Colin McRae picked up the motorsport bug from his father Jimmy, who only started rallying as a hobby at the age of 31 but became incredibly successful, winning the last of five British titles in 1988. By then, Colin was already making a name for himself in the junior ranks.
It was an impressive run to sixth place in a Ford Sierra on the RAC Rally in 1990 – complete with three stage wins – that earned McRae his big break and a phone-call from David Richards, the boss of Prodrive and the Subaru rally programme. In 1991, he dominated the British Rally Championship and even led the RAC outright for a few stages.
Richards decided his young Scotsman was ready for more World Rally Championship outings in 1992 and paired him in Subaru’s line-up with Ari Vatanen. In his previous life as a co-driver, Richards had guided Vatanen to the WRC crown in 1981, and knew as well as anyone about the Finn’s all-or-nothing approach behind the wheel. If he didn’t already see the same likeness in McRae, he would by the end of the season.
Second place on the snow of Sweden was an incredible start for McRae, but it was his adventures on Rally Finland that cemented his reputation for pushing the limits. On the fastest roads in rallying, he rolled his Legacy into the overgrowth on two separate occasions, yet somehow carried on to finish in eighth. It was this commitment that would earn McRae legions of fans all over the world.
In 1993, McRae claimed his first WRC victory in New Zealand: also the first and only win on the world stage for the Legacy. For 1994, Subaru introduced the Impreza and brought in two-time world champion Carlos Sainz as McRae’s team-mate. The two drivers had contrasting styles but became great friends as well as fierce rivals over the following years.
Read more: Long live the king
That rivalry came to a head in 1995 when they were fighting to win the championship.
During the penultimate round in Spain, Richards ordered his men to hold position – Sainz leading McRae – to ensure Subaru wrapped up the manufacturers’ title. McRae wasn’t so keen on the idea and overtook his team-mate. After some very public and heated discussions at the finish, McRae reluctantly checked in late so that Sainz won as intended.
Fired up, McRae defeated Sainz to win the RAC Rally and the title, becoming Britain’s first world rally champion. At 27, he was also the youngest ever champion: a record he still holds today. That title was won on Pirelli tyres.
In the following years he struggled to repeat that success, however, as Tommi Makinen and Mitsubishi stormed to four consecutive titles. Continued crashes didn’t help, and led Richards to replace his co-driver Derek Ringer with Nicky Grist. At the end of 1998, McRae left Subaru for Ford and a multi-million-pound deal to drive the new Focus World Rally Car.
For a driver with a reputation for panel damage, McRae developed a surprising mechanical sympathy that allowed him to win the very rallies that were considered most incompatible with his flat-out style. He won Greece’s gruelling Acropolis Rally five times and also conquered Kenya’s Safari Rally, firstly in 1997 and then most impressively in 1999, when he gave the Focus its maiden win in just its third event on the toughest rally of them all.
McRae’s best chance of a second WRC title came in 2001 in a ‘Battle of Britain’ against Englishman Richard Burns. McRae was leading the final round in Wales when he cut a fast right-hander and rolled, ending his hopes on the spot. In 2002, further wins in Greece and Kenya made him the first driver to reach 25 WRC victories, but they would be his last. Both McRae and Sainz were released by frustrated Ford bosses, and moved to Citroen where they were outshone by a young Sebastien Loeb. By the end of 2003, McRae was out of a drive.
Having started out in motocross, McRae loved driving anything fast with an engine. He once tested a Jordan Formula 1 car at Silverstone, and scored a podium in the GT class at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2004 in a Ferrari. He also tried the Dakar Rally and wowed America when he took part in the X Games: Firstly by actually existing in real life and not only in his hugely-popular computer game series, and secondly by rolling his Subaru off a jump.
McRae hadn’t finished with competition when his life was tragically cut short in 2007 after the helicopter he was piloting crashed near his home in Scotland. His son Johnny and two others also died. The news shocked so many around the world – perhaps because McRae had appeared so invincible in a rally car.
For many, he will always be the greatest rally driver that ever lived. He was certainly the most popular. And on the day that he would have been 52, we salute him. Forever our champion.
Shane Richmond is a technology writer and...