Colin McRae became Rallying World Champion 25 years ago

Credit: KENDALL

Jimmy McRae tells a great story about his son Colin’s first rally in 1985. “My wife Margaret and I were on holiday at the time,” he says. “Colin didn’t actually tell us he was doing it. It was only about a week after he passed his driving test. He was 17. Somehow he had persuaded the Coltness Car Club boys to put a gearbox in a Hillman Avenger so he could enter the Kames Stages, which is based at Kames race circuit [in East Ayshire].” 

McRae laughs at the memory. “I only found this out recently, but they didn’t even have a tax disc or MOT for the car! They took the number plates off an Avenger estate, and the tax disc and put it in the windscreen. It was totally illegal. You got away with that kind of stuff back then. But it just shows… nothing was going to stop Colin.”

Indeed not. Ten years later – 25 years ago to this day – Colin McRae became Britain’s first FIA world rally champion. He was 27 years and 109 days old. Rallying’s youngest ever. Arguably there has never been anyone like him before or since.

It is difficult to imagine now – particularly in this time of Covid-19 and national lockdowns – but an estimated two million fans lined Britain’s forests to watch the 1995 RAC Rally title, which ended with McRae being crowned at Chester racecourse. 

McRae Snr, a five-time British Rally Champion himself, remembers the event like it was yesterday. “I actually can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” he says. “I mean, I can remember when I started rallying, and I’m 77 years old now. That was 52 years ago. So Colin’s title feels like yesterday to me.”

Jimmy McRae remembers the day has son became champion like it was yesterday

Credit: Stuart Nicol

McRae Snr recalls every detail. Making his way from Tatton Park in Cheshire, up to the Scottish Borders, down through Yorkshire and then to Wales. “The rally wasn’t all in Wales back then,” he notes. “It was a fair old trek.” He remembers standing with his wife at the end of the final stage in Clocaenog, listening in on a two-way radio. “There was no looking at your mobile phone to find out the stage times back then. You were very much relying on what you could see and hear. When we heard the flat-four engine coming we thought ‘He’s on time, he’s on time!’ So many fond memories.”

Subaru team-mates McRae and Carlos Sainz, driving the iconic blue Impreza, had started the week tied at the top of the championship after controversial team orders forced the Scot to gift victory to the Spaniard at the penultimate round in Spain. A puncture saw McRae and co-driver Derek Ringer fall behind but they fought back to win by 36 seconds and secure the title by five points. 

Colin McRae competing at the Cyprus Rally back in 2003

Credit: AP

Colin McRae’s life was never the same. Neither was rallying. That whole era, the fans, the mainstream coverage, the rivalry with Englishman Richard Burns, who memorably beat McRae to the title in 2001 after the Scot retired, the Codemasters Colin McRae Rally video games, which brought him to a whole new audience. “The first time we went to the States the kids over there didn’t believe Colin was real,” McRae Snr laughs. It was a different world. 

Colin McRae’s star burned brightly but he was taken far too young. In September 2007, at the age of 39, he died when the helicopter he was flying crashed just north of Lanark, close to the McRae family home from where Jimmy is speaking. His five-year-old son Johnny, and two family friends, Graeme Duncan and Johnny’s six-year-old friend Ben Porcelli, also died in the crash. Johnny would have been 18 now.

Colin McRae died in a helicopter crash back in 2007

Credit: PA

“Aye, that’s right,” says McRae. “It’s incredible how time flies. Johnny’s sister Hollie is through University now. She’s teaching in Glasgow in a primary school. Colin would have been very proud of her.”

The aftermath of the crash was an extremely painful period for the family, with a long inquest. But time is a healer. 

On the day we talk, McRae Snr has just finished filming for a documentary called Colin McRae: 25 Years A Champion, which was released this week. The producers reunited him with Colin’s iconic blue Impreza – and the unlicensed Hillman Avenger – at Kames race track. “It was typical Scottish weather, driving rain half the time,” he says, laughing. “But it was great fun driving the Subaru. The tyres were 25 years old so there wasn’t much grip.”

There has arguably never been anyone like Colin McRae before and since

Credit: AFP

He says he cannot wait for lockdown to lift as he’s itching to race in more Historic rallies. He talks about his grandson Max, the son of Colin’s younger brother Alister, who also competed in WRC and, who emigrated to Australia. “Max is now rallying,” he says with grandfatherly pride. “And racing. He’s proving to be quite good. He’s had special dispensation to drive in rallies in Australia at the age of 16 as long as he has someone experienced beside him.

“You’ve got to move on, haven’t you,” he adds. “I mean, there’s not a day goes past I don’t think about what happened. But I think Colin would have been very proud of the way he is being remembered.”

There has never been another like him, that is for sure; with the same charisma, the same aggressive – some would say reckless – driving style. 

Incredibly, another Briton may be about to win the WRC title this year, on the 25th anniversary of McRae’s feat. Welshman Elfyn Evans carries a 14-point lead over team-mate and six-time champion Sébastien Ogier into the final round at Monza next month, although you could be forgiven for having missed it.

“I feel for Elfyn,” McRae Snr observes. “When Colin won rallies it was in all the daily newspapers. Elfyn is winning rallies just now and it’s not even covered in the Welsh newspapers. It’s a shame. 

“But yes, Colin certainly had charisma. Everybody loved his style of driving. And ProDrive were clever with their PR. There were endless stories of wild nights and wild weekends, or crashing the car or whatever. And the rivalry with Richard – they were pretty good friends actually but it helped both Colin and Richard.”

McRae Snr will be a proud man today, remembering that day standing in a Welsh forest in 1995, waiting for the sound of the flat-four to come echoing through the trees. “Oh aye, very proud. I don’t think there’s been anybody else who had the same colour, or charisma, or following that Colin had.”