Unlike most champions, Richard Burns had no family background in motorsport whatsoever. His earliest experience of driving came from parking the cars of friends of his parents when they came to visit, and later he joined the ‘Under 17 Car Club’ close to his home town of Reading in England: a unique club that allowed youngsters to gain experience of driving cars, off the public road. From there, he never looked back. He built his first rally car in his garage at home – a Talbot Sunbeam – and was soon spotted by Peugeot, after winning the ‘Peugeot Challenge’ in a Peugeot 205. That led to his first factory drive, and it wasn’t long before he was signed up to legendary rally firm Prodrive, which was beginning to enter cars in rallying for Subaru, including a British Rally Championship campaign using the Legacy. Burns won that championship in 1993, becoming his country’s youngest-ever national champion. And that was his passport to the world stage. Burns wasn’t like many other rally stars: he was quiet and almost introverted, especially in his younger days. But he had a single-minded focus and commitment to succeed that would take him all the way to the top.
Richard Burns came into Subaru as the understudy to Colin McRae, taking his first WRC podium on the 1995 RAC Rally: the event where McRae became the sport’s youngest world champion. But Burns soon grew tired of that role and saw Mitsubishi as an up-and-coming team that would give him space to grow. He moved to the Japanese squad in 1996, but despite a second place on the 1997 Safari Rally, his first WRC win wouldn’t come until 1998: also on the legendary Safari. Apart from his home Rally GB, which he won three times, Safari was the only event that Richard won more than once out of his 10 WRC victories – an indication of how his smooth and almost balletic driving style made life easy for the cars he drove. Richard was an artist behind the wheel, making it look almost effortless.
After winning the 1998 Rally GB with Mitsubishi, he was back at Subaru in 1999 to replace McRae – who had moved to Ford in a multi-million dollar deal. Richard’s return was instantly successful, and he finished runner-up in the world championship both in 1999 and 2000. But in 2001, he finally achieved his ambition of a lifetime, winning the world title at home on Rally GB, in his Pirelli-equipped Subaru. As he famously remarked to co-driver Robert Reid as they crossed the finish line of the final stage: “You’re the champion of the world!”
Yet Richard’s title was won under strained circumstances. Richard had already signed for Peugeot in 2002 and there were doubts as to whether or not his contract allowed him to. In the end, Richard got his wish and he was in a 206 WRC for the next two years. But he never quite gelled with the pointy little machine, which was sometimes at odds with his languid driving style. “I feel like I’m sitting on the car, not in it,” was how he described it once. Despite leading the championship and scoring plenty of podiums, Richard never won a rally in a 206. And perhaps there was a reason for that. On his way to the 2003 Rally GB, Burns blacked out while driving his Porsche, meaning that he would never drive a rally car again. After a series of tests, it was confirmed that he was suffering from an astrocytoma: an aggressive form of brain tumour. Incredibly, he fought it bravely for two long years, succumbing to the illness on the exact fourth anniversary of his championship win. Had it not been for that, he would almost certainly have won at least one more title with Peugeot, while for 2004 he had already signed for Subaru again, which had just won the driver’s title with Petter Solberg…