Friday | 28 May 2021

Colin McRae – a Scottish hero who claimed global stardom

Colin McRae was on his way to the press conference at the 2001 Rally GB. His brother Stuart had made a rare trip to an FIA World Rally Championship round and was in the car with him.

Approaching the media centre in Cardiff, Colin had some words of advice for Stuart.

“When we get out of the car,” said the older of the two, “follow me. And run.”

Stuart looked slightly bemused. “What? What do you mean ‘run’?”

The door opened and, in an instant, Stuart got an insight into Colin’s world.

“There were people everywhere,” said Stuart. “I couldn’t believe it. All these people were shouting his name and asking for his autograph. I wasn’t directly involved in the sport, but I came away from there thinking: ‘Oh, you are quite famous, aren’t you…’”

Any lingering doubt about Colin McRae’s popularity would be put to bed by a simple search of cyberspace. Type those two words into your favourite search engine and you’ll be offered close to six million results in six-tenths of a second.

As far as Google is concerned, McRae’s more popular than both the WRC’s superstar Sébs rolled into one.

How’s that? How come it’s Scotland’s Saltire that’s painted on the rocks and the road on the Fafe stage? And what makes a blue T-shirt with a yellow ‘MacRay’ (sic) fading fast – but still just about legible – such a popular choice in the South American hills above Cordoba?

McRae built his WRC career at Subaru before switching to Ford

More than 13 years since he died in a helicopter crash, the 1995 world champion remains an iconic figure in the sport of rallying. If anything, the Scot’s legend grows stronger year on year.

The McRae success story is multifaceted. In the mid-to-late 1990s, he became a household name. He fronted a Ford television commercial and helped to develop his eponymous computer game. But the foundations of Colin’s global recognition came from what he could do with a rally car.

Born as the son of five-time British champion Jimmy McRae, Colin cut his competitive teeth on two wheels, trials riding. That wasn’t a move which went down well in the Lanark family home.

“I wanted to keep him away from motorbikes,” said his mother Margaret. “I’d always rather he’d been in cars than on bikes.”

The move to four wheels came quickly, but in an unexpected form. These days, the likes of Kalle Rovanperä and Oliver Solberg are engaging ‘stage’ mode for the first time aged 14 in series such as the Latvian Junior category. Back in the early 80s, there were no such openings for an impatient McRae. Instead, he took to autotesting – a basic form of gymkhana.

“I was surprised at that,” said Jimmy. “I thought he’d be more keen to go flat-out on a motorbike than handbraking a Mini around cones in a car park.”

The 1985 West of Scotland Autotest title was testament to his ability on the handbrake.

“Colin wanted to go rallying,” said Jimmy, “that was all he ever wanted to do. And autotesting was a way he could start on that road at [the age of] 16.”

Colin McRae: 25 Years A Champion

Colin McRae: 25 Years A Champion

Celebrate the 25th anniversary of Colin McRae's World Championship title back in 1995 as he became the youngest ever world rally ...

Watch now

Beyond the natural ability, starting on bikes and between the cones helped to enhance the young McRae’s innate understanding of what a car was doing.

His swashbuckling speed was fabulous headline fodder for any number of stories which quickly found their way around the world once he took to the stages. A greater understanding of what made Colin tick involved looking behind the speed and the headlines.

“Colin was one of the smoothest most mechanically sympathetic drivers I ever worked with,” said M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson. “He drove a car beautifully without stressing the gearbox or anything unnecessarily.

“He was absolutely in-tune with the car. He was, of course, an incredibly mechanically minded driver. A few times when he was with us we saw him do some really impressive work on the car.

“When a driver really understands the mechanics of what’s going on around him, it really shapes the way they drive – you can see that with somebody like Ott [Tänak]. They have a smoothness with the car.

“It’s because of that ability that we could see Colin winning events like Greece or the Safari.”

The mechanically sympathetic side of McRae was a great aspect for the specialist press. But what plugged McRae into the mainstream was his raw speed and a never-give-up narrative which made for stories which live long in the memory.

