Motorsport memories: when McRae magic gripped the nation

| 15 Oct 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic

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As he had been throughout the entire event, Colin McRae was cheered to the rafters as he drove on to the ramp at Chester Racecourse at the end of the 1995 RAC Rally.

His victory had made him Britain’s first World Rally Champion and, at the age of 27, he remains the youngest person to achieve the feat.

Formalities over, the Subaru burbled down off the ramp and, with co-driver Derek Ringer waving the flag of Scotland from his window, McRae flicked the car into a series of doughnuts.

It was a joyous scene at the end of a hard-fought season.

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
McRae/Ringer’s famous celebration

Subaru had finished one-two-three on the previous round in Catalunya, with McRae’s teammate Carlos Sainz taking victory on home turf after the controversial imposition of team orders. 

McRae had been narrowly trailing the Spaniard going into final day, and Prodrive boss David Richards told them to hold position. With a world championship on the line, neither driver was keen, and when McRae was left with the impression that Sainz wouldn’t have followed orders had the positions been reversed, he decided to go for victory.

He entered the final stage eight seconds in front, and blasted past a team official who stood by the roadside and tried to slow him down.

Only when he reached the penultimate control at Lloret de Mar and had a very public ‘discussion’ with the team did he check in one minute late and hand victory to Sainz.

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
Sainz/Moya secured victory at home in Spain

The result meant that, instead of McRae leading by 10 points, the two men were tied on 70 apiece heading into the RAC Rally.

There were also slim title hopes for Toyota’s Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol, but they needed a miracle – Auriol, in particular.

As Keith Oswin wrote in the conclusion to his Autosport Rally Catalunya report: ‘Book a holiday, dental appointment, funeral of the family dog or whatever, but be in the forests to see the final chapter. It’s winner takes all on the RAC.’

Between Spain and Great Britain, however, Toyota was thrown out of the championship and handed a 12-month ban for running illegal air restrictors on its turbochargers. Four became two – it would be a straight fight between Sainz and McRae.

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
Kankkunen/Grist – en route to second in Portugal – were championship contenders before being disqualified

On Sunday 19 November, crews would leave Chester and tackle seven stages leading to an overnight halt in Leeds.

Day two took them up beyond Newcastle into the borders, before heading back down to Chester. Day three meant the challenges of mid-Wales, with the final day comprising stages around north Wales before the finish at Chester on Wednesday afternoon. 

In those days, the RAC Rally was the biggest sporting event in the country in terms of spectator numbers.

In 1995, more than two million of them would line the route, the vast majority roaring their support for McRae and Ringer.

There was daily television coverage on the BBC, plus radio updates throughout the day, as British enthusiasts held their breath in anticipation of crowning a homegrown champion.

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
Sainz/Moya tussled with McRae/Ringer on the ’95 RAC

The event started with the popular spectator stages, and Sainz was nearly caught out at Chatsworth when he hit the water splash with unintended ferocity and damaged the radiator.

Fortunately, he got the car to the next service area and the mechanics were able to replace it while the Spaniard muttered about the water being deeper than it had been during the recce. 

McRae led for a while on the opening day, but by the overnight halt in Leeds he’d dropped to third behind the Mitsubishis of Tommi Mäkinen and Kenneth Eriksson.

The margins were tiny, though, and on day two they all headed north to Hamsterley then the legendary Kielder Forest.

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
McRae/Ringer mastered the conditions

Mäkinen was an early casualty when his car’s front suspension cried enough and a flailing driveshaft damaged the gearbox, and McRae pounced.

He was fully 28 seconds faster than everyone else through Hamsterley, but then suffered a puncture in the Pundershaw stage.

Advantage Sainz, who took the overall lead by more than a minute, but back came McRae. He was at his spectacular best in Grizedale and ended the day just 39 seconds behind his title rival. 

Day three, and McRae continued his charge in mid-Wales. He took 10 seconds out of Sainz in Dyfnant, and a further eight through Sweet Lamb. 

The Scot said that he was still driving within his limits, but those limits were clearly higher than anyone else’s. “The only answer to Colin is to have more fog,” said Sainz’s co-driver Louis Moya.

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
McRae/Ringer on the road to victory

Sainz stabilised the gap on the Brechfa stage, but McRae closed again through Trawscoed and saved the best until last. On the second run through Sweet Lamb, he was 22 seconds faster than his teammate.

There was still a full day to go, but it felt as if the knockout blow had been delivered, and he slept on a 17-second advantage. 

The rest of the field was nowhere and Sainz predicted that, on the last day, McRae would feel pressure like he never had before.

Perhaps he was trying to convince himself that there was still a slim chance that the Scotsman would falter.

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
A famous win for Colin McRae (right) and Derek Ringer

He didn’t. McRae was on imperious form and extended his lead throughout the Welsh stages, spectators lining the route and cheering him on his way.

Air horns and even bagpipes added to the tidal wave of support that carried the Subaru back to Chester.

Inside the car, however, McRae was typically understated as he and Ringer finished the final stage.

“That’ll do for me,” he said to his co-driver over the intercom, and later summed up his momentous achievement as follows: “The car was good, the stages were good – very quick. Not a problem…”

Classic & Sports Car – Motorsport memories: McRae magic
That magic moment, 24 years ago

Everyone confidently predicted that it would be the first of many titles for McRae, but 1995 remained his sole championship success. 

It matters not – there is perhaps no other sport in which statistics are as meaningless as motor racing.

Others may have won more titles, more rallies and more stages, but very, very few have caught the imagination in the way that McRae did. Particularly for those magical four days in November 1995.

Images: Motorsport Images


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