The one-off McRae rally car designed for pure driving

The final act of Colin McRae's legacy was a rally car that embodied its creator through and through

I remember the conversations. I remember them well. Colin McRae had had enough. Enough of active this and anti-lag that. He’d spent some time in an MG Metro 6R4 around the time and he’d discovered pure driving.

Revealed in 2006, the McRae R4 was the 1995 world champion’s answer to what a particular section of the sport should be all about.

It was about driver input. And noisy output.

But mostly it was about enjoyment. And pure driving.

The combination of a 2.4-liter Millington Diamond engine with a six-speed sequential gearbox worked. A pair of fairly rudimentary differentials, the sort shorn of any electronic or hydraulic assistance for millisecond remapping on the merest hint of throttle application, were also added to the mix. The finished R4 possessed brilliant simplicity in its development and ground-breaking in its deployment.

Nobody had thought of this. Around that time, the thinking from Lanark was gloriously straightforward.

“Colin wanted to offer a car which cost around the same as a Group N car,” said Jimmy McRae. “But he wanted a driver’s car that you could get in and be challenged by – not get in and get all that popping and banging with the anti-lag.

“And Colin got what he wanted.”

Sitting alongside the five-time world champion as we nose our way out of the Knockhill paddock, it’s hard not to agree. This was very definitely Colin’s car.

Still a bit fluffy low down after its trailer trip across the Firth of Forth, Jim jabs the throttle and clears the throat.

Now that, my friends, is a noise.

That’s the soundtrack Britain’s first world champion was chasing. And it’s as clear and cool today as it was when fuel was first fired through the injectors a decade and a half ago.

Turning across some gravel onto a twisty Tarmac stage to the side of the Knockhill circuit main, you can feel the wheels snatching as the transmission tries to contain 350 naturally aspirated horses.

“Colin didn’t want a turbo,” said Jim. “He wanted… he wanted a modern Metro.”


Photo: BGMSport

And that’s what he got. The car’s not easy to drive, but once the five-time British champion septuagenarian sitting to my right is warmed up, he’s on top of the car and we’re really starting to get somewhere.

“You’ve got to drive it,” said McRae, “you’ve really got to drive it. And when you do, it really starts to work.

“Don’t forget, when the car first came out, Colin took it straight to Goodwood for the Festival of Speed. He was only a second down on Petter Solberg in the factory Subaru Impreza WRC around the forest stage. And that was straight out of the box…”

North of five or six thousand revs and the R4’s a dream. There’s enough power to play with the car, but the twists and turns of Knockhill’s rally stage are a little bit too confined for Jimmy to really open the thing up.

As well as that, there are so many options with this stage, it’s difficult to find a flow. More than once there’s a: “Bloody hell, where are we off to now?” coming through the intercom. I try to help, but a blind brow’s a blind brow and after getting one call wrong, I decide not to play 50:50 with a helpfully turned entirely unhelpful: “I think it’s right over here, Jim.”

It was left.

Committing to one crest takes us onto a road with more gravel than expected, with the odd stone tickling the bonnet after being flicked up by the asphalt-specification front splitter.

“I don’t think we’ll come this way again…” offers a slightly bashful Scot.

That trip along the loose offered an all-too-brief demonstration of the car’s ability. It also showed that a McRae behind the wheel remains a potent and powerful force.

All too soon, the tank was empty.


Photo: BGMSport

BGMsport chief Ian Gwynne – the man responsible for working on a machine put together originally by DJM Motorsport and then by McRae’s own engineer at M-Sport, now CA1 Sport director Martin Wilkinson – catches Jim’s eye. Instead of pulling fourth and a few more beans, we’re down the ‘box and alongside Ian.

“How much longer are you going to be out? There’s not much fuel left…”

It was like McRae was woken from a dream.

“Aye,” he said, “we’d better head back. I think we’re about done now.

“We just don’t take this car out now. It’s the only one, so it’s given a run every now and then, but that’s all. It’ll not be out for a while again now.”

It’s the rarest of things, the product of Colin McRae’s inner-most driving mind. But it wasn’t going to be like that. Before his death in 2007, the R4 was really starting to shape up.

“He was building a place at the house, he’d got it all planned out,” said McRae. “Martin [Wilkinson] was working with him and the two of them had a second version of the car coming – that car would have ironed out a few of the small niggling things which were present on this car.

“And, he’d four orders for cars. It was all coming together. There was even talk of a one-make series for the car. I’ve no doubt it would have worked.”


Photo: BGMSport

Post-2007, McRae’s wife Alison was keen to see the car continue, keen to see Colin’s dream realized in the hands of like-minded drivers. But without the driving force behind it, it wasn’t really viable.

Which leaves just the one. This one.

Flicking a toggle, McRae kills the engine and, just for a moment, he lets his eye wander slowly across the full array of switches and buttons before him. By today’s touchpad standards, they look slightly dated, but that’s not the point. From the best seat in the house, they look just fine. More than fine.

And he wants to know what it was like from the second-best seat in the house. Just being in the house was an absolute privilege.

“Not many have been in here,” he says. “Not many at all.”

In many ways, that simply heightens the mystique around the car McRae built.

Images courtesy of BGMsport

Words:David Evans