Because what he brought to rallying was a swashbuckling, at times outrageous, and yes, even reckless style that held fans spellbound. He lived off speed and yearned for every opportunity to push himself and his car to the very limits.
To stand out in the forest, on the RAC rally (or Rally GB as it is now), with the diehard fans waving their saltires, waiting for McRae to appear through the trees, tingled the senses with expectation. And then to witness the man bring that beast of a car sideways around a corner then flick it back on to a straight course again was pure theatre. And the audience roared and laughed a nervous laughter because they knew just how close to the edge he was.
And of course sometimes he went over the edge. His detractors gave him the moniker “McCrash”. But he always reasoned it was better to build from a base of natural speed and then hone that talent into viable and sensible parameters. Yet, even as an experienced driver, he could never resist the challenge of finding that extra 10th of a second. That is what turned him on. And that is why he became the biggest rallying star this country has ever produced.
Colin Steele McRae was born to compete. His father, Jimmy, was outstanding on two wheels and four. Jimmy won the British Rally Championship five times. Another of his sons, Alister, also became British champion. But neither matched the pace, flamboyance and attraction of Colin.
As a small boy, he sat on his grandfather’s lap playing with the steering wheel of his car. There was never any doubt that he would hit the road in earnest the moment he had the chance. He owned up to mischievous pranks on his father’s scrambling bike. When he was a little older he and a friend raced a mini around the old mines of Rigside, near the family home in Lanark. Jimmy already realised he was destined to compete. Colin’s mother, Margaret, despaired that another of her loved ones would be out there, taking risks in the name of fun.
But that was all it was for Colin at the time. He was addicted to speed and, no doubt, to the element of risk. He entered his first rally in 1985 in an Avenger borrowed from a friend. He went off and landed in a peat bog but dragged the car out and eventually finished. He was hooked.
He bought his own “serious” car for rallying, a Sunbeam, for £850. That car, beautifully restored, sits in a garage at his home. Colin, like his father, excelled on two wheels but achieved fame and, ultimately, fortune in cars. He won the Scottish Championship and made his debut in the British Championship in 1989. That same year too, he had his first experience of World Championship competition. His big break came in 1991 when David Richards, the chairman of Prodrive, signed him for the Subaru rally team. He had a full drive in the British Championship, and pledges of opportunity in the World Championship. He even got his first wage, £10,000 a year. He said recently: “It was great being paid to do what I love and made it easier not having to worry about sponsorship, but what really mattered was the chance to compete with a good car and team.”
That was his philosophy throughout this career, yet such was his stature and allure that he became a wealthy man through rallying.
He became world champion in 1995, at the age of 27, after a tense duel with his team-mate, Spain’s Carlos Sainz. Appropriately, he secured the title in his home event.
He went close twice more with Subaru before joining Ford on a salary of £3m a year. Again he put himself in contention for the championship but in 2000 his fearlessness almost cost him his life. He went down a ravine in Corsica and his car became wedged, upside down. He was trapped. His co-driver Nicky Grist and his physiotherapist Bernie Shrosbree dragged him out. Shrosbree revealed that McRae had been within 15 minutes of death.
McRae was airlifted to hospital and then taken back to Scotland, where he told the specialist he had to be patched up in time for the next rally, barely three weeks away. Unsurprisingly to those who knew him, McRae did compete at the San Remo rally.
The following year he should have had that elusive second title but went off in his quest to complete the job in his own, inimitable, charismatic way. That handed the championship to his English rival, Richard Burns.
McRae had teased Burns through the season but was man enough to congratulate him and admit he had underestimated him.
Burns was soon to be struck down by illness, an illness which proved fatal. Now McRae, too, is gone. Burns was a great champion, but even his staunchest fans would concede he never matched the appeal of McRae. It is doubtful anyone ever will.