Busting the McRae vs Burns rivalry myth

As two Brits competing for the WRC title, Colin McRae and Richard Burns were naturally competitive - but not enemies

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For two drivers that couldn’t have been more different in terms of their approach to winning World Rally Championship rallies and titles, it’s amazing how many comparisons are made between Colin McRae and Richard Burns.

While McRae was a flat-out attack, risk-it-all-to-win kind of driver, Burns had a far more calculated, methodical and tactical style.

But of course, Scotsman McRae and Englishman Burns both found themselves at the forefront of the WRC at the turn of the 21st century, and effectively squared off against one another for the 2001 title on neutral ground: Wales.

That weekend was one of the most revered in WRC history – and on Thursday, 20 years to the day since it unfolded, DirtFish will be focusing on that titanic battle which Burns won with plenty of exclusive content. But before that, we’re here to bust a common myth.

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McRae and Burns were fierce rivals, how couldn’t they be with what was at stake? But the notion that they didn’t like each other is incredibly wide of the mark. Of course, each driver took great satisfaction from beating the other, but there was a great deal of respect between them both – something that wasn’t always portrayed in public.

“There are a few people that would say ‘I’ll support any of the Brits that are winning’, but I think most people would be ‘I really like Richard because he’s a thinking driver’ or ‘I really like Colin because of how sideways he goes,'” says Burns’ co-driver Robert Reid in a special episode of SPIN, The Rally Pod available on Thursday.

“They were quite polarizing from a fan perspective, so I think it’s only natural that that polarization kind of continued over in the media and what people thought.

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I think Colin probably used to play the press to his own advantage but it was always very much tongue in cheek Nicky Grist

“There was a bit of this English/Scottish [rivalry] and I was obviously stuck in the middle with that one being the Scot co-driving for the Englishman, but I think it was also the flamboyance vs the calculation.

“But it would’ve been unusual for us at that time not to have dinner at least once with Colin on the recce. I’d known Colin years before I knew Richard. In 2001 we went to South Africa for Robbie Head’s wedding and Colin and Alison, and Richard and Zoe rented a house together in Camps Bay in Cape Town, and stayed together, stayed with each other in the house for 10 days.

“Now, they probably were closer to falling out or doing something nasty to each other after 10 days living together in the same house than they ever were rallying against each other for years. But they got on really well.

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“Colin would often come up and say, ‘fair play Burnsie, that was a good time’ and even when we won [the championship] Colin was home in Scotland, but he was one of the first people on the phone. There was a huge amount of mutual respect.”

“I think Colin probably used to play the press to his own advantage by joking around saying something a little controversial, but it was always very much tongue in cheek,” McRae’s co-driver Nicky Grist tells DirtFish.

“It was never anything nasty or anything like that. It was just a bit of fun, and just general wind-ups. But while Colin was of that demeanor, Richard on the other hand was a very serious individual and probably a lot of what was said didn’t always go down well with Richard.

“But at the end of the day they were friends and the best of competitors as well. And it was just Colin being Colin.”

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Sadly, neither McRae nor Burns are around today to reminisce about their rivalry, but it would certainly have been fascinating to witness what kind of bond they may have had today.

The best insight we can offer comes from McRae’s autobiography The Real McRae written with Derick Allsopfirst published in 2001 by Ebury Press. 

In the chapter ‘Friends and Rivals’ McRae discusses his battles with several other greats of his era like Tommi Mäkinen and Carlos Sainz before focusing on Burns.

“Drivers don’t really talk among themselves about who’s the best in our business. It’s just not done,” McRae wrote.

“But I do phone up Richard now and then when I’ve had a few too many beers and feel in a mischievous mood and tell him I’m quicker than him. I like to wind him up. He reckons I must love him because I only ever call him when I’m drunk!

“He’s never tried to get his own back yet, but he’ll probably get me back a cracker one day. Richard is the only one I wind up like that. Carlos would be too easy to rev up. It wouldn’t be as satisfying, and he definitely wouldn’t appreciate it. Richard can actually see the funny side of it.

“People try to build up the rivalry between Richard and me, which is fair enough. I like that bit of edge. It makes things more interesting for both of us. But it’s no more than a rivalry. It’s certainly not hostility. In fact, we’re both quite amused when people try to stir things up between us.

“I’ve got a lot of time for Richard. He’s a decent chap who likes a laugh and a bit of fun away from the job. We’ll have a drink together after a rally and enjoy each other’s company. Apart from the fact he’s English, he’s OK.”