Rally Argentina 1998 for example. After belting a rock with his Subaru Impreza WRC98’s right-rear in Mina Clavero, McRae emerged from the stage with the wheel wobbling around in the wheel arch. Most drivers would have lifted the radio and called the team to tell them they were going no further.

The Scot became the youngest drivers' title winner in 1995, aged 27

McRae lifted a rock and set about smashing the suspension link straight again before refitting the part. And then going fastest through the next stage in El Condor.

Oh, and before he even got to that bit, how had he managed to remove a wheel that had ultimately jammed itself firmly into the arch? He drove it down the road until the tyre exploded, freeing up the rim for removal.

Back in the 1990s the WRC was a different place. It was a time and a place which served Colin McRae very, very well.

Colin did things differently. He wasn’t a driver or a person who pursued the spotlight. Quite the opposite. But McRae’s normal was just a little bit more special. And when word got out about how he made the times he made, that just served to further the fever for a driver who was the first to transcend the sport of rallying.

Take, for example, an innocuous outing on the 1990 Hackle Rally in Scotland. There was no need for Colin to do the event, but his Uncle Hugh had offered him the use of his Escort.

There was nothing flash about the car, it was an un-arched pinto-engined Mk2. But it was an opportunity to drive through the Perthshire woods as fast as the car would go. Of course, McRae was in.

And so was his fellow Scot Robert Reid. Ironically, Reid would spend his co-driving career alongside McRae’s English nemesis Richard Burns. Regardless of what went on in the stages, McRae and Reid (and, ultimately Burns too) were firm friends. It was Reid who was being engaged for McRae’s WRC return in 2007.

“That rally included a really famous stage called Drummond Hill,” recalls Reid. “I was reading the map down a really fast stretch when I became aware, out of the corner of my eye, that Colin was moving around in the seat. Bearing in mind we were on the limiter in top, this was slightly unusual…

McRae scored an emotional first win with the Ford Focus at the Safari Rally in Kenya in 1999

“It dawned on me that Colin had slackened off his belts in order to lean across to my side of the car so he could see where we were going. It was absolutely lashing it down with rain and, at about 90mph, the wiper on his side of the car was lifting off the screen.

“That was Colin. He didn’t want to slow the car down and drop time, so he found another way to go fast. None of that was done for effect, it was just the way he was. And that’s part of the mass appeal for McRae. There was never any side to Colin, he was a completely normal guy. People could associate with him.

“People aren’t perfect in the everyday world, there are flaws, weaknesses and mistakes. Colin never shied away from any of those and that endeared him to the public. When you add to that appeal, arguably the most spectacular driver in the history of the sport, it’s little wonder that he genuinely did – and still does – transcend the sport.

“At the same time, he was a right pain in the arse when he beat Richard and I…”

McRae’s departure from Subaru to Ford at the end of 1998 not only made him the highest paid rally driver of his era, but it also moved him to the next level in terms of brand awareness.

Throughout the 1990s McRae and Subaru had developed and graduated to the world stage in tandem. But the move from a developing Japanese marque to one of the world’s biggest carmakers offered a further boost to McRae’s popularity.

He became part of the marketing strategy for the all-new Focus – a road car replacement for the ubiquitous Escort. To the lyrics of Des’ree’s You Gotta Be Jimmy and Colin demonstrated the sort of father-to-son Ford association and brand loyalty played out every day all around the world.

Except not always in a million-Euro Focus WRC.

Nicky Grist and McRae won 17 WRC events together

Just prior to that move to Ford, another multi-media deal was done with Colin to front a new rally game. There was, of course, nothing new about motorsport meeting the games console, but a racing format had been by far and away the most popular prior to the inception of Colin McRae Rally.

In 1997, the game was launched and, to put it bluntly, it went bananas. People loved it.

But McRae himself wasn’t entirely sure. He thought it could be improved. So he and co-driver Nicky Grist got more and more involved in the development of the game. Originally intended as a straightforward naming rights deal, soon McRae would be at the heart of improving the game play to add realism from his world to the living room of every wannabe Colin McRae.

