Rally of Great Britain, 2001
As the 2001 WRC reached its climax in the forests of Wales, Scotland’s Colin McRae was on a charge. Navigator Nicky Grist recalls the epic crash that ended it
‘IVE GOT THE DOORS, BONNET AND BOOT OF THAT CAR IN my office,’ quips Nicky Grist. ‘I can see them right now.’
I’m on the phone with the famous rally navigator, perhaps best known for his partnership with Colin McRae, and we’re talking about that crash in Wales 18 years ago.
On reflection, 2001 was a pivotal year for the World Rally Championship. The transition from the Group A formula to World Rally Car rules, begun in 1997, had successfully retained manufacturers such as Subaru, Mitsubishi and Ford, and had also convinced Peugeot to return full-time, along with Skoda, Hyundai and, for a while at least, SEAT.
Sports promoter ISC, led since 2000 by Prodrive’s David Richards, had pursued an ambitious plan to make rallying TV-friendly, which meant shorter stages, repeated stage loops, centralised servicing, and no night stages. Combine all of that with a formula that didn’t require the hugely expensive need to build road-going homologation specials and, while the sport’s purists may have been in an uproar, the changes did appear to be having the desired effect.
The 2001 season was McRae and Grist’s third at Ford and the stakes were high. McRae commanded a healthy salary, and Ford had pumped in the millions for M-Sport to run a megastar team of McRae and Carlos Sainz. After showing promise in 1999, 2000 was better again, with Sainz and McRae recording a third and fourth respectively in the title race, but Ford again missed out to all-conquering Peugeot for the manufacturers’ title: 2001 needed to be The Year.
It all came down to Wales, and the so-called ‘Battle of Britain’. McRae’s rollercoaster of a season included a run of victories as well as a run of retirements, but it was enough for a one-point lead over Subaru’s Richard Burns, with teammate Sainz and the reigning drivers’ champ in the Peugeot 206 WRC, Marcus Grönholm, also in the hunt.
Ford got off to a great start, winning the opening-night Cardiff Superspecial. Grist takes up the story: ‘Early the next morning we said, “It’s time to catch people asleep. Let’s have a charge.” We were the quickest on that stage, but only by a couple of seconds. The next stage, Grönholm took some time back, and when we headed down to Treorchy on the road section, Colin was getting stressed about it. I said to him, “It doesn’t matter about Marcus, it’s about staying in front of Richard [Burns].”’
2001 WAS McRAE'S THIRD AT FORD AND THE STAKES WERE HIGH
The next stage began in foggy conditions, playing to the advantage of Burns and his navigator Robert Reid and their preferred style of more detailed pace notes, but when the mist lifted, McRae’s commitment went to 11.
The in-car footage showed McRae’s pace to be electric over the next few miles, but that left no margin for error. ‘We were going through a series of fifth- and sixth-gear corners; I was reading the notes like machine-gun bullets,’ says Grist. And then came a fast right-left, slightly uphill. There was a gully on the inside, and McRae cut deep into it, carrying extraordinary speed. Later, he’d admit the car had turned in too much, but with ample room on the outside he gambled there would be space to sort anything nasty out. It didn’t pay off.
What neither he nor Grist knew was that there was a bank on the far side of the gully, and the moment the Focus hit it, it was catapulted viciously into the air, corkscrewing wildly in a frenzy of destruction. ‘There was sky, road, trees, sky, banging and crashing,’ recalls Grist vividly. ‘I knew we’d be going no further.’
Having passed the accident, Burns nearly lost it himself on the next corner, but he and Reid kept going to finish an emotional third overall, and win the title. Peugeot scored a one-two, and took the teams’ cup again. For Ford it was a disaster, and McRae never did challenge for that second title, leaving the sport at the end of 2003.
He was set for a return with Subaru in 2008 when he lost his life in a helicopter crash. Burns switched to Peugeot, enduring two tough years before falling ill prior to Rally GB 2003. Thus, his own planned return to Subaru for 2004 never happened either, and he died tragically of a brain tumour in 2005.
Rallying in Britain had its heart ripped out by the loss of its two superstars, and the WRC party started to go sour, too. Manufacturers steadily dropped out, which caused interests to wane, never again reaching the heights it attained in those milliseconds before the right front tyre of a Ford Focus hit a grassy bank in November 2001.
'THERE WAS SKY, ROAD, TREES, SKY, BANGING AND CRASHING'