CCC - December 1991
In the past, we could have been speaking of the legacy from his father. But now Colin McRae is a champion in his own right, in his own Legacy – as Graham Scott experienced from the co-drivers seat…
The Barkstone Rally has basically the same stages as the last day of the RAC, so it made sense for the Prodrive Rothmans Subaru team to be there to test tyres and equipment. For them it was a low-pressure weekend since, even if driver Colin McRae won, the points were of no use to his national Open rally. In the British Open Championship his points stood at 80, equal first with Russell Brookes although Colin had the edge in terms of rounds he could drop. The sole remaining round, the Audi Sport, was a few weeks away so now there was time to practice for the SAC, where Colin would be teamed with WRC heroes Markku Alen and An Vatanen.
As a bit of light relief the team decided to replace regular co-driver Derek Ringer with a hack, who would have to duplicate nearly all of the regular duties of the navigator, who is the in-car manager. On a major event the co-driver has to do all the paperwork, liaise with everyone else in the team, navigate and do all the time-keeping. I was that nanny.
The major problem was of course sheer fear. Not so much the fear of ending up in the top branches of a Yorkshire pine tree, but the fear of fouling up. With no time for me to actually practice. Dead “Ringer” had to teach me the basics of navigation on the stages. I also had to learn about the time keeping, bearing in mind that an experi enced journalist had not so long ago lost an important rally by checking his driver into a control one minute early.
That was indeed the major fear, but therewas a small doubt raising its hand for attention; should I be trapped firmly into a powerful car with a man who has built up a strong reputation for bending quite a lot of panels, quite a lot? Colin tried his best to be reassuring. “If you start young you are bound to be a bit wild, flat out everywhere. but you learn from your mistakes I got a bit of a reputation, so as soon as I made a mistake everyone was on to me and I got all the publicity. But this year has been a big improvement, I’ve only crashed once, on the Welsh, and that was totally my fault. Ultimately, though, for anyone who’s going to be quick enough to make it, when they start out they are going to have a lot of accidents.”
Derek Ringer agrees: “We have damaged a lot of cars, but I hope that reputation is fading. But you have to accept that at the speeds we are going, and the level of commitment shown by Colin there are bound to be accidents occasionally.” Derek kindly marked where some of the accidents they had had on these stages had happened, my road book then sporting a smattering of little crosses.I was not entirely convinced as we sat on the start line to the first stage, Harwood Dale, strapped into the Group A Subaru Legacy RS. The future, the immediate future, was very much an unknown quantity as we got the countdown to go. Two minutes and 42 seconds later we were at the end of the first stage. It happened so quickly that I barely had time to work out which corner was which before we got there. There was a memory of hearing the car stuttering constantly against the rev limiter in top gear, around 120mph, as the trees blurred by as a single enormous trunk with green foliage. Then it was over.
The nausea hit on the road section to the second stage. Colin made it a lot worse by trying out the brake bias adjuster on the road since the rear wasn’t swinging loosely enough for him. The colossal braking when he hit the pedal with his left foot was enough to cause bruises on my collar bones and, worse than that, it was savage enough to make your internal organs twist and writhe forward under the g-forces. I’d heard plenty of tales of navigators throwing up, some times when wearing full-face helmets, so the next few minutes were spent trying not to think about the eggs and home-made sausages that had been breakfast.
Stage two, Sneaton, was looser and more open, and was looking pretty good until we slid sideways into one of the many log piles sidling up to the track. The 70mph blow to the rear wheel and door on my side (naturally….) merely threw us straight and we carried on, spinning further on to avoid leaving the track, and finishing in reasonable order. So far so good, but on stage three, Langdale, the turbo, which was only running low boost, ate its own blades in the excitement and we limped along, the bonnet a haze of super-heated oil. Fortunately, stage four, Herm Head, was a short one and we bumbled through to the first 20-minute service well down the field.
Although this was not a major rally for the crew, there was still the pressure to win since Colin should do, and was expected to. That is a bad sort of pressure, so the mechanics leapt into action in the rain and the mud while Colin wandered into the motorhome to see his girlfriend and have something to eat. There are some who say he is hyped, a young upstart who has only got where he has because of his successful and famous father, Jimmy. Certainly he is young — when he was a 10-year-old school boy his main rival for this year’s title, Russell Brookes, was coming third on the 1978 RAC in an Escort RS but is it all down to his famous father?Colin doesn’t like that. “I wanted to do rallying even before I tried it. My father never taught me how to drive, although I did sit with him on testing and so on, so I picked up bits here and there. I had to get my own car and do rallies on my own. Only when he saw I was committed to it did he help me out. I was not pushed into it, he never pushed me into anything. I’m youngish even by club rally standards but I just started young. that’s all — I’m in my sixth season already.”
But is he hyped? His boss, Managing Director of Prodrive, David Richards, thinks he is. “There is hype in anything we are involved in. We generate it, you have to, but we make no excuses for it, and in this case it is built on something tangible.” He feels it is tangible enough for both Colin and Derek to sign a three-year contract with Prodrive and Subaru. In 1992 they will compete in the British Open as welt as four or five WRC events, followed by six or seven WRC events and selected British rallies in ‘93. 1994 will see a full assault on the World Rally Championship. Such a contract suits Prodrive and it also suits Colin and Derek: Colin’s navigator for five years now.“Last year” admits Colin “was not so good for me because we were under such pressure to get a good result in one event so that we would get help and sponsorship for the next. A three-year contract is a great break for me, it takes the pressure oft, I can have a few mishaps and still have a job!”
