Silverstone may be known almost exclusively for Formula 1 and other circuit racing events these days, but it has a bit of rallying history too: the venue played host to stages of Britain’s World Rally Championship round at the end of the 1990s.
This was a period in which rally fever was at its peak in the country after Colin McRae became its first World Rally Champion in 1995 with Subaru and Pirelli, while Richard Burns quickly joined him among the top drivers en route to repeating that feat in 2001, also on Pirelli rubber.
Silverstone first appeared on the route of the iconic RAC Rally (as it was still known then) in 1997. The centrepiece of its involvement was a specially built mixed-surface superspecial stage adjacent to the British Grand Prix circuit, very close to Stowe corner.
It was designed with the help of British rally icon Roger Clark, and the aim was for this short stage to be fan and TV-friendly, with two cars competing side-by-side in a simulacrum of racing. At just under two kilometres, it had only minor effects on the leaderboard but it was spectacular nonetheless, with features incorporating a jump and a watersplash.
Attempting to beat Tommi Makinen to the world title, McRae set the best time on its first usage in November 1997, tied with Finnish legend Juha Kankkunen. With Subaru and Pirelli once more, McRae would go on to win the rally, but he missed out on a second drivers’ championship by a single point by the end of it.
Featuring earlier on that first day of the 1997 event, before it headed to the Welsh forests, were two other stages on the Silverstone site, using parts of the racing circuit and access roads. This was doubled to four stages, plus the superspecial, for the 1998 edition, when the name also changed to the ‘Rally of Great Britain’ (although everyone still calls it the ‘RAC’). McRae would win three of those four regular stages at Silverstone, but engine failure later in the rally handed the win to Burns instead.
In 1999, Silverstone hosted three stages including the superspecial, which Burns won, now driving for Subaru and Pirelli. Not only that, but Burns would go on to claim his second of three consecutive wins on his home rally.
Over and out
That day turned out to be the last time that Silverstone staged the WRC, as from then on, all Rally GB stages have been held in Wales. Perhaps fittingly, the home of British motorsport became the scene of Burns’ final stage win on English ground. Two years later, he became England’s first and so far only World Rally Champion, adding to the rallying legend of Subaru and Pirelli.
The enduring tragedy is, of course, that neither of Pirelli’s two British WRC heroes is still with us, for reasons that had nothing to do with their rally careers. At the height of their battle, they drew an estimated million spectators to Rally Great Britain – from Silverstone to Wales and beyond. In terms of the number of people watching in person, Rally Great Britain was actually more popular than the British Grand Prix.
McRae and Burns were in reality good friends, but with such a high-level fight between them, it was inevitable that there would be some antagonism, expressed with varying degrees of vicious humour.
Burns, for example, probably didn’t have to look far for the culprit who somehow affixed a ‘baby on board’ sticker to the rear of his Subaru during parc ferme on one occasion. And McRae also used to occasionally call Burns up to bait him in the middle of the night, usually after a few refreshments had been taken.
“It worries me a bit,” observed Richard once, in mock seriousness. “After all, you only call up people who you fancy when you’re drunk. Do you think he’s got a thing about me?”
Colin did, for sure. But definitely not in that sense.
Just as McRae and Burns are gone, so too is the old rallysprint circuit at Silverstone. It’s now the site of the Porsche Experience Centre, which opened in 2008. So it looks like Silverstone’s rallying days are finally over.