And there were plenty of wannabe Colin McRaes. As the game progressed and evolved gamers and fans downloaded it by the million. And nowhere was it more loved than in America.

The real surprise Stateside came, however, when McRae arrived to compete in the X Games in Los Angeles. Televised live for the first time, the Scot brought America to its feet when he rolled a Subaru Impreza in the final – and had the car in first gear while it was still rolling. Fortunately, it dropped onto its wheels and McRae was away.

Ahead of that event, much of America had seen Colin McRae as some sort of fictional Lara Croft-type figure. But this guy was real. And very much the real deal – especially when you had American daredevil superheroes like Ken Block and Travis Pastrana citing McRae as their idol.

McRae was an all-action superstar of our world. SuperMac could make lines and times where others feared to tread. His 1995 world championship title should have been the first of many, but mechanical issues – not to mention the odd tree – stepped in and steered the crown in another direction.

But nobody in the sport has the longevity of appeal that Colin does. Arguably, he’s the only man in rallying who sports the true allure and attraction to be known by Christian name alone.

Video: Colin McRae - 25 Years A Champion trailer

Colin. You know who he is. We all do. And we always will.

Especially with the McRae dynasty continuing to a third generation with his nephew Max. Alister’s 16-year-old son is driving the family name forwards via a Ford Fiesta Rally4 in the Australian Rally Championship.

And, like his uncle, it’s anything with an engine and wheels for Max. And much as Margaret might like to keep her boys off bikes, boys will be boys.

Unlike Stuart, Alister has always been aware of his big brother’s fame. There was never any question of him shunning the shadow which Colin might have cast upon him – not when there was a private plane for Alister to bum a ride him in.

Rarely seen in the same machinery on the stages, Colin and Alister put that right when they went home and got on the bikes.

“The bikes were always the same and it was always a big race,” said Alister. I was slightly better than him on a bike and that always p****d him off… in a good way! There was a track on a farm just outside Lanark where we went to race the bikes for training.

“We did five laps and one time the pair of us were really at it. Four or five corners from the finish, we touched and both went down. I landed a wee bit closer to my bike and immediately tried to get back on it. Colin realised he wasn’t going to get to his bike in time, so instead of going for the bike he dived at my leg and grabbed hold.

“I looked down and he was lying on the ground saying: “You’re not going to beat me, Al!”

McRae kicks up the dust at the Acropolis Rally in Subaru's Impreza World Rally Car

Quoted in McKlein’s Just Colin book, former M-Sport technical director Christian Loriaux delivered another quality McRae tale, saying: “Colin was a free spirit. He was my big hero and still is. Colin could drive a good car fast, but he could also drive a bad car fast too.

“He could do some extraordinary things at times. It wasn’t just rally cars with Colin. I remember when we both bought Yamaha 450cc bikes and took them to a rally for a test. I’d had mine for a couple of months, but Colin’s was brand new, so I knew my bike better than he did.

“This was my chance to impress him. When we set off, I pulled a wheelie and held it in first and then second gear for about 50 metres. Just as I dropped the front wheel down, Colin passed me in third gear, on his back wheel. Then changed up to fourth. He’d been on that bike for less than five minutes. That was Colin.”

We all know McRae’s a big name. But how big? How famous?

Like most mothers, Margaret’s mighty proud of all her boys, but there’s only one of the three that she can tell her royal story about.

“Colin was waiting for a flight at Edinburgh airport,” said Margaret. “Colin was never one to arrive at an airport early, he hated waiting around for planes. Anyway, he was away to get a coffee or something when this big burly fellow came over to him and said there was somebody who wanted to meet him. Colin wasn’t sure, but the man was fairly persuasive, so in the end he said: “Aye, OK…” And off he went.

“That person was Prince William.”

By Royal appointment, the appeal of Colin McRae.

This article is part of a series of 25 stories that look back at the 25 years of the World Rally Car era, that will be published every Friday throughout 2021 on non-rally weeks.

Read more 25 Years news