Colin McRae was a driver that was wired to compete at eleven tenths, willing to take risks that others weren’t, always getting the most out of every car he drove.
But what made him a legend – wasn’t what he did, it was how he did it. Driving every stage with the iconic motto – ‘If in doubt, flat out’.
However, these risks often landed him in trouble – gaining a reputation for crashing a lot, costing him two World Rally Championships and ultimately playing a part in his tragic death.
This is the story of why Colin McRae was one of the world’s fastest drivers, but ultimately never fulfilled his ultimate potential.
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Thanks to SimpliSafe for sponsoring this video – now back to the rallying.
Colin first showed off his flamboyant driving style in 1991, he’d just won the Scottish Rally Championship and made his debut in a Vauxhall Nova.
It was an extremely underpowered car, that he thoroughly out-performed, earning him results that the car really didn’t deserve. Seriously, he was beating Sierra Cosworths and Peugeot 205s, which were the cars to be in at the time.
His pace got him noticed, and in 1991 Prodrive signed him to their eventually iconic Subaru programme. Where he won the British Rally Championship two years in a row in their Group A Legacy.
This success lead Subaru to enter the World Rally Championship in the following year, with Colin as their star driver. This was the first time Colin’s innate need to be flat-out, was shown to the world – where in the Lombard rally, only 25 seconds into the run – he put the Subaru into a ditch.
The fans actually helped push him out and he kept running, starting the trend of Colin finishing stages in completely battered cars.
Later that same year, in Finland he rolled the car 7 times – in one of his biggest accidents. But the car landed on it’s wheels again – so Colin immediately restarted the engine and pushed on – only to roll the car again a few minutes later.
Now, Subaru knew that McRae was always at full throttle, they took the approach that it’s easier to reign in someone at 110% than to get someone from 90 to 100.
It wasn’t clear that they ever did reign him in.
In 1993, in New Zealand Rally, Colin rewarded their confidence by winning his first event, making him the first British WRC winner for over 17 years and giving Subaru their first too.
Now Colin’s ability to extract the most from the car was down to his very flamboyant driving style – entirely committed and carrying more speed through the corners by quite simply leaving no margin – absolutely no room for error.
This meant he would use all of the track – and more. Often Nicky Grist, his co-driver would call ‘no-cut’ in the pace notes – only for Colin to cut the corner anyway.
In 1994, Subaru brought a host of changes to the team. Firstly they replaced the Legacy, with the now-iconic Impreza.
They also signed Carlos Sainz Senior, yep this guy’s dad, as his teammate. He was a double world champion and a formidable competitor. This was part of Subaru’s plan, to build their team to compete with the likes of Toyota and Ford – who were streets ahead at the time.
The fight came to a head in 1995, where Colin and Carlos were miles ahead of Toyota and the other competition. It was an all-Subaru fight for the title.
The two personalities in the team couldn’t have been more different. Carlos was calculated and consistent, whereas Colin was committed, but often took it took far.
Over the season, Colin had the pace over Carlos, but two crashes in the first two rounds had put him behind.
With 3 rounds left, the points were tied and things were heating up. Colin was pushing as hard as ever, trying to win his first world championship, and Subaru were, understandably, worried about a crash.
After all, they needed both cars to finish well to win the Constructors championship.
David Richards, the Team Principle made the brave choice of calling team-orders. He ordered Colin to slow down and remain behind Carlos.
However, it became clear, after Colin pulled 15 seconds ahead, that he was not going to slow down.
Subaru engineers even jumped in the way of the car to try and slow McRae down, only for Colin to keep the throttle pinned and narrowly miss them.
He was a man that could only drive at 110%. But Subaru made Colin take a time penalty to preserve the running order – with the threat of otherwise being out of a job.
This gave Carlos the win at his home rally and left the standings tied for the final round in Great Britain.
Here, Colin had early mechanical issues and lost 2 minutes to Carlos. Only motivating him more, he drove flat out for the remaining stages. In an incredible drive, he gained back his two minutes, as well as 36 seconds on top.
He was the first ever British WRC Champion in 1995, leading Carlos Sainz and Richard Burns – a Subaru one, two, three.
In the following two seasons Colin struggled, coming 2nd in 1996 behind Toyota’s Tommi Makinen. Not to mention, Tommi absolutely dominated the next four years, winning four drivers championships in a row.
The varied success lead Colin to make a big-money move to Ford in 1999. It made him the highest paid rally driver of all time. However, it meant stepping out of the rally-proven Subaru – into a new, and ultimately unproven Ford Focus.
It was lacking in pace and reliability. But the problem was made worse by Colin over-reaching what the car was capable of, frequently rolling the Ford and wrapping several of them around trees. He finished only 3 of the 14 rallies in 1999.
But this ‘win or bust’ approach was what made him a fan favourite. He didn’t always win, but he always pushed for the win – even if the car wasn’t capable of it.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Colin got his Focus up to speed. Where after failing to score in the first four rounds, he then won consecutively in Argentina, Cyprus and Greece.
It meant that he caught up with Richard Burns in the title race, and went into the final round one point ahead. Burns in the Subaru and McRae in the Ford.
All he needed to win the championship, was to beat Burns. Many would have dialled back and driven a slightly safer race – however, McRae wasn’t wired for this.
Once again, he ignored a ‘don’t cut’ from Nicky Grist. He hit a small hole that upset the car and sent it into a violent flip.
You just need to look at Nicky to see what that meant.
That was his last real chance at a title, and two years later he retired from the WRC.
He did go on to succeed in other areas of motorsport. He came third in the GT1 class at Le Mans in 2004, completed the Paris Dakar rally twice, and even designed his own purpose-built rally car.
He tested a Jordan Formula 1 car and also competed in the X-games event in the US. Where, after being really fast, he awkwardly landed from a jump and rolled the car. He got it going again, actually downshifting while upside down, and got the car across the line. Travis Pastrana only beat him by a tenth of a second.
It seemed there was much more to come, but it was cut short.
On the 15th of September 2006, Colin’s helicopter crashed only 1 mile from his home, killing Colin, his 7-year-old son and two family friends.
Ultimately he was a driver that lived at 11 tenths. It’s what lead to his success in rallying and some of his near-misses too. However, it was what gave him such an appeal to the fans, inspiring rally fans – including myself – across the globe.
He was an incredible rally-winner, but not so much a championship winner. The slightly conservative risk-management side of racing just wasn’t in his blood. It was either a win, or a DNF – and that’s what made him great.
You should check out this video where we break down one of the greatest eras of rallying, the Group B monsters. Thanks again to Simplisafe for sponsoring this video and I will catch you in the next one.