Rallying: McRae bows out but looks for inspiration in fresh challenges

Former world champion is looking forward to a new chapter in his motorsports career after moving on from the Citroën team
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The Independent Online

Come and join Colin McRae on his last drive for Citroën, they said. Possibly his last in any World Rally Championship car. The kick and the poignancy make for a heady and irresistible cocktail.

A world title and a record of 25 championship rally victories - which he shares with Carlos Sainz - represent an inadequate testimonial to the McRae legacy. His stature was built on style as much as substance. At his peak no driver was faster or more flamboyant. He stirred the senses and was variously lauded as a "rebel'', "cavalier'' and, inevitably, "Braveheart''.

But of late, it seems, some of the sting has been drawn from McRae. At the age of 35 he is left without a WRC drive. Under new rules of engagement, Citroën are allowed to keep only two of their three drivers for next year so they opted for Sébastien Loeb and Sainz, who out-performed the Scotsman during the season just ended.

This is McRae's final working day with the French team that won the manufacturer's World Championship and the ultimate experience for those taking rides in the passenger seat of his Xsara. Some are here through the efforts of charities. One, a young girl, won a poster competition. And then his crew line up for a parting appreciation of that fabled natural talent.

The Forest of Ae, in McRae's homeland, provides a suitably glowing, autumnal backdrop and he produces the characteristic flourish. He accelerates up the narrow dirt track to almost 100 mph before flicking down the gears, tugging on the handbrake and sliding the car around a tight left-hander in a shower of shale.

His hands orchestrate and his feet dance. He is utterly calm and, you hope, in total control, especially as he floors it again and exceeds 100 mph. The scenery is a blur but you are conscious of the endless drop to the right-hand side. The passenger side.

And then, suddenly, the banging and jerking stop and the snarling beast rolls benignly to a halt. The near three-mile stage has taken little more than two minutes to cover. McRae smiles with mischievous satisfaction. He is still good, outrageously good, and he knows it.

"I definitely feel I've still got it," he says. "You've always got the ability to do it, but it's a question of whether in your mind you want to push the limits to do it and take that chance.

"I've not enjoyed it this year as much as I would have wanted and I've always said that when that happened I would step back and have a look at it.

"I have no regrets at all about coming to Citroën. It's been a good experience and it's been hard work. The only regret is that next year would have been the year to capitalise on the experience of this year and I don't have the opportunity to do that.

"Moving to a new team, a foreign team, was always going to be difficult because of the culture difference. But you have to make the best of the situation and that's not going to happen overnight."

So what does McRae do with that extraordinary ability now? He is the obvious candidate to replace Richard Burns now the Englishman is deemed unfit to drive for Subaru next season because of a brain tumour, but he is not even sure he wants to drive a World Rally Championship car again.

Instead, he is relishing a break from the intensity of the WRC and the opportunity to indulge his other, unfulfilled motorsport fantasies. He will be takingpart in the Dakar rally raid with Nissan in the new year and is considering a number of racing ventures, such as the Le Mans 24 hours, GT competition and the Days of Thunder series held at Rockingham Motor Speedway.

"I've not had any contact from Subaru," McRae says. "I hope I don't have to consider it for Richard's sake. I hope he will be back to full health and competing again in the future. But if the option was there then I would consider it, yes. It would have to be an opportunity of that calibre and it would have to be all or nothing.

"I'm not really sad about being without a drive because, after the pressures of the last 10 years, I'm looking forward to a year without those pressures and there are things I want to have a go at. Apart from the Dakar rally raid, Le Mans is also something I'm looking at. It's one of the biggest races there ever was and ever will be. There's a lot happening. I've got to filter the more interesting stuff from the rest."

He speaks with an enthusiasm that was rarely evident in his driving this year. No one, not even Colin McRae, can make an impact at the highest level of rallying unless he is absolutely committed.

The sport is succumbing to a new generation of hungry fighters, epitomised by the recently confirmed champion, Petter Solberg, of Norway. McRae has long had plenty on the table. His annual salary rose to £5m. He has the properties and toys befitting a man of that income bracket.

However, he has remained largely unaffected by fame and wealth. Impervious to airs and graces, he is recognised as a regular bloke and intends to keep it that way. Raw speed and fun on wheels is still his fix.

"You've got to have the motivation to win," he acknowledges. "If I couldn't have that or didn't think I could find that, then I wouldn't do it. I haven't even thought about the year after next. I'll miss rallying for sure, but if I don't miss it to a certain extent then I'll be quite happy.

"If, by about May, all I want to do is get back into a World Rally Championship car, then I'll try to do a deal for the following year. I'm open-minded about it."

Burns has expressed his concerns that Britain may not be nurturing the young drivers capable of filling the void after he and McRae depart the World Championship scene. McRae contends his protégé, Kris Meeke, has the talent yet cannot guarantee him the equipment. He says: "There's no question Kris can take over from me and Richard, it's just getting him the opportunity. We are trying to do a deal to continue supporting him, but it's very difficult. If I can't get a deal for myself it's even more difficult to pull it together for a young driver."

Today, McRae is content to evoke his own youth, driving for the naked joy of it, the way he used to near the family home over in Lanark.

"It's always good fun on a day like this," he says. "There's no pressure and you can have fun driving the car again. You are not on an event, where the fun thing goes out of it, so you can play around with the car and not have to worry.

"I've been driving to about 90 per cent competitive speed today. These cars don't work at anything less than that. You've got to be going at that speed to get all the systems operating properly. "And it's good when you know you're helping a charity or giving somebody something they've always dreamt about. It's even better if somebody looks as if they're going to throw up. You go even quicker then!"

Ever the lad. He shakes hands with each of his mechanics and wades through the long grass to his helicopter. He flies off, not into a golden sunset, but somehow appropriately grey skies. His future is shrouded with uncertainty yet, whether or not he misses the sport, rallying is bound to miss Colin McRae.