By the time he was eight Colin McRae was riding off-road motorbikes and in his early teens he became the Scottish schoolboy motor-cross champion. Yet his real passion was cars and after a number of preliminary events he entered his first formal rally, the Kames stages, in 1985, driving a borrowed Talbot Avenger 1600, coming fourteenth and first in his class. His enthusiasm for fast cars was nurtured by his father, a highly successful driver in his own right, who came to hold the British rally championship five times (in 1981, 1982, 1984, 1987, and 1988). McRae’s brother Alister (b. 1970) was also a successful rally driver.
By his own admission Colin McRae had little interest in formal education but after leaving school he joined a mechanical engineering course at a local college and worked part-time at a garage in Lanark. Combining the two activities proved difficult and his father suggested that he join the family business, which he did, training successfully as a plumbing and heating engineer. He believed that his ability to drive a rally car at high speed was instinctive rather than the product of formal instruction. Nevertheless he must have benefited from his father’s advice and support, including the loan of his own co-driver, Ian Grindrod, for the 1986 season of the Scottish championship. McRae was also soon joined by Derek Ringer, who remained his co-driver during the most successful period of his career. With the support of the British junior rally team, he took part in his first world championship event, the Swedish rally, in 1987. He completed the course and achieved a highly creditable third in class. In 1988 he succeeded in winning the Scottish championship. In the following year he switched to larger cars and, driving a Ford Sierra XR 4×4, came fifteenth in the Swedish rally and, in another Ford, fifth in New Zealand.
For many years McRae had to rely on short-term financial support, which, he felt, forced him to concentrate ‘on being careful and avoiding mistakes rather than relaxing, driving naturally and showing what I could really do’ (McRae and Allsop, 33). The problem was resolved in 1991 when he signed a contract with Prodrive, the start of a relationship that lasted eight years and brought him his greatest triumphs. David Richards, founder of Prodrive and former rally co-driver, had known the McRae family for many years and was well acquainted with Colin’s driving skills. However, his decision was also strongly motivated by Prodrive’s link with the car maker Subaru, who were anxious to evaluate McRae at close quarters. McRae’s success with Prodrive was immediate. In 1991 he achieved victory in the British rally championship, a feat he repeated in the following year. In 1993 he graduated full-time to the world rally championship (WRC) and in the same period achieved his, and Subaru’s, first success in the competition by winning the New Zealand rally. The pinnacle of his professional career was reached in 1995 when, driving a Subaru Impreza, he became the first Briton, and the youngest ever competitor, to win the world rally championship. He was runner-up in 1996 and 1997 and his partnership with Subaru was also pivotal in enabling them to win the WRC constructors’ title three years in succession. On 14 July 1997 he married Alison Jane Hamilton (b. 1968), one of his earliest co-drivers (and daughter of Gavin Leggate Hamilton, farmer). They had two children.[caption id="attachment_22" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The Subaru of Colin McRae"][/caption]
A lucrative contract attracted McRae to Ford in 1999. Although at times frustrated with the unreliability of the Ford Focus, McRae went on to achieve another nine WRC victories and towards the close of the 2001 season was well placed to win the drivers’ championship, only to crash on the final round in Great Britain and finish second to the eventual winner, Richard Burns. McRae’s final WRC victory was in the Safari rally of 2002, bringing his total to twenty-five, a record at that time. A switch to Citroën in 2003 proved a disappointment and he was left without a sponsor for the following season. Yet his love of motor sport remained undiminished. In 2004 he rejoined Prodrive for the Le Mans twenty-four-hour race, finishing ninth overall, and the following year made one-off appearances in the WRC for Škoda. His final drive in the WRC was in Turkey in 2006.
McRae was widely liked and respected by his colleagues within motor sport. He contributed greatly to the popularity of rallying since his success was achieved through a style of driving that thrilled spectators, including television audiences. In 1996 he was appointed MBE for services to motor sport. His autobiography, The Real McRae, was published in 2001. He died in a helicopter crash a mile north of Lanark, near his Scottish home, on 15 September 2007; all four occupants on board were killed, including his young son, Johnny. His funeral took place at Daldowie crematorium on 26 September, and a thanksgiving service took place at St Nicholas’s Church, Lanark, on 30 September. He was survived by his wife, Alison, and their daughter, Hollie.