Richard Burns

Restless, enthusiastic rally driver who became the first English winner of the World Rally Championship


Richard Burns, rally driver: born Reading 17 January 1971; RACMSA British Rally Champion 1993; FIA World Rally Champion 2001; died London 25 November 2005.

Richard Burns was England's greatest rally driver in modern times. He died on the fourth anniversary of his winning the World Rally Championship, the sport's greatest accolade.

Although his final two years in the sport were at the wheel of French-run Peugeot cars, the rest of his 10-year full-time professional career was spent driving the British-run Mitsubishi and Subaru cars, for whom he won 10 individual world championship rallies.

Burns was born in 1971, in Reading, and from an early age had a love of driving. Friends and family were strong influences in his career and his father, Alex, took him to watch the RAC Rally, where he experienced the spirit and excitement of the sport. His determination to go rallying started after a visit to a rally-driving school in Wales at the age of 15. It was the moment he knew which way his life was going to turn. He joined the Under 17s Car Club, to which his father took him every weekend and at which his father eventually became an instructor.

He was based in Reading, and, when he was old enough to drive on the roads, he took an active role helping friends at the Craven Motor Club who in turn lent him cars for use on rallies. This was at a turning point in British rallying, when road rallies were dying out and the sport concentrated on special stage events - the high-speed form of rallying Burns relished.

From early rallying days Peugeot had been largely instrumental in Burns's rallying career. The British importers ran a rally challenge for privateers, and this enabled him to enter a number of events in 1990 and 1991 - not least borrowing a car from the Peugeot importers themselves for the 1990 RAC Rally, his first world championship event. All the time Burns attracted supporters, but none so instrumental as David Williams, a friend from Reading who bought a Group N Subaru Legacy from Prodrive, the British-based Subaru rally team.

Williams found sufficient funds for Burns to contest the British national championship series in 1993, a series in which he became the youngest ever champion. Through Prodrive Burns's experiences increased. He was given test work, learning more about rallying and earning extra money to be ploughed back into his own efforts. He was also able to take advantage of Prodrive's various career-enhancing programmes. Another lifetime acquaintance from those times was Robert Reid, who became his regular co-driver for 13 years.

The Scottish driver Colin McRae was then on his way to becoming Britain's first world champion. Richard became the team-mate in Prodrive's British championship team line-up with McRae's younger brother Alister. Burns got to know Colin McCrae well, and it wasn't long before the McRae-Burns duet attracted headlines in the sport. In 1995 McCrae had a full programme in the world series and gained his world title, while Burns had only a reduced programme. In the hope that a move might widen his opportunities, Burns joined Mitsubishi, where he stayed for three years and which brought him his first major success.

To start off he doubled up a programme of selected world championship rallies with events in the Asia Pacific series, in which he finished second behind Kenneth Eriksson, but there was also time for victory in a world-class rally in New Zealand in 1996. After many reliable performances on full world rally championship events, Richard won the Safari Rally in Kenya in 1998, an event recognised as the world's toughest event in the championship. Victory in the British round followed: Burns was now considered a star-quality driver.

The next three years saw Richard back at Prodrive with full No 1 status, providing the results which his ability justified. In 1999 and 2000 he gained second places in the world series, then, in 2001, the world title.

At this time came news which baffled the sport. He announced he was leaving Prodrive, to move to the works world championship Peugeot team, based in France. In principle, it sounded a good idea. In 2000 and 2001 Peugeot had won the world manufacturers' title and Marcus Gronholm had been world champion in 2000. But it wasn't quite so simple. To this day the reasoning behind Burns's decision has never been fully explained. Presumably he wanted to drive for the team with the world's then top rally machine, the 206 World Rally Car. Equally, it might have been Prodrive's decision to enlist Tommi Makinen, four times world champion, as his team-mate which would have challenged his position in the team.

Prodrive claimed his intended departure was a breach of contract; certainly for a driver to leave a team having just won with them a world title was unusual. When driver nominations for the FIA championship in 2002 were announced, both Peugeot and Subaru had nominated Burns.

He went to Peugeot, but things did not work out as expected. In two seasons he did not win any world championship rallies, whereas his team-mate Gronholm won eight. The first year he was there, Peugeot again won the makes' title but it was Gronholm who won the drivers' championship. The 2003 season was going better, however, and, as the final round of the championship drew close, Burns was still in with a mathematical chance of regaining his world title. But even despite that possibility the restless Burns had already made plans to leave Peugeot and drive for Subaru again in 2004.

The final round of the 2003 season was again the Wales Rally GB (the new name for the RAC Rally), but as Burns drove down to Wales before the event he collapsed at the wheel of his road car. By a miracle he had a passenger, his fellow rally driver Markko Martin, and Martin steered the car safely to the side of the road. Burns was rushed to hospital, where he was eventually diagnosed as suffering an astrocytoma, a form of brain tumour. He never rallied, or even drove a car, again.

Richard Burns made a most welcome farewell appearance in public in August 2005 at Castle Combe, where a display of many of the cars that he had driven during his career were on view.

Burns had loved driving all his life. "When I was eight," he wrote in his autobiography, Driving Ambition (2002),

I used to volunteer to reverse horse trailers at my sister's Pony Club. All I wanted to do since I was 15 was drive rally cars. I didn't plan on becoming a world champion. All I wanted to do was drive rally cars like the champions do. Just the driving, nothing else.

Even when he was a full-time professional he used to enjoy taking his mechanics and friends for high-speed rides in rally cars, just to test their reactions, which always evoked a stream of bad words from frightened passengers.

The only rally car which Burns ever owned, bought by his father when Richard was 15, was a Sunbeam which was converted into competition specification with a friend, Gordon Jarvis. All the others were cars from admirers, including Jan Churchill, the driving-school proprietor, who once confided that, of the 2,000 pupils which had passed through his school, Burns was the only one whom he had actively urged to take up a career in rally driving. To make that dream a reality was a lot of hard work. Burns went stacking shelves in supermarkets, doing competition-driving tuition, anything to help raise cash.

Richard Burns had always been a fanatic for personal fitness. He took the work of being in peak condition for rallying extremely seriously, but this was not always straightforward. In the Peugeot 206WRC the in-car temperatures were very high. He found this more discomforting than his team-mates did, and this was largely due to his naturally fair complexion. Sports psychologists helped him overcome the mental pressures which three-day rallies demand. Attention to diet was always a major factor in his rally preparation, as was physical training.

He leaves a partner, Zoe.

Martin Holmes

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