Death of scintillating Scot still felt decade on
Kiwi rallying figures tell how Colin McRae amazed and inspired behind the wheel
There was a photo somewhere in my family’s collection of my brother and I with legendary rally drivers Ari Vatanen, Possum Bourne, Richard Burns and Colin McRae.
It was taken in Rotorua at a service park with the Subaru World Rally Team in the mid- 1990s. We were in our early- mid teens. My family are all rallying fans and we often talk about that picture as it portrays the tragedy that plagued the sport at that time.
Three of the men in that photo are now dead. Kiwi icon Bourne was killed in a road accident in 2003, Burns died of a brain tumour in 2005 and McRae perished in a helicopter crash 10 years ago today.
In a sport that can be so dangerous it is hard to fathom how these great drivers had their lives so cut short in circumstances that had nothing to do with rally driving. All these years later the kids have long since left home, there have been multiple moves from one house to another and sadly none of us can seem to find where that photo has gone despite the contents of it so vividly painted in our minds.
The death of McRae at age 39 in 2007 had the greatest impact on the sport. He was the biggest name at a time when rallying was at its popularity peak. The first Brit and youngest world rally champion, McRae was the highest paid driver and most recognisable. His popularity was unrivalled and, by coincidence or otherwise, the sport has never recovered from his loss and the end of that golden era.
McRae, his 5- year- old son Johnny, and t wo family friends, Graeme Duncan and Johnny’s 6- year- old friend Ben Porcelli, were killed when the Eurocopter AS350 crashed 1500m north of his home town Lanark in Scotland.
The pain and sorrow reverberated around the world. And the emotion wasn’t lost on a generation of rally fans in New Zealand. His all- out aggressive and fearless driving style caught people’s attention while his down- to- earth, she’ll be right approach to life endeared him to fans. McRae was simply the people’s hero.
Kiwi businessmen and rallying identity Gary Smith was a friend of the McRae family and travelled to Lanark for the funeral.
He first met the future world champion in 1989 at Rally New Zealand. “I met Colin through his dad Jimmy,” Smith recalled. “He was a nice young man on a mission — he reminded me very much of an Ari Vatanen style of driving.
McRae got his international break when he signed with Subaru in 1991 and he progressed to their full world championship team in 1993. He got his maiden WRC win here in New Zealand — a feat he listed as one of his three greatest triumphs — later that year in the factory Subaru team in a Legacy. He helped the team make the move from that older model Legacy to the Subaru Impreza. McRae would go on to win three straight Rally New Zealand events from 1993- 95 — the last of which saw him begin a run to claim a maiden world championship.
“I didn’t have a lot to do with Colin’s efforts in New Zealand after that first time,” Smith said.
“So it was more of a casual friendship relationship every time he came to New Zealand after that — we would just meet up and have dinner and things like that.
“Out of our association from that first year we have grown quite a close friendship — they visit us, we visit them. The year before Colin was killed — his last Christmas — my wife Frances and I were invited up to share Christmas with him at his home. That i s our fondest memories of our association with him. That was the last time I saw Colin.”
Smith remembers getting a call from a friend, who informed him of the tragedy.
“Once I heard the news I gave Jimmy a ring and found out when the funeral was going to be and went up to see them. It was a massive funeral, held in the Lanark Square. There were a heck of a lot of world champions and team owners that were there to pay their respects.”
By the time of his death McRae had driven for the factory Subaru, Ford, Citroen and Skoda teams, had won 25 WRC events, was the highest paid driver in the sport and had the global hit Colin McRae Rally video game franchise named after him.
McRae was the benchmark in terms of the world’s greatest drivers according to Smith. “Up until his time I have got to say he is the fastest guy there ever was. Since then you can’t make the comparison but I’m sure if he was here today at the same age he would give them a real hurry- up.”
Smith thinks McRae’s popularity was a mixture of his phenomenal driving style and his likeable nature. “You could have a laugh and a drink with him — he didn’t put on airs — he was just an ordinary bloke,” he said.
Kiwi WRC star Hayden Paddon grew up idolising the Scotsman and claims he had a big influence on his passion for the sport.
“I was a bit young to have a chance to get to meet him or compete against him but he was my role model growing up,” the Hyundai factory driver said.
“When I was a kid doing go- karts was about the same time as he was winning his first world championship in 1995. I remember watching that video over and over again.
“It was a Christmas present my father gave me and I watched it hundreds and hundreds of times and that is what gave me the inspiration and ambition to try and become world champion.”
Many fans in New Zealand still talk of McRae beating top driver Didier Auriol on the famous Motu stage, renowned as the toughest stage in the New Zealand Rally, in a two- wheel drive car while the Frenchman was in a four- wheel drive.
McRae was known as the Motu Master over the years. I recall seeing him fly around a corner in the back blocks of the Waikato on one particular Rally New Zealand with the car missing a wheel. He was still going flat out however as the underside of the car bounced along the road, throwing up sparks and dirt and dust.
“For me the thing that made Colin stand out was his never- give- up attitude,” Paddon said. “There were never any excuses — he was just there to drive the car as fast as possible whether he was last or first. I also liked how he was approachable and almost seemed like a Kiwi with his down- to- earth attitude.”
Sadly those stories have become part of history now, recounted and told by rallying fans in remembering one of the greats of yesteryear. Like my family photo, the legend of Colin McRae has all but been consigned to history.
Colin McRae endeared himself to Kiwi fans with his brilliant driving and easygoing attitude.