Friday | 22 Oct 2021

Richard Burns – supreme professional, ultimate fighter

Richard Burns didn’t have time for skiing when growing up. He wasn’t interested. Gravity, as he saw it, was no replacement for displacement. He was all about cars and making them go faster.

As his twenties turned to his thirties, Burns moved to Andorra. Surrounded by mountains and folk using them, the time had come for him to start skiing.

As you’d imagine for one with an innate understanding of balance and a feel for speed, progress was made quickly. The difference for Burns, however, was at either end of a day on the mountain.

For most of us, preparation for a day’s skiing goes no further than making sure you’ve got your lift pass and a mid-morning chocolate bar. Once done, skis, boots and poles are dumped en route to the bar, a beer and the instant recollection of how big that jump was, how cool the carving looked.

That wasn’t Burns. The day’s skiing was bookended by some incredible preparation of the skis. Edges were sharpened, skis were waxed to the level of a professional downhill skier. When it came to the equipment, everything had to be right. Nothing would be left to chance.

That was Richard.

Burns' keen attention to detail was rewarded with the 2001 world title

And it always had been. Rewind to 1990 and his first season in the Peugeot Challenge – a one-make series in Britain – and his 205 GTI was always, without fail, the most beautifully prepared car to cross the start ramp.

That attention to detail was part of his character, but it was furthered when he met David Williams. Williams was a member of Craven Motor Club in Reading and it was there that he first met a tall, slightly awkward-looking red-headed youth called Burns.

Having watched Burns on some events, David was immediately struck by his potential and his pace. He wanted to help. A team was formed. A team that would take Burns out of Berkshire and place him on the very top of the world.

“I remember when we were running the Peugeot 205 in the Challenge,” said Williams. “I’m a real stickler for everything being done correctly. We didn’t have a lot of money, we certainly didn’t have the biggest budget, but what we did have was a bunch of people who believed in Richard’s potential.

“Richard didn’t have a job when we were doing the Challenge. He was working as an instructor at a rally school, but he wasn’t working in a full-time job. So I said: ‘OK, you work on the car then. You make this car perfect every time we go out.’ That was great for him."

“Every time the car came back from an event, it was stripped down and reprepared – Richard’s mechanical knowledge was coming then, but it was the detail where he was focused. He would repaint the wheels, inside the [wheel] arches, cut out and fit new mud guards every time.

“The car was so nicely prepared every time, word got out that we had two cars, which of course we didn’t, but people simply couldn’t believe this was the same Peugeot every time.”

Video teaser: Richard Burns - the making of a champion

That attention to detail out of the car was very much carried into the car. His level of professionalism was apparent from the very beginning.

Robert Reid joined Burns at the start of 1991, in time for a second season in the Peugeot Challenge and a second season of domination.

“I’d been with a few different drivers before joining Richard,” said Reid. “But it was quite clear very early on that Richard was different. There was a level of intensity and focus which I hadn’t seen and that was pretty incredible in a driver so young.

“We got on well in the car, but it wasn’t about us getting on and being best friends. Richard knew what he wanted from a co-driver and the pair of us just gelled straight away.”

In a 2021 FIA World Rally Championship season which has been marked by driver-co-driver changes, Richard and Robert’s story provides stark contrast (in the same way Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia’s does). The British pair worked together from 1991 to 2003, starting 103 WRC rounds together.

Progression was rapid with a British title lifted in 1993, having defeated fellow Prodrive junior team driver Alister McRae in a pair of Group A Subaru Legacys and Ford Escort Cosworth driver Malcolm Wilson.

That season established Burns as part of the Subaru World Rally Team. He was everywhere and anywhere. When he wasn’t driving a rally car, he was driving anything. Desperate to learn and to take experience from every aspect of the sport – that included working as Colin McRae’s gravel note crew.

When McRae celebrated his world championship on the 1995 RAC Rally in Britain, his team-mate Burns also allowed himself a smile. That same event marked his first ever podium in the world championship.

It was also his final outing in his first stint with Prodrive. For 1996, the Mitsubishi Ralliart team beckoned.

Having removed himself from McRae’s Subaru shadow, Burns started to really spread his wings and comparisons between the two British superstars weren’t slow in arriving. But much as folk tried to align the two, they couldn’t have been more different.

Reid is perfect placed to offer the comparison, having co-driven for McRae before he sat with Burns for the first time.

“Colin and I did a small Scottish round in a Mk2 [Ford] Escort,” said Reid. “I’d known Colin for a long time and when he was short of a co-driver for the Hackle [Rally] he called me and asked me if I fancied it. We won the event, beating lots of four-wheel drive cars in a fairly basic Escort.

“Colin’s raw speed was incredible and it was obvious right from the very start. Colin really went at it. Richard arrived at the same place, both were world champions, but he came in a different way.

“Colin got into cars and found the limit of the car very quickly, whereas Richard would build towards the limit. You can see that in the way their careers progressed: Colin took big wins, then had some fairly sizeable crashes. Richard built his speed and his experience in really quite a composed way.”

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It wasn’t long before the pair were head-to-head. And the pressure was never more intense than when they were competing at home.

The 1997 RAC Rally was probably the first event to be hyped as the ‘Battle of Britain’ as the media ramped-up coverage and personalised the fight for victory between the pair.

