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].”’


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.


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