It is not going to be that simple, since David Richards is ruthlessly professional and knows that Colin needs to be more than a good driver, In the next two years Colin will be going through courses in media training, television work. public speaking, presentation, psychology. fitness training and diet, David explains why: ‘We are spending millions developing these cars, a fortune on the team; and then there’s the driver and we send him off home to mum, or to live in a flat eating baked beans! We need to look after him and make him more worldly.”This potential combination of driver, politician and PR celebrity was eating little bits of raw cauliflower dipped in mint dressing, apparently unconcerned that we were already nearly 10 minutes over our service time. He was well down the field, his car was a mess and was still in bits. He tried the raw carrot with mayonnaise. I consulted my watch and then the team manager for the thousandth time and finally hustled Colin into the car, which was stilt ‘on its jacks. Honestly, that boy has no sense of urgency.
Beneath us the mechanics put the finishing touches to their repairs. In half an hour they had fitted a new turbocharger, changed the oil, wheels and tyres, and welded and kicked straight the rear trailing arm link and bracketry damaged by the log pile. Ahead of us lay stage five, Dalby, known in British rallying as ‘The Killer’; 14’/2 miles with well over 40 significant corners and several flat-out straights through the trees and logs. Before the event Derek declared “Colin’s major strength is his level of concentration. When we get on a long stage we usually reckon to slaughter most of the opposition because he can maintain his concentration.” We slaughtered them.Okay, we had the best car and best driver, but it was 14mm l3sec of sheer driving brilliance, Yours truly managed to call all the turns correctly while watching the track move from Colin’s window, through the windscreen, round to my side window then back to the windscreen, We overcooked one tightening right-hander and slid into the bank with the nose, but that seemed only a minor irritation. Colin flowed through some really rather frightening bits of scenery, left toot padding the brake pedal, right foot stabbing the throttle, right hand banging through the dog box and then flicking the handbrake on and off, the electronically controlled centre duff allowing him to lock the back to spin it out while maintaining drive to the front, I shalt remember that quarter of an hour for some time, Stage six, Staindale, we did it again, and a 1mm 20 sec deficit had been made good in just two stages against several other Group A cars. Another service halt and Colin went back to the vegetables and a bacon roIl while I slurped a Ribena — any solid food and I would definitely have thrown up under the pressure of the timekeeping and the out raged complaints of a system unused to heavy g-forces and the sights it had seen.
The car needed the rear trailing arm brackets welding up again, a new exhaust from where we had squashed it, the radiator and intercooler needed to be relocated forward and new front end bits went on, The Subaru Legacy seemed one tough bird, given the incredible treatment meted out to it, but the entire team admitted it was down on horsepower compared to the rivals. First used in competition in 1990, the Legacy will be Colin’s chosen weapon next year. but for 1993 and on he will use the new Subaru, the55N, that is slightly smaller than the Legacy but with basically the same powerphant. For the RAC he should have a new engine that wilt give another 50bhp due to detail improvements and better build specification.
The car was looking a bit battered by stage seven, what with the rear door and front end still rather stoved in. but the farty-flat sounding engine was pumping along nicely, and the handling was beyond reproach. The next two stages were almost uneventful, except that we came up on Colin’s mate, Dom Buckley in his Mazda 323, who had lost first and second gears and was consequently dog slow out of the tighter turns. Instead of leaving him for dead (my friendly, if slightly crazed advice), Colin snuck up on the Mazda through the cloud of stones and dust, ramming him gently and punting him along until he could hit third and was away, only to be caught again a few corners later.
Colin didn’t have to do that, but he was cool enough to know that he could spare the seconds necessary to help a friend. Throughout the rally Colin would start chatting with anyone, just to say hello and to show that he was not playing superstar, this kid young enough to be some of the other drivers’ son, On the final stage, the tarmac track of Olivers Mount, we came up on Buckley again, and this time gave him an almighty wallop.
In the distance was a hairpin but Colin stayed glued to Mazda’s tail, pushing him faster and faster — Don later reported feeling Colin shift into sixth. At the last minute he let the Mazda go, and we honked over the line, clear winners by over a minute. Behind us stretched a course of varied abilities, all of whom had been working equally as hard as Colin, if not more so. He just had the best car there and the most amazing talent. Behind him is a totally professional team of some serious depth. Prodrive has 92 people working on the competition side so there is constant testing.
On the day I spoke to David Richards, a few days after the Barkstone Rally, the development team was at MIRA testing the automatic transmission that should be in competition early next year, and water-cooled brakes for later next sea son. The rally team was in Wales testing tyres for the RAC while the three RAC cars were being built at the company’s headquarters in Banbury. David Richards was also responsible for bringing Rothmans back into the world of rallying.
As a co-driver, he first brought Rothmans into rally sponsorship back in 1976, and they continued with him and his driver An Vatanen into the early Eighties. Rothmans pulled out in ‘67 to go GP bike racing but David managed to put a package together which attracted the tobacco firm enough to come back to sponsor Co for this season at least. They have come in at a toe-in-the-water level” says David, but I hope they’re happy with the results. They should be.” You can see why some people would be pissed of with Colin he’s not Scandinavian, he’s British, he has a famous father, lucrative sponsorship and a three-year contract with a big player, all at the age of 23. He is lucky, no doubt, but everyone around him admires his natural talent and the way that he copes with some awful pressures. Even on the relatively unimportant Barkstone Rally he was under pressure to win from Rothmans and Prodrive PR people, his team the competitors and the public — and win with a navigator he had never sat in the car with before. The night before the rally he grimaced and said quietly “Tomorrow everyone expects us to win. If we don’t well get a lot of stick. A navigator can’t win a rally, they say, be can only lose it Colin McRae won it. as he has done every rally he has finished so far this year.