Ultimately, the record shows a third successive WRC home win for the Scot, but Burns served notice of his arrival as a force at the very front of the world championship with a staggering time through the Radnor stage on the English-Welsh border. Reid remembers it well.

“Radnor was the first stage of the second day of the event, the first proper forest stage,” he said. “It was dark going in there, but the biggest thing was the fog. Radnor goes up and over a hill and the fog was really dense in places.”

Typically methodical, Richard’s notes worked wonders and offered him a sixth sense of where the road was going.

Burns and McRae went head-to-head in a golden era for British rallying

“A lot of people would look at Richard’s notes and wonder how we could get so much detail in and whether it was all necessary. That stage demonstrated just how well the notes worked.”

While the rest of the field hesitated and struggled, Burns powered his Mitsubishi Carisma on to one of the best single stage performances in the history of the world championship.

Through a 16km stage, they were 17sec faster than nearest rival Bruno Thiry. They took a minute out of four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen. A minute and a half out of McRae. Two minutes out of Didier Auriol.

Fourth became first and a 25-second lead.

“That stage was Richard at his best,” said Reid. “He’d made the notes and he drove to them. He trusted in the process that we’d been through together and, even though he couldn’t see much beyond the end of the bonnet places, there was no hesitation. Just pure commitment.

“As a co-driver, you can feel in the car when a driver’s not confident in the conditions. You’ll feel them get on the brakes early, maybe have a couple of shots at the apex, nothing really flows in the car. The rhythm’s not there. It was there for us in Radnor.”

A puncture in Rhondda on the final morning dropped Burns to a heart-breaking fourth place. The win was gone. But notice had been served.

Video: Richard Burns - the making of a champion

Derek Dauncey was working in the management of the Mitsubishi Ralliart team at that time and he remembers the intensity of a Burns test.

“There are certain drivers, the likes of Carlos [Sainz] who have an incredible work rate and focus in testing,” said Dauncey. “Richard was like that. He was interested in everything and wanted to know everything what was going on. He really understood the car and wanted everything exactly right when he got into it.”

Anybody who watched Burns at a test understood this. He wanted a firm grasp on every aspect of every nut, bolt and gigabyte of data.

There’s a popular view that McRae was the polar opposite in testing. That’s not true. The difference is that he could very quickly get the car into a workable window for him to work his magic. And once he’d got the car there, he didn’t need to fettle it to the nth degree.

Burns did. And didn’t feel he’d completed his preparations until he’d done that.

Through the coming seasons, the Burns’ threat to McRae grew and grew. As did the rivalry. At least in public. Behind the scenes, it was a different matter.

The pair had enormous respect for each other and occasionally spent time together away from the rallies. But through the media, each was more than happy to stoke the fire at a pre-event press conference on the eve of a rally.

But once the event started, the tactics were always quite different. And potentially reflective of their careers in microcosm.

Burns won his home round on three occasions

“Colin was all about putting a marker down,” said Reid. “He wanted to get out there and show the opposition what he could do on the first stage. He would build an advantage from the very outset and then look to defend it. He was all about that big opener.

“Richard knew that, but that wasn’t his way. Of course, he’d push like hell from the first corner, but there wasn’t the same kind of push you’d get from Colin. We would build the pace and strategically build the attack across the event.

“The crucial thing in a fight with Colin was that you could never let him get out of sight. If he took off at incredible speed, you knew he had the potential to maintain that speed – albeit at an increased risk.

“A few times he pulled a big lead and then we were neck and neck for the rest of the event. I remember in Argentina in 2001, he took 22sec out of us in the first stage and eventually beat us by 26sec at the finish.”

That McRae tactic paid off handsomely and won the hearts of fans around the world, but it came back to bite him in Wales in 2001. Fighting Burns for the title, the then Ford man roared into an early lead with a breathtaking time through the first stage proper. Two stages later, it all went south with a spectacular crash in Rhondda.

Burns knew what he had to do. He drove his rally, finished third and levelled the world championship score at one apiece.

Burns had two spells with the Prodrive-run Subaru World Rally Team

His absolute focus on one goal – the title – remained with him throughout his career. Rally wins were nice, but it was the season-long craft of creating a way to wear the crown that really excited him. For McRae, the title meant plenty, but he also enjoyed the reputation for being the quickest of the quick.

Interestingly, at the height of his power, Burns scored more fastest times than anybody in 2000 and 2001 – although he and McRae did share that mantle in the ’01 season.

In 2003, now driving for Peugeot, he led the championship for nine rallies, only dropping back when his pace mysteriously dropped in Sanremo, Corsica and Spain. The reason for that became apparent when he collapsed on the way to Wales for the final round of the championship.

As that season developed, the potential for winning the championship without winning a single round was something which really interested him. He and Reid spent hours plotting strategy, how many points were needed, how to maximise the road position and how to achieve what most considered almost impossible.

Rally wins, championships, global glory was all fantastic for Burns, but it was his final battle that best demonstrated the tenacity, intensity and absolute focus of the Englishman.

Diagnosed with an astrocytoma in November 2001, the outlook was bleak. Burns listened to the experts, then forged his own path to battle an illness which medical professionals felt would take him far sooner.

That was Richard. The ultimate professional. The ultimate fighter.

• Photos courtesy of Prodrive

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