How Burns finally clinched the title nobody wanted to win

On the anniversary of Burns' 2001 WRC success, here's the story of how he became champion on Rally GB

011123GB Burns 10

Third place doesn’t usually mean too much to a World Rally Championship driver but, on this day 20 years ago, it meant everything to Richard Burns. Those four points on Rally GB were more than enough to ensure that he and Robert Reid were crowned World Rally Champions for the first time.

Seldom has there been a season finale quite as intense – or keenly remembered – as 2001. Burns was up against three previous world champions for the title: Colin McRae, Tommi Mäkinen, and Carlos Sainz.

Sainz was the rank outsider. He needed to win in Wales and hope that none of his rivals finished inside the top six to take the crown. Any one of the other contenders could guarantee themselves the title if they won the rally with 10 points available for a win, six points for second, four for third down to one point for sixth place.

2001 WRC standings after round 13 of 14

Position Driver Team Points
1 Colin McRae Ford 42
2 Tommi Mäkinen Mitsubishi 41
3 Richard Burns Subaru 40
4 Carlos Sainz Ford 33

“I think it’s very open, all three drivers,” said Sainz before the start of the rally, effectively ruling himself out. “Obviously Colin and Richard have good chances [on their home rally] but you cannot forget about Tommi.”

“The best man will win, so it’s clear,” added Mäkinen.

Burns was bullish: “I’m desperate to win the championship, whoever’s behind me is behind me.”

McRae, equally, was clear: “I want me to win it, full stop.”

220 miles of flat-out rallying in the classic Welsh forests would decide it.

Thursday November 22

011123GB Atmosphere_Mcklein330

The event got underway with a short superspecial stage in host city Cardiff, and the title contenders squared off against one another in two separate heats.

Mäkinen was up against Sainz’s Ford but seemingly a little flustered in his Mitsubishi, initially lining up in the wrong lane and then clattering the guard railing on the outside of the course no less than three times, finding himself down in 18th overall.

The big battle of the evening was between Burns and McRae, however. The two Brits hadn’t been beaten on home turf since 1993 in the WRC – McRae winning the 1994, 1995 and 1997 events (1996 was a non-WRC round) while Burns had triumphed in 1998, 1999 and 2000. With a championship title to dispute, the atmosphere was fever pitch.

First blood went to McRae. He not only beat Burns in their duel but was quickest of all the runners to establish an early rally lead heading into the first full day of action. Burns lay in 10th, 2.5 seconds behind McRae.

Classification after SS1

Position Driver Co-Driver Car Time
1 Colin McRae Nicky Grist Ford Focus WRC ‘01 2m10.1s
2 Petter Solberg Phil Mills Subaru Impreza S7 WRC +0.1s
3 Carlos Sainz Luis Moya Ford Focus WRC ‘01 +0.7s
4 Marcus Grönholm Timo Rautiainen Peugeot 206 WRC +1.1s
5 Gilles Panizzi Hervé Panizzi Peugeot 206 WRC +1.4s
6 Didier Auriol Denis Giraudet Peugeot 206 WRC +1.7s

Friday November 23

McRae blasted off the line first as championship leader, and meant business as he set the pace on the opening St Gwynno test. But the big news was the demise of Mäkinen’s Mitsubishi.

The team had completed four days of testing in Wales to develