Taming of a wild spirit

A Scottish driver can conquer the world in the RAC Rally. Andrew Baker experiences his mastery of high speeds; close-up
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The Independent Online
SITTING next to the man who jointly leads the world rally championship as he threads an S-bend on a narrow, slippery track at 130mph, you don't say: "Right then, about this rivalry within the team. What's the low-down on that?" You say: "Aaaargh!" It is a sure-fire technique for disarming interviewers, and one that Colin McRae has down to a fine art.

Going into next week's RAC rally, the final round of the championship, McRae and his 555 Subaru team-mate Carlos Sainz are tied at the top of the title table on 70 points each. But instead of plotting tactics for the RAC, the pair spent last Wednesday piloting a few fortunate guests around a special stage in Warwickshire. I found the experience terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure, but sensed that McRae would rather have been elsewhere. "We do this one day a year," he said. "And one day a year is enough."

All the same, he conceded, the stage was useful training for the RAC. "We're not holding back," he said, worryingly. "We're going fairly quickly. It's a nice, fun course, and we can swing a bit wider on the turns, play about and not worry about losing time."

I was more worried about losing my lunch. Derek Ringer, McRae's regular co-driver, whose fireproof overalls I had borrowed, shared the concern. "Don't mess up my suit," he warned.

McRae's appetite was unhindered by his duties: he even had room for profiteroles with chocolate sauce at the end of the lunch-break. This is perhaps not surprising given that his diet during the RAC Rally will consist largely of specially prepared high-carbohydrate drinks.

"When Colin first came to the team he was not very interested in physical fitness," David Williams, the Subaru team doctor and fitness expert, recalled. "But he has realised that being fit aids his driving. He enjoys his level of fitness and works very hard at it." He has even got used to the high- carbo drinks. "His favourite flavour is lemon and lime," Dr Williams revealed.

Physical condition is just one of many aspects of Colin McRae's professional life that have changed since he first emerged on the rallying scene as the Scottish rally champion in 1988.

"His driving style has changed quite a bit in the last two years," said his father Jimmy, who is also a former Scottish champion. "Colin was always fast, but he had accidents. Recently he has learned that you don't have to drive flat out the whole time to win a rally. He has learned when to back off and when to go flat out so that he keeps the car in shape, and that is the difference between winning individual rallies and winning championships."

This new laid-back approach was put under severe strain in last month's Catalunya Rally in Spain, when McRae apparently ignored team orders and took the lead from Sainz on the last day of the event. He eventually handed the event to Sainz by checking in late at the final control, but not before a public stand-up row with the team boss, Dave Richards.

The relationship between McRae and Richards is still "a little strained" according to the driver, but he has resolved that he will not let it affect the team's performance on the RAC rally, and he promises a diplomatic "clear the air" chat with Sainz before the cars line up on the starting ramp.

But the incident enhanced his reputation as the Wild Man of Rallying, an image that those who know him say is quite unjustified. "That's all nonsense," Jimmy McRae said. "It may have been a little true of his driving in his early days, but out of the car he is really pretty quiet." Colin certainly seems quiet in conversation, almost introverted, but his extra- curricular pastimes are hardly those of the shy, retiring type: extreme skiing, motocross and quad biking. Isn't he just taking his work home with him?

"Absolutely not," Colin insisted. "The joy of motocross or waterskiing is that it's not my job. Sure, if I go out in a rally car to play at home, that's fun. But rallying really isn't so much like that these days, it's all very serious. It's big business."

Big and expensive. McRae is rumoured to earn pounds 1m a year, and whatever the real figure it can safely be assumed that he didn't move to Monte Carlo simply for the sea views. The massively modified Subaru Imprezas he drives sell for around pounds 250,000 once they have outlived their usefulness with the team, who get through a dozen of them a year.

When Colin first caught the rallying bug things were simpler. His father drove cars prepared in a garage in Lanark, where he is still based, and Colin took every opportunity to get his hands on the wheel. "You couldn't keep Colin away from the cars when he was growing up," Jimmy remembered. "He was about five or so when I took up the sport and we've plenty of photos in the family album of him helping to refuel the car, standing around in overalls three times too big for him. He'd drive anything if he could reach the pedals."

According to David Williams, Colin, who is now 27, has retained the versatility he acquired in his early youth. "He has this amazing ability to be instantly quick in any vehicle, on any road," Williams said. "He just gets in and chucks it and sees what happens. Incredible. He just lives for adrenalin."

So much so that you sense that McRae would be just as happy tearing around a field in an old banger as he will be screaming through the Kielder Forest next week. He discounts the importance of recent technological advances in rallying. "We haven't got so many gizmos," he said. "The driving is just the same: clutch, gear-lever, steering-wheel, accelerator. If anything, the cars are less fun to drive this year because under the new regulations they have reduced the power of the engines. The cars feel a little bit dead now."

But Colin's championship ambitions are very much alive. "I'm more confident this year than I was last year," he said, "more experienced. I'm learning all the time. Last year it was just the RAC Rally that was the important thing. This year it's the championship. Mind you, it would be nice to win both . . ."

He won't lack for family support. Jimmy is competing in the historic section of the rally ("I was second last year. I want to improve on that"); and Colin's younger brother Alister, recently crowned the 1995 British rally champion, drives a Ford Escort in the main rally.

"My younger brother is one of the best," Colin said with a proud grin. "It would be good to see him in the world championship." How would he like him for a team-mate? He thought for a moment. "That would be great one day. As long as he didn't beat me." As he speeds off in pursuit of his first world title, big brother has half an eye on his rear-view mirror.

McRae's rough guide to the RAC Rally

The worst stage: Sunday's Stage Two. The drivers can't wait for the first day to be over. You can't gain a march on your rivals, yet you stand to lose everything. Chatsworth is tree-lined with slippy grass verges on both sides. The rocks on the side of the road add to the danger.

The most fun: Stages Four and Five at Donington are the real fun bit on what we drivers call the "Mickey Mouse" day. There's nowhere to damage the cars and the spectators are out in force.

The longest: Stage Nine at Pundershaw is, at 59km, the longest in the world championship. Part of the "Killer Kielder" stages, it's very fast with ditches either side of the road.

The best: Stage 13, Grizedale West. Two years on the trot I came a cropper in Grizedale while leading. Unlucky 13? Not a bit of it. It's twisty and smooth with few straights and a low average speed, which suits the Impreza.

The most enjoyable: Stage 15 at Dyfnant on Tuesday is muddy, slippery and very fast - ideal for a great drive.

The most exciting: Stage 28, Clocaenog East, the last stage. I hope to be there, in front, and staring the world title in the face.