Remembering a legend: 25 years since Colin McRae's World Rally Championship victory
There are moments in sporting history which become iconic. This weekend marks one: Colin McRae’s imperious drive to the World Rally Championship in 1995. Unbelievably, it’s 25 years since McRae, and his never-to-be forgotten blue and yellow, L555 BAT Subaru Impreza rocketed through the muddy Welsh forest stages with the lightness and poise of a ballet dancer.
The 27-year-old from Lanark, who remains the youngest driver ever to win the WRC, sealed his first, and only, world title when he beat Subaru team-mate Carlos Sainz in the season finale in Britain.
McRae — who tragically died in a helicopter crash in 2007 — headed into what was then the Chester-based Network Q RAC Rally, knowing victory would see him become the first Brit to lift the world championship.
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The swashbuckling Scot had put together an impressive WRC campaign before reaching the nail-biting shoot-out.
But it was the controversial circumstances which had created the head-to-head shootout with Sainz which angrily fuelled the passionate display of flamboyantly aggressive driving which eventually captured the crown for McRae.
In the penultimate round, the Catalunya Rally in Spain, Subaru’s management had been forced to step into the road in front of McRae on the final stage in an attempt to make him slow down and let his team-mate win, as had been previously agreed (well, at least according to Sainz and the management).
Having then won the rally on the road, a furious McRae — who had only made his WRC debut two years earlier — ultimately agreed to take a time penalty on the final road section, handing the win to Sainz. In that moment, the Spaniard essentially became the bull entering the Chester arena to face the world’s best matador. There could only be one result.
McRae’s 1995 season had got off to a slow start, retiring from the opening two rounds in Monte Carlo and Sweden. But then the Scot finished on the podium in the third round in Portugal. His fifth place finish in Corsica was followed two months later by his first win of the year, when he dominated in New Zealand for the third time in a row. That sparked a series of podium finishes, with the Scot bagging second in Australia in September, before his controversial second place in Spain a month later. Next was the thrilling winner-take-all showdown in the Welsh forests.
McRae with Subaru team boss David Richards, left, and co-driver Derek Ringer (Photo: Michael Cooper/Allsport/Getty)
McRae — cheered on by thousands of Saltire-waving, mud-splattered, cold and wet bobble-hatted fans — delivered a dazzling, and totally committed display. It was a signature performance, achieving record speeds in the process, which won the hearts of millions of fans all over the world.
It was one of the greatest performances of all time. Like a man possessed, he was straight into the lead, but that changed on the Monday morning — the second day of the rally — when he suffered a puncture in the 36-mile Pundershaw stage and dropped a minute to Sainz.
That gap, to everyone but McRae and his Glasgow co-driver, Derek Ringer, seemed insurmountable. But over the next three days there was no stopping the flying duo.
Somehow, in the infamous Kielder Forest and having not only picked up another puncture and bent a front-right suspension arm on a rock, he crossed the timing beam at the end of the stage still quicker than Sainz.
McRae's performance remains one of the most memorable in rallying (Photo: Mike Cooper/Allsport/Getty)
People-power played its part too. On the road section, fans acted as a human jack lifting the Subaru to allow McRae and Ringer to bend the damaged suspension piece back into shape using a log. By stage 21 at Sweet Lamb, he retook the lead.
McRae’s "Day of Destiny" was Wednesday, November 22. The Scot was imperious, delivering a series of stage records, such was his blistering pace in treacherously wet, slippery and muddy conditions which dominated the four days.
It was a performance which had never been seen before. If ever someone was “in the zone”, this was that time; it was akin to Ayrton Senna’s memorable drive a few years earlier in the Monaco F1 grand prix.
McRae headed into the final test, the 11 miles of Clocaenog in North Wales, knowing the title was his to lose. Yet his blue and yellow Impreza remained a dazzling splash of colour as he sped through the stage.
McRae's victory in 1995 propelled L555 BAT into legendary status and cemented the Subaru Impreza as the car to have among a generation of British rally fans (Photo: Mike Hewitt /Allsport/Getty)
When he and Ringer, flew through the timing beam in their iconic Subaru Impreza 555 at the end of the final stage, McRae had beaten Sainz by 36 seconds, after more than five hours of thrilling, high-speed action. McRae had won 18 of the 28 stages. The Spaniard had been destroyed.
The celebrations were tumultuous. Rallying had never seen a day like it. McRae’s drive back to the podium at Chester Racecourse was spent mainly on the wrong side of the road, simply due to the vast volume of traffic caused by spectators rushing back to see the People’s Champion crowned.
And as McRae drove his Subaru Impreza on to the finish ramp, he was led by a lone piper. Even now that moment is difficult to reflect on, such were, and are, the memories.
Amazingly, it was to be McRae's only world title. Second in 1996 and '97 — the latter by just one point, and on both occasions to Tommi Makinen's Mitsubishi — McRae again missed out in 2001. Entering the final round, again in Britain, and on the edge of sealing the title, he heartbreakingly crashed out in his Ford Focus gifting the title, ironically, to Subaru's Richard Burns, co-driven by Perthshire's Robert Reid.
"That week in Chester is still one of the highlights of our lives,” dad and five-times British rally champ, Jimmy McRae, admitted. "It doesn't seem 25 years ago that Margaret and I were at the finish in Chester celebrating Colin’s achievement.
“It was such a proud moment for us all. What could possibly be better than Colin winning the World Championship on home soil?
"It’s now hard to imagine that 25 years has passed since that amazing day.”
McRae died in 2007, aged just 39 (Grazia Neri/Allsport/Getty)