Retrospective: Colin McRae – 10 years at the top
The great Colin McRae would have turned 50 on August 6, so what better time to look back on the 1995 World Rally Champion’s career in the WRC.
Back in 2003, when he was driving for the Citroen team, RallySport Mag’s Martin Holmes interview McRae about his “10 years at the top”, and how things had changed in the sport of rallying.
Now, 15 years on, it’s still a great read.
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“I remember the 1993 Rally New Zealand like it was yesterday! It was one of the two best memories in my career. This was the first – the first time I won a World Championship rally, the other came two years later – the day when I won the World Championship.”
Colin McRae’s first world rally win came at the end of the Legacy era, the final event before the Subaru team moved on to the Impreza. People even wondered if Prodrive would be allowed to run the Impreza if they could not score at least one win with the Legacy.
“I don’t think it actually mattered, but it was nice that the Legacy actually managed to score a win before it was put away. That win was very significant for all of us, it was also the first World rally win for Subaru. It came very early in my career,” McRae remembers.
“At that time I still had not taken part in a lot of the various World Championship events. A lot of drivers who even went on to become champion drivers did a lot more rallies before they got their first World rally win.”
It had also been a good way to win. Colin had a long fight with Francois Delecour in the Ford, all the way to the finish, but most of all fans remember the way that Colin jumped to take the lead on one particular stage, the Motu Road, when he took 42 seconds off Delecour’s time on that stage alone.
“That win was a great feeling and it broke the ice. I immediately felt that there was now nothing to stop me doing it again. It was a career breakthrough.”
In the 10 years since Colin’s first win, many drivers have made impressions on his career. When Colin joined Subaru, he was team-mate to the person who had been one of his sporting heroes, Ari Vatanen.
“I must say that I feel I have been very lucky to have been team-mates with a lot of the previous generation of great drivers.”
This had been a good foundation for a successful career in which, by rally habits, Colin has been unusually loyal to teams.
“I have been six years with Subaru then four years with Ford, and only now have I moved on to Citroen. Citroen is a very professional set-up with just one aim, to win individual World Championship rallies and consequently the championship.
“That team is purely existing for those purposes. Everything in the team is focussed on that.
“It is the first foreign team I have worked with and this in turn demands a different mentality. The main difference is that you have to put a lot more effort into communication, even if all the people I work with speak English.
“You have to succeed in getting across exactly what you want from the car, and in turn understand from them how their car works and behaves.
“At times this effort becomes frustrating, but even in an English team with an English engineer you have to take more time than you would expect to explain how you want the car to work.
“The person I work most closely with at Citroen on a day-to-day basis is Alexis Avril, my car controller. Like with every human relationship it starts very slowly, but after four months it is now getting good.
“One of the most important relationships in rallying these days is that between a driver and his engineer.”
The Xsara seemed good for Colin from the first moment he drove one, the day after the end of the 2002 Network Q Rally GB.
“Very easy to drive, very stable at high speed, which was completely different to the 2002 Ford,” he says.
“The Xsara was quite easy just to jump into and drive. The general work of developing the car is down to Jean-Claude Vaucard. Everything to do with onward development of the car is down to the engineers.
“We, as drivers, are responsible for fine-tuning, though in general we have a free hand to do what we want.
“We have already gone in quite unplanned directions in the development of the transmission set-up. The suspension set-up is now also quite a bit different to before. The whole engineering team works well together.”
Colin is back again with Carlos Sainz, after five years of working as his team-mate at both Subaru and Ford.
“For a long time it did not look as if we would be in the same team again, but it happened in the end. Carlos just keeps on going, doesn’t he!
“I must say it is a great help for me for him to be in the same team. It takes a lot of pressure away.”
But is it easy working with him, after high profile arguments with him about team orders in other teams?
“I actually work very well with him. It is just nice to have someone to back you up. He can confirm the ideas which I have been suggesting. It is good for both of us to be able to go to the chief chassis engineer, Jean-Claude Vaucard, or the team boss, Guy Frequelin, when we have the same things to say.
“Obviously it makes it easier for them as well. It gives them more confidence to try out new ideas.
“Actually Carlos and I generally think the same way about things, we always have done right from the beginning when he joined me at Subaru.”
Colin is now also back with his old co-driver Derek Ringer.
“When Derek and I parted at the end of the 1996 season, it was for reasons which suited the team, it was because David Richards wanted me to go with Nicky Grist.
“Derek, meanwhile, did not give up. He stayed involved in the sport, he was always around, keeping on and continuing in his co-driving work. When Nicky and I parted after New Zealand 2002 I asked Derek to come back.
“It took a bit of time for him to readjust to today’s level of rallying, but he did it and now we are working again very well.
“He had been out of top level rallying for six years, which is a long time these days. Many things have changed in that time, though I do not think rallying has actually got much quicker. Maybe in some places it has, but not that much.
“The main challenge for Derek was getting back again into the sport at that level. Readjusting cannot happen overnight. You have got to give it a bit of time.”
The relationship between Nicky and Colin had been good.
“We had some good times. We had a lot of very good results together, but eventually things started not to go as well as they had been and we could both see that. It was time to make a change. It certainly wasn’t the result of any particular mistake or thing.
“I think the same sort of thing happened recently with Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin. When this happens, you try to rectify the situation between you. Sometimes you don’t succeed and at that moment the only thing you can do is to take a break from each other.
“Nicky and I still see each other, and I think he has fallen on his feet in his new television work. He always seems to fall on his feet!”
It was a surprise to many that the new Citroen team of Colin, Carlos Sainz and Sebastien Loeb worked so well and gained their 1-2-3 result at Monte Carlo.
“To be honest I did not expect the team would be so successful so soon this year, and I do not think Citroen did either! For our team it has been a dream start to the year.
“The cars have been running very consistently and very reliably, but sure the cars have gone a lot better than I expected they would.”
Lucky start, or something which should continue? Is this a car which is good for some types of events but not others?
“I think they are going to be good on most events. I certainly think the cars have a level competitiveness across the board. The Citroen must have a higher performance across the board than last year’s Focus had been, because the Xsara seems to work very well on all surfaces.
“For sure the Citroen started off by being very good on asphalt, now it has already shown it is good on other surfaces as well. Judging by last year’s performances, the asphalt events must be Citroen’s strongest environment.”
A year is a long time in this business. Everyone is progressing all the time.
“We won’t really see how well the Citroen will go on normal asphalt this year until later in the year. I do not think there is any specific area where the Citroen is weak.”
Asphalt rallies and Colin McRae have often been dramatically contradictory. The crash in Corsica in 2000, which could have been life threatening, led to most unpleasant surgery, then the accident in 2002 which ended with a broken finger, which could have seriously upset his championship chances.
“Yes, bad things have happened to me on asphalt rallies, but I do not have a problem with driving on asphalt. For me the one problem with asphalt rallies is that I do not think the regulations enable the car to work to best advantage, because the rules mean the cars are under-tyred.
“The tyres the regulations make us use are far too narrow in relation to the weight of the car in rally trim. The turbocharger restrictor also means, for example, that the cars are under-powered, but I think that problem applies for all events.
“For me, the big problem is having to use such narrow tyres on such a heavy car. Otherwise I do not have a problem with asphalt rallies.”
What is the reason the two most successful teams at this moment seem to be Peugeot and Citroen, both from France?
“I think there are always reasons why things happen. In this case I do not really know what it is, but I imagine it is to do with the degree of commitment of the teams involved.
“So many other teams spend effort having to justify that they are going in the right direction and providing value for money, but I am sure that goes for the French teams as well.
“I guess the main reason is the way that Citroen, and I guess Peugeot as well, are so committed to the job, whereas other teams keep having to make compromises.”
How is rallying nowadays compared with 10 years ago. Is it just as enjoyable?
“Obviously for me things were different in those days. It was all a big adventure and I knew I was very, very lucky to get involved in it all. I still regard myself as being really lucky to be able to make a good living out of something that started just as a hobby. Obviously it is all a lot more serious now.
“It is important all the time to get value for money. It is a lot more of a rat-race than it was before. Everything has to be crammed in to a short time schedule these days. For sure today you have less time to relax, but maybe the reason I complain is that I am getting older!
“I can say it is just as much fun when I step into a rally car at Shakedown before our next event as when we went to rallies 10 years ago. You are still on your own, at one with your car, like you used to be. The main fun is that you are sitting in your car extracting the maximum out of it.
“Some rallies are nicer for a driver than others. This rally here in New Zealand is one of my favourites because it is a good drivers’ event.
“There is no compromise here. You go flat out from start to finish, and go as quickly as you possibly can. An event like the Safari is one where you have to compromise your speed.
“I suppose the one event which I really do not enjoy is Monte Carlo. I do not agree with the conditions in which we have to drive at the competitive speed. The security on that event is bad, it is a very dangerous event.
“Every rally holds its dangers, but Monte Carlo is much more dangerous than any other. More dangerous than Corsica, for sure.”
How do you regard the sport as it is nowadays? Do you feel the speeds are getting too high, and do you think that every new rule is taking away some of the enjoyment?
“I do not think the speeds are getting high, but I think the specification of cars should be changed to make the cars more exciting. I think a lot of the electronics we have at the moment are starting to get over the top. It would be good to simplify the systems we have in the car. It would make the cars more of a challenge to drive.
“And think about this from the point of view of a manufacturer wanting to come into the sport for the first time. Less sophistication means they would be able to come into the championship at a more sensible level.
“While I would prefer to see some things changed, I must say I am still enjoying the development and the technology as it is. The struggle for a team is to keep up with it all.”
Do you like the way the rallies are developing?
“I still think rallying should keep a little of what we used to do. Actually, from a driver’s point of view, all this central servicing is a pain. So often we have to drive hundreds of unnecessary kilometres a day just to keep coming back to the central Service Park, rather than doing service somewhere out there in the bush. All that used to be good fun.
“Here in New Zealand, on days one and two, the system was very good, but I know that organisers have new problems finding suitable roads in the right places to fit into the new systems. Double-usage can be an answer, but then think about Turkey, double usage at the wrong time of year led to roads getting destroyed.
“There are a lot of issues going on. Certainly it would be nicer to have a higher ratio of competitive mileage to road mileage.”
What do you enjoy the most outside rallying?
“I enjoy flying. At the moment all I can fly are helicopters, but I hope to go to America this year so I can also have a fixed wing licence. Flying for me is just for fun, I do not have any aspirations to take it any further.
“I enjoy high performance cars, but you are so limited in the extent you can enjoy them these days. I have a Lamborghini Murcielago which I keep in Switzerland. If you want to enjoy a car like that to the full, you are going to get into a lot of trouble with your licence. Nice to have, nice to cruise along in, however!
“I have a lot of mechanical possessions, motorcycles, cars, old rally cars. I have about 15 bikes, almost that number of cars as well. I think my absolute prize possession is the Subaru in which I won the World Championship.
“I have got my original Sunbeam, the car in which I started off my rallying, a Nova which was one of the most important cars in my life, a Ford Sierra Cosworth of the type which both my father and I used in the British Championship, a couple of Group 4 Escorts.
“I also have a new Metro coming. We have converted one of the old ‘bires’ in Scotland so that we can keep them all. It isn’t so much a museum, more a storage place.”
Mechanical possessions? Colin never even mentioned his Cessna Citation or his Eurocopter…
Winning the championship in 1995 was Colin’s best emotion, the worst was losing the championship two years ago when he crashed out of the Network Q Rally, the final round.
“The 2000 crash in Corsica was very serious, but in fact I do not think it has affected me much. It has not affected my driving performance at all.
“Maybe the crash made me think about the risks a bit more, but in this work you cannot allow this sort of thing to affect the speed at which you drive. If it does, then it is the time to stop.”
Who have been the most important people in your professional career?
“My father, Jimmy, sure, and I guess David Richards at Prodrive. For my father, it was the way he held in the reins in my career quite tightly. He kept me going in the right direction, kept me going on the straight and narrow. His approach to my career was quite different to what mine had been. It was he who helped hold my career together.
“And for DR, it was for giving me the opportunity and having faith in me that it was all going to come right in the end, and the way he continued to support me when it seemed maybe it was not!”
Living in Switzerland is one of the consequences of a higher earning level, but to what extent is money an issue in the McRae life? Would you still go rallying if you only received a tenth of this income?
“I still enjoy the sport and enjoy what it is all about. I enjoy the competitive side to it and I enjoy working in a professional environment, so for me money is not the big issue. I do not know how long I will want to continue rallying, but I am not thinking of stopping yet.
“I have no specific ideas on how I want to build up a business life for when I stop rallying. When I eventually stop at this level, it would be nice to relax for a couple of years and do the things I have always wanted to do.
“I do not want to step out of a rally car and go next day straight into a full time job for the moment.
“Rallying is a sport which is full of ups and downs but for me, the motivation is still unchanged. I really want to win the World Championship again.”
- By Martin Holmes – originally published in Australian Rallysport News in 2003.