to join the former group as early as the first stage after bouncing off a reinforced straw bale and bending the link at the bottom of the steering column. Sainz was perhaps guilty of some over-enthusiasm in rupturing a radiator in the Chatsworth stage. He had broken not just the radiator but its aluminium protection.
Leg two: 20 November, 1995 Sainz could have been forgiven for querying McRae’s time in Hamsterley. His team-mate’s dawn assault on the muddy, awkward Durham forest left his opponents shell-shocked. How could he gain half a minute in 17 miles? After that stage alone, McRae possessed a 27s lead and an air of invincibility. While the lead might have disappeared in Pundershaw, he had struck a huge psychological blow.
The experts’ view had been that Hamsterley would be more difficult than the next stage, the 36.6-mile monster Pundershaw. While the latter is long, it’s fast and comparatively straightforward, whereas the former is a notoriously tricky forest, and run at first light to boot. On this occasion, the experts were wrong. Only one of the works four-wheel-drive cars survived 36 miles of Kielder without problem. McRae arrived first at the stage finish, in good order and two minutes ahead of Kenneth Eriksson, as scheduled. It wasn’t until he clambered out and stalked round to the boot that it became clear he’d clobbered a large, dome-shaped rock, right in the middle of the road and got a puncture. By the time he saw it, it was far too late to swerve. “We drove for maybe 10 miles, but the tyre went soft,” he said.
Sainz arrived hot on Eriksson’s heels, but in serious trouble. The Subaru had started overheating around the halfway mark and, after the radiator breakage in Chatsworth the day before, the Spaniard feared the worst. “It’s maybe the gasket, or the head is bent,” he said darkly. The temperature had been “up and down, up and down”. He radioed his team at once, fearing the flat-four might not get as far as the service area at Falstone.
After Pundershaw, Sainz had vaulted into a handsome lead - an inspection had revealed nothing amiss with his engine - 1m14s ahead of McRae, while Eriksson had likewise dropped only one place, to third. It was a fair bet Colin could stay ahead of the lone Group A Mitsubishi, but catching the leader might be too much to ask. He thought otherwise. Puncture or no, he had every incentive to close the gap. As he said, it was “just as well” he had been so quick in Hamsterley.
McRae had torn 11s from Sainz’s lead on Broomylinn, four more on Wauchope, then two on Kershope. The latter stage must have given Sainz cause for hope and despair: McRae had driven half of it, 10 miles, with a badly damaged car after clouting a boulder on a rocky, regraded stretch.
If another stage had followed, rather than a service point, McRae might have been forced to retire. As it was, the crew had to work on the car themselves for 20m just to make it driveable down the M6 to Penrith. The third-gear impact had forced the front-right wheel back into the arch, twisting the lugs on the strut.
The next stage, Grizedale, has been unkind to McRae in the past, but this time it rallied to the cause, Colin’s remorseless charge netting another 18s on the pair of Lake District stages. Since Pundershaw, Sainz’s lead had shrunk from 1m14s to just 39s and, try as he might, his one hope of winning the rally and the world championship rested on McRae somehow beating himself.
Leg three: 21 November, 1995 Some wondered if Sainz was sandbagging, either driving tactically in the hope McRae’s dazzling car control might at last desert him. By mid-morning on day three, however, Sainz was a beaten man. There was no question of throwing in the towel, but he was powerless to escape his team-mate and title rival. “The only problem we have is McRae, but if we try any harder, probably we have an accident,” said Sainz’s co-driver Luis Moya.
The fact McRae was in trouble and that it appeared to make precious little difference served only to demoralise Sainz still further. McRae’s Impreza’s centre differential began to seep hydraulic fluid from the rearmost seal on the morning’s first stage, leading to a drop in pressure and deteriorating handling. To make matters worse, overnight rain had made the Welsh stages so slippery that McRae described progress at times as aquaplaning on a film of mud, placing traction at a premium.
The Scot lopped a further 18s from Sainz’s lead on Dyfant and Hafren nonetheless but, in dense fog in Brechfa, Carlos beat him for the first time since Pundershaw - by all of two seconds. Astoundingly, McRae devoured another 12s off the lead in less twisty Trawscoed. Sainz did well to lose just one second in Crychan, only to concede five more on the shorter test across the road in Cefn Llwydlo, which cut his lead to a mere five seconds.
Hafren, the final stage of the leg was deeply rutted in places after the morning run, particularly near the farm at the start and, as darkness fell, patchy but dense fog began to form. Apparently, it was just what McRae had wanted. By the end, he had thrashed Sainz by another 22s, exploding into the lead. Seventeen seconds wasn’t a large margin by any standards, but he knew that, in these circumstances, every second was worth 10.
Leg four: 22 November, 1995 If Sainz had pinned any hopes on the occasion overwhelming McRae, they were dashed almost before the last day of the event had begun. As usual, the crews arrived with plenty of time in hand at the service ‘in’ control, and Colin whiled away a few minutes by playing pool in the pub in Corris! The steam had gone out of the battle for the rally and the championship. McRae added a modest two seconds to his lead in Pantperthog, then 11 on the two stages in Dyfi. He had eased off from the start, and a cheery atmosphere had settled on Prodrive service points as they neared the ultimate prize. Colin was driving quickly enough to maintain concentration - which was vital in slippery conditions - but the nature of the task had changed: the fightback had become a take-no-chances matter of counting off stages to the finish.
The instant Colin McRae hurtled over the flying finish of the final stage, the cheering, singing and blaring of klaxons rang across the sunny but dripping Welsh hills. Clocaenog Forest has surely seen nothing like it. At that moment, McRae at last revealed a glimpse of the pressure piling on his shoulders. Opening the door, his first words were, “Thank God it’s finished.” Colin is habitually a quiet, even reticent man in public but, as he hugged his family and accepted the congratulations of spectators and fellow competitors, led by Sainz and Moya, the grin was worth any number of words.
Click here to find out how to buy McRae: Rallying’s most spectacular icon, which includes the full-length version of David Williams’ report on the 1995 RAC Rally.