18 Apr: 1991, Colin McRae column

Colin McRae Column, October 1991 …

What a difference a year makes. One year ago I was sitting at home with writers’ cramp, telephonists’ ear and no more ideas about who to write to or telephone seeking sponsorship for the new season. My ride for the forthcoming 1990 Lombard RAC Rally had been confirmed, that was as part of a private R-E-D Ford team while Dad was in a Mike Little car both backed by Shell. You know, when I look back, Shell have supported me almost from the start, and without their support over th years, I might not have made it to where I am today. And where am I? I’m in a  World Rally Championship Team, that’s where. I’m so happy I could stuff a haggis!

It all started at the 1990 RAC In Harrogate last year. I got a result and Dad didn’t. That’s the problem with these ‘spectator special stages’ that feature on the opening day of Britain’s biggest sporting event, you can never plan for all eventualities. Just ask Tony Pond. But Dad got caught out at that British Steel Scunthorpe place. It was really greasy, the tyres were cold, it was foggy and he slid off. Nine times out of ten he would have got away with it, but there was a big ditch hidden in the grass and that was it . End of rally.

So it was up to me. Call it what you like, sheer skill or pure luck, but I finished 6th overall, top Brit, top Ford and top privateer. In many ways that was a better result than my previous world championship best, 5th on the New Zealand Rally.

But after all the highs, then came the lows. Things were looking doubtful for the new season.

Before  the rally, David Richards had a bit of a chat with Dad about life and rallying and David remarked that it was a pity I hadn’t got anything fixed up for the new season. Dad told him how hard we had been trying but we thought no more about it. It looked like a pretty bleak Christmas ahead.

And then the telephone rang. It was David Richards, and he asked us to go down and see him. Bloody hell (the original expression was edited out!), I came home with a contract to drive the Rothmans backed Prodrive prepared Subaru Legacy in the Shell Oils British Open Championship and the deal was announced the same evening at the Shell awards ceremony in January.

After that things were pretty hectic leading up to the Talkland International in February but there was little chance to actually drive the car. My total experience was a stint on tarmac at MIRA and about 10 miles in a forest before the rally. On the run up to the event, David was really good about it, no pressure, no pep talk. He told me that it didn’t matter where we finished – just as long as we finished!

The new car and the new team worked well right from the start and half way through the event Derek and I realised we could actually beat Russell Brookes’ times without taking chances. We won it and it provided an ideal start to the season.

Then came the BIF Circuit of Ireland Rally, an all tarmac affair, and the predictions started flying,. Many folk were of the opinion that the Subaru would struggle as it had never really proved itself on tarmac, being more of a gravel machine, but they were wrong. OK, so it was down on power compared with some of the front running Fords, but it is one the nicest handling cars I’ve ever driven. It’s light, stable and has tremendous brakes, even so it was asking a lot to beat Bertie (Fisher) in the Sierra Cosworth.

Again we were just going for a finish, the idea being to try and build up points early in the season as we learned all about the new car. And we won, but we were a shade lucky at one point when we had a puncture and a spin which damaged the suspension but we got out of the stage to service without too much time lost.

The third round was in Wales, and the 1991 Fram Welsh Rally turned out to be just the usual for me – eventful. We were lying second to Russell as we approached the long Hafren stage, and Russell always goes well in Hafren. Derek and I thought that if we could just take some time out of him in Hafren it might rattle him a little bit and give us a chance to get back at him over the later stages. It didn’t quite work out that way.

We were approaching what looked like a fairly straightforward left hander, but it tightened up. What really caught us out was the fact that the road widened at the end for the articulated logging trucks to turn round and then narrowed, but there was a lip at the edge of the road and that was what tripped us up. We got back out and managed to fight our way back up to 8th but when a brake pipe burst, we were off again and bent the steering. The car was virtually undriveable, but I tried and slid off for good this time, so that was it. The score was now, Derek and Colin -2, Russell and Neil – 1.

