Colin McRae

Britain's first world rally champion, who captured the public imagination with his win-or-bust approach
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The Independent Online

Colin Steele McRae, rally driver: born Lanark 5 August 1968; MBE 1996; married Alison Hamilton (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Jerviswood, South Lanarkshire 15 September 2007.

Not only did Colin McRae do a great deal to popularise rally sport in Britain, but in 1995 he became the first British driver to win the World Rally Championship. His win-or-bust approach led to many crashes, in which he usually escaped personal injury, and captured the public imagination in the days of developing television coverage of the sport.

Colin McRae was born in Lanark in 1968, and brought up in a motorsport family; his younger brother Alister went on to become a British rally champion in 1995. His father, Jimmy, had a plumbing business and enjoyed motorsport for a hobby, before taking it up as a professional activity in which he became British rally champion five times. But even as Jimmy McRae was discovering his own prowess in the sport, the next generation was coming along fast.

Colin's successes on wheels started at the age of 13 when he was Scottish schoolboy motocross champion. At 16, he won the West Scotland autotest (high-speed driving test manoeuvres) championship. As soon as he reached the age of 17, he borrowed an Avenger from a friend in his local Coltness Car Club, but the inevitable happened: they went off the road and were stuck in a peat bog. At that time Colin McRae's only competition car was one he used for autotest competition, and to go one step further he decided to buy a Talbot Sunbeam. His first rally in his own car was in 1985, a traditional end-of-season social event called the Galloway Hills Rally, and once again he went off the road.

The 1986 Scottish championship beckoned. Jimmy McRae saw his son's potential and lent Colin his own co-driver, Ian Grindrod. Colin started to finish rallies. Partway through the season he was joined by Derek Ringer, who went on to work with Colin McRae off and on for the rest of his career.

When McRae was still 19 he took a female co-driver with him on a local event. It was his first ever overall victory, and the woman who brought him success was Alison Hamilton, who went on to become his wife.

McRae went on to win the 1988 Scottish championship, an achievement his father had never managed, in the same year that his father won the British championship for the fifth and final time. It was time for Colin McRae to move onwards and upwards. Through the help of the British Junior Rally Team, he had already had the chance to take his Nova to the Swedish Rally in 1987, which he finished, coming third in his class at his first world championship event.

At this time, the national Peugeot rally team was anxious to help develop young British rally driver talent. McRae's prize for winning his class on the national championship in a Peugeot was the use of a 205 GTI on the 1988 Lombard RAC Rally; its engine failed, however. This was the end of McRae's days in small two-wheel drive rally cars. From 1989, it was the turn of the bigger cars.

He began to progress through 1989 and 1990 with Ford Sierra rally cars and then was invited to drive for the official Subaru team in the 1991 British championship. He became integrated into the Subaru world championship team, an association which took him and Derek Ringer through the end of the 1998 season.

The McRae pattern of alternating between success and badly damaged cars was developing, inspired perhaps by McRae's fascination with the career of Ari Vatanen, who had a similar approach to the sport. It was a moment of great satisfaction for McRae when he became Vatanen's junior team-mate at Subaru. They worked together well. In 1993 McRae scored Subaru's first world championship victory in New Zealand, the year before the company embarked on their Impreza competition programme. It was widely stated at the time that the Impreza rally programme would never have started unless Subaru had scored at least one victory with the older Legacy model.

These were formative days in the sport when the world championship adopted very specific concepts. New championship rules now required full driver commitments, regulations were being modelled after Formula One, technical regulations led to the World Rally Cars which continue to this day and manufacturer interest in the sport was booming. McRae played a major role in these days. His New Zealand victory in 1993 was the first world rally victory for a British driver for 17 years, and in 1995 McRae went on to become the first British world rally champion, a feat followed six years later by his friend and rival Richard Burns (who died in 2005).

McRae's move to Ford in 1999 was another important step forward. Although the figure was never officially confirmed, it is clear that McRae had become easily the world's highest paid rally driver, with an annual fee estimated to be over £3m. Over the years, he developed a team-mate rivalry and an immense mutual respect for Carlos Sainz during their times at Subaru, Ford and, later, at Citroë*. Ironically, it was a cost-cutting contraction of the sport instigated by the international authorities, the FIA, which spelled the end of McRae's full-time career in world championship rallying. With Sebastien Loeb their first choice of driver, Citroë* had to choose between McRae and Sainz for their number two seat in the 2004 season, and Sainz's stronger commercial connections left McRae out in the cold.

He never lost his flair, as demonstrated on his occasional drives with Skoda, especially when he looked like taking a Fabia onto the podium in Australia in 2005, before mechanical troubles intervened. His final world championship rally was in Turkey in 2006 when he substituted for Loeb, but again was forced to retire from the event.

There was a sector of enthusiasts who came to know the McRae name through the computer game Colin McRae Rally, and, as Richard Burns once joked, pictured Colin as a male version of Lara Croft.

After the end of his world championship career, Colin McRae continued to take part in cross-country rally events.

Martin Holmes