20 years a champion: the legacy of Colin McRae

Sam Bisby

By: Sam Bisby

As motorsport legends go, Colin McRae set hearts alight wherever he raced and has gone down in history as one of the most iconic rally drivers in the discipline’s history.

The Scot hasn’t been with us since his tragic helicopter crash in 2007 that also took the lives of his son and two family friends, but with the 20th anniversary of his 1995 World Rally Championship title upon us, we’d like to look back on the legacy he left behind.

Early promise

From the off, McRae demonstrated true confidence in a rally car and immediately made a name for himself through his thrilling and fearless driving style.

Competing in the Scottish Rally Championship, McRae blitzed the field in his Vauxhall Nova (of all cars) to take the title in 1988. The Scotsman had already competed in the WRC at this point, tackling the Swedish Rally in ’87 in his humble Nova.

Upgrading to the more brutish Ford Sierra Cosworth in ’89, McRae achieved an impressive fifth placed finish at Rally New Zealand in the rear-wheel-drive Ford. In 1991, head of Prodrive and former rally co-driver Dave Richards signed McRae up for his first professional contract, with the newly instated Subaru driver paid off such trust, collecting the ’91 and ’92 British Rally Championship titles.

On top of the world

McRae was quickly promoted to the full WRC Prodrive team in 1993, partnering his idol and legendary rally driver Ari Vatanen and fellow Finns Hannu Mikkola and Markku Alen in a Subaru Legacy.

The Lanark-born racer took his first WRC victory that year at Rally New Zealand, a win that also marked the first of the newly formed Subaru World Rally Team.

It was just his third year in the WRC when he took his first and only world title in his superbly revered Impreza WRX. The whole ’95 season saw a straight fight between McRae and his two-time champion teammate Carlos Sainz, but the campaign started off miserably for the Scot, with McRae retiring in the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally and following Swedish Rally.

However, the third event, Rally de Portugal, McRae finished the race weekend in third to kick-start his season and in the remaining five races finished outside the podium just once.

Completing a hat-trick of wins at the Rally of New Zealand was a real turning point in the fight with Sainz, while the showdown at the season-closing RAC Rally of Great Britain with the Spaniard saw McRae finish less than a minute in front of his rival to win the event and take the championship by a slim five points.

Showcasing versatility

Following WRC stints with Ford and Citroen, McRae found himself being forced to look elsewhere to get his racing kicks. As a result, McRae pursued other interests that included both the Dakar Rally and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In January 2004, McRae made his Dakar Rally Raid debut with Nissan, achieving reasonable success by winning two stages and finishing the event - an achievement in itself. The Scot returned in 2005 and started strongly before crashing out at stage six.

Meanwhile, a reunion with Prodrive in 2004 saw McRae compete in the the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first and only time in a Ferrari 550-GTS, partnering fellow Brit Darren Turner and Swede Rickard Rydell. The trio managed a triumphant third-placed finish in the GTS Class and ninth overall, with many noting McRae’s adjustability to sports car endurance racing.

Mastering the virtual world

One of the most lasting legacies created by McRae’s exploits was the immensely popular Colin McRae Rally video games. Launched in 1998, the series amassed seven titles using the McRae moniker before it was dropped for the rebooted Dirt 3 in 2011.

The Colin McRae Rally games were known for being among the most realistic rally games to hit consoles and the PC, with the driver himself offering technical assistance as to how the cars should handle. Meanwhile, the games’ damage engine was particularly sophisticated.

Race of Champions and a fitting tribute

Representing Great Britain and subsequently Scotland, McRae featured in the Race of Champions with compatriot and former F1 ace David Coulthard in 2004, ’05 and ’06.

By the time the ’07 rendition of the competitive yet light-hearted event came around, McRae was unfortunately no longer with us.

ROC organisers Fredrick Johnsson and former rally competitor Michele Mouton were planning on celebrating the 20th consecutive ROC. However, given the death of McRae just three months previously, the two felt the event would be better marked as a tribute to the late rally star, a video of which we’d like to finish our own tribute off with.