And then came the Perth & Kinross RSAC Scottish Rally, our home event. There was a bit of pressure on the Prodrive team for this one with Russell only 5 points behind us, and one of the favourites for victory in Scotland as he always goes well here. Tactics then favoured a steady points scoring run but I had been second to David Llewellin last year and it would be nice to go one better. A things turned out, the Rothmans Subaru performed faultlessly and we just cruised through the Scottish countryside to our third win of the season. The score was now, Derek and Colin -3, Russell and Neil – 1, with three rounds to go.

The next event featured a return to tarmac for the British Midland Ulster Rally and after the earlier Circuit, we arrived with high hopes, but disaster struck. We failed to finish when the clutch broke. It was certainly no fault of the Prodrive team, it was quite simply a component failure. We didn’t finish and we scored no points. Fortunately for us Bertie Fisher won the rally outright keeping Russell in second place. However, that was enough to put Russell into the Shell Open series lead.

Round 6 was again across the water, this time on the Isle of Man for the Manx, where I have something of a love/hate relationship with the island. That is, the island just loves to hate me. Admittedly many of the troubles on past events have been of my own making, but seriously, I enjoy the rally and for this event I was joined by Francois Chatriot from the World Championship Subaru Team. To put this British event into context, Francois said afterwards that the Manx was faster than any event in the European Championship.

When we arrived on the island, the organisers had arranged a ‘test session’ for the benefit of the TV cameras, and this worked in our favour. My first run in the car wasn’t particularly impressive and that must have encouraged all the Ford lads present. But after a few adjustments to the suspension settings, I went out again (sounds like a Formula 1 practice session, doesn’t it?) and beat Russell’s time by 20 seconds over the 5 mile stage.

That obviously gave the us in the Rothmans team a tremendous boost although I have no idea what it did to Russell’s team. I don’t think Russell would have been demoralised by that, he’s far too experienced a competitor, but it must have had some effect and as it turned out I had a fairly comfortable win.

On the other hand, Francois was in the wars, but he’s such a determined character that he pulled back to second place ahead of Russell. Since Francois was not registered in the Shell series it had no effect on the points situation which meant that Russell and I were now tied on 80 points, although Russell would have to drop a score after the final round. Equally satisfying for me was the fact I was able to beat Francois’ times. I know he was making his first visit to the island but he is vastly more experienced so I reckoned that evened us up a little.

The final round was back in Wales, the Audi Sport National, and we arrived in a relaxed frame of mind. All we needed was a top six finish to clinch the title whereas Russell had to hope we would strike trouble even if he won outright. Prior to that event I was sitting in the Pirelli motorhome with Derek, Andy Hallam and Gerry Freeman of Pirelli, and of course Dave Campion our Prodrive Team Manager. Dave was the most un-relaxed, so we started to wind him up. Derek and I were suggesting that we run different tyres on each side of the car so that we could do ‘back to back’ tyre tests on right and left hand bends and Andy and Gerry were nodding wisely and thinking this was a bloody good idea. Dave knew we were kidding, but we kept it up and remained straight faced. Then the doubts started to creep in. Dave only took so much, then shouted out: “That’s enough, back to work”.

As it was Russell took maximum points behind rally winner David Llewellin and we were third. We did have a wee fright with a puncture and a slide into a ditch but we also had a wee bit of luck this season – which was a change from the previous year.

At the finish, it was the sweetest champagne ever – and I don’t even like the stuff! It was our first British Open title and Derek and I owe a great deal of thanks to a great number of people, for it really was a team effort. In particular David Richards, David Campion and everyone at Prodrive, Rothmans who came back into rallying at the just the right time (as far as we were concerned), Shell Oils, Pirelli, International Motors and my own personal sponsor, Autoglass.

And there was more brilliant news. Derek and I have both been signed by Prodrive for the next three years which will include a number of World Championship outings. Ari Vatanen will be the new ‘team leader’ and Francois and myself will be joined by Possum Bourne. The Prodrive Subaru World Championship team can now concentrate on next year’s programme. As yet, no final decisions have been made, but what I can tell you is, I’m really excited by it all.

And then of course there is the 1991 Lombard RAC Rally. I was sixth last year and it would be nice to improve on that but looking at the line-up, it’s pretty heavy stuff. If I was putting my money on anyone then I would have to favour Markku Alen. By the time you read this you’ll know whether I was right or wrong.