Fans were mourning the death of one of the rally world's greatest drivers yesterday after it was confirmed that former World Rally champion Colin McRae was one of those who died in Saturday afternoon's helicopter crash. Police confirmed that the driver, his five-year-old son, Johnny, his son's friend, six-year-old Ben Porcelli, of Lanark, and a family friend Graeme Duncan, 37, who lived in France, were also killed when the helicopter went down near the McRae family home.
McRae, the first Briton to win the World Rally Championship's drivers' title in 1995, was one of the few rally drivers to be known in the wider world outside the sport of rally driving thanks to a series of highly successful Playstation computer games that were named after him.
He was both the owner and pilot of the helicopter which crashed just after 4pm about 200 yards from McRae's 17th-century mansion at Bellefield Road in Jerviswood, one mile north of Lanark in Scotland.
Police said that the Twin Squirrel helicopter burst into flames immediately after hitting the ground, creating a huge "fireball". Chief Superintendent Tim Love, of Strathclyde Police, said: "We believe the group were just returning from a visit to the nearby village of Quarter around 4.05pm, when it appears the helicopter got into difficulty and crashed within the grounds of Mr McRae's family home."
A team from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch was called in from Farnborough to investigate the cause of the helicopter's failure. Weather conditions are not thought to have been so poor as to have caused the accident.
David Lowry, owner of New Steadings Farm, only a few miles from McRae's home, saw the helicopter come down. "The helicopter came overhead and then dropped into the valley. After it disappeared I saw smoke rising from the trees and phoned the emergency services. I could not see what happened when it went down. It did not seem to be in any trouble."
The 39-year-old driver had rallying in his blood and came from a long line of race drivers. His father, Jimmy, was five times British rally champion and his brother Alister, who is currently in Australia, was British rally champion in 1995 – the year Colin became the world champion. In 1996, he was made an MBE in recognition of his achievement.
McRae's greatest successes were achieved at the Subaru team, but after finishing runner-up in 1996 and 1997 his move to Ford ahead of the 1999 season helped to revive the fortunes of an ailing team. After winning two races in both 1999 and 2000, McRae led the world rally championship in 2001 and was favourite to take the title. But he was usurped in the final race of the season, when Richard Burns beat him by two points.
Burns was diagnosed with a brain tumour shortly after achieving the world title. McRae remained close to Burns until the latter's death in November 2005.
Tributes to McRae were led yesterday by Nicky Grist, McRae's co-driver since 1997. "He was such a great driver and will be sorely missed. Colin was always regarded as being a bit of a risk-taker in cars, but when it came to flying a helicopter he was a totally different man. The one thing he always told me was 'You don't mess about with a helicopter. They are bigger and better than I am and you have to drive them as such'".
The Formula One driver David Coulthard, a fellow Scot and close friend of the McRaes, said: "He was fearless, flamboyant, blindingly quick in the car. He was very matter-of-fact that he was so good. He had all the good Scottish traits".
He is survived by his wife, Alison, and daughter, Hollie.