Cameron Gibson’s – McRae: Five years on

A few days ago marked the Five Year Anniversary of the death of Colin McRae. It still doesn’t feel right saying that. I still can’t quite believe it. However, sadly, it is fact: Colin will not return. But his spirit still lives on, often accompanied with the bark of a Boxer Engine, throughout the gravelly forest.

Colin was born in 1968 to a family rich in Motorsport success; his father, Jimmy, was five times British Rally Champion and his brother, Alistair is also a successful driver in his own right. It was not long till Colin started racing himself. As a young teenager, Colin raced bikes in Scrambles and Motocross events. He also competed in Autotest events aged 16 in a Mini. His passion for speed was clear to see, as soon as he was old enough to Rally, his father bought him a Vauxhall Nova in which he took the 1988 Scottish Rally Championship win.

Even at that relatively young age, Colin showed not only promise, but the drive, passion and talent to become a successful driver. Once, he even beat Stig Blomqvist at the Swedish Rally. There was more to Colin than just sheer talent and drive, he had the ability to jump into any car and drive it with rally winning pace. From Novas, Sierras to his later Subarus and Focuses.

 McRae tamed the Sierra RS Cosworth.

With his amateur rallying career soaring, thanks to the Sierra RS Cosworth, he caught the attention of Subaru Team Boss, David Richards and in 1991 McRae signed a contract to be a Team-Driver for Richards.

Prodrive and Subaru

The signing of McRae was only the start for Richards’ big plan for Subaru and the Prodrive team. Subaru gave McRae a Legacy RS, and in an instant the pair became almost unstoppable. The Legacy was very advanced for the time; a flat boxer engine, ideal weight distribution and intelligent differentials showed promise. However, despite these technological advances, it did not tame Colin’s flamboyant driving; McRae rolled his the night before the stage, during which he rolled it again. Twice. This news annoyed Richards, but the Finns (and everyone else) loved it.

The Subaru Impreza

After the Legacy’s victorious swansong it was replaced by the iconic Impreza. Prodrive was given free rein to develop the Impreza. Development was helped along by David Lapworth. The spec sheet certainly looked promising. Its distinctive Boxer engine gave more power than previously; thanks to an uprated Turbocharger and a bigger, repositioned Intercooler which was fed directly by the bonnet scoop. The cylinder heads were angled narrower than previously too. Net power gain: 300bhp, fed to all four-wheels. There was many different Impreza’s raced by Colin: From the ‘555’ car, the pretty ’97 WRC and finally the ’98 WRC before McRae moved to Ford. All cars, regardless, were finished in the ironic Subaru Blue Mica Paint and ‘555’ livery.

 The ‘555’ Car

The legendary L555 BAT registration plate.

 Colin’s Subaru is now on display at Glasgow’s Riverside Museum.

The ‘555’ Car, named after the Sponsor and livery which adorned the car, registration: L555 Bat, was the car which Colin took to win the Wales Rally GB, and thus win the 1995 Title. Even now, I still get goosebumps thinking about it. It was such an iconic win. I watched it as a very small boy; frankly, at that age I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but something told me what I was witnessing was something very special. I didn’t know that what Colin was driving was a Subaru –it was blue, and loud, that’s it. But what I did know was that this man was something of a Hero. I watched in awe at his skill, and getting away with some very hairy moment and ultimately smashing the opposition. Colin was an inspiration to me. He showed no fear, every race he went for the win. His confidence, his trust in his car, his determination, and his talent was something to be admired.  Every time I Kart, I hope Colin is watching me from Heaven –he’s probably not, he’s busy- egging me on like I did for him.  

 McRae took the 1995 Championship win with Subaru.

Move to Ford

After the 1998 session, Colin moved from Subaru to Ford, under the stewardship of Malcolm Wilson. He was now racing the brand new Ford Focus WRC and had a new co-driver: Nicky Grist. The Partnership seemed to be working, with McRae winning his maiden Rally for Ford at the Kenya Safari Rally.

However, Colin being Colin, he wasn’t far from having a huge crash ending his rally. He was always dedicated and flat out. However, this approach sometimes ended badly; in 2001, for example, McRae and Grist crashed out in Wales, leaving their Focus looking more like a Pick-Up rather than a Rally Car.

Focus in rather a bad state after McRae and Grist’s horror crash in Wales.

Other teams and Motorsport

After his stint at Ford, Colin moved to Citroen partnered with Sebastian Loeb and Carlos Sainz. His drive at Citroen only lasted a year, due to a change in the regulations leaving teams having to field two cars.  Colin also raced for Skoda.

Away from the Rally Stage, Colin raced in the tough Paris-Dakar rally with Nissan, and competed in Le Mans in a Ferrari 550 fielded by Prodrive. He came ninth overall.

Upon hearing the news

I remember the moment. It came up on a News Bulletin: ‘Colin McRae has died.’  Those four words, simple, clear, concise, yet they stuck with me for days. How could it be possible? Colin. It was Colin McRae… the man who laughed in the face of danger often oversteering and kicking up some gravel for some added measure. It was not possible for him to die. He was immortal, even. He walked away from crashes and wrecks of so called ‘cars’ all the time. Expect, this time, he didn’t.

It was an ironic death, in a way, but also one which was bitterly tragic. As well as McRae himself, his young son, Johnny, and a family friend died too.

Colin’s death affected many people. His genius touched many people’s hearts, many people wanted to be him, simply put, McRae was an idol to thousands of people –not just in Scotland, but Worldwide. This was shown on his funeral day, when an estimated 20,000 people flocked to Lanark for his Funeral Service, and at the ‘McRae Gathering’ in 2008 where fans from all over attended to pay their respects. Most in his car: the Subaru Impreza.

In September 2008 the Colin McRae Forest Stages were held. This was an event I could not, sadly, attend. I wished I could have. Big names in Rallying raced to pay their respects to him. Those included were Ari Vatanen, Malcolm Wilson and his father, Jimmy McRae.

As I said earlier, five years on, it still doesn’t feel right. McRae taught us, his fans, much. But unlike how to perform a Scandinavian Flick, how to ‘Heel & Toe’ and how to decorate your Subaru, Colin more importantly taught us about life from how he lived his:

‘We’re here for a good time, not a long time.” –Colin McRae

 Colin McRae MBE. 1968-2007.


One response to “Cameron Gibson’s – McRae: Five years on

  1. A heartfelt piece Cameron, and one I completely concur with. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news as my reaction was similar to yours.

    Colin was the same age as me, and Johnny was the same age as one of my sons, which made it even more poignant.

    One inaccuracy that you may want to edit; one of Johnny’s friends was also sadly killed in the helicopter crash.

    On a high note though, his last few WRC rallys were in a Skodia Fabia and he got one into the top 10 before an time penalty in service disqualified him. One final time the ignominy of defeat was brightened by a preceding spectacular and passionate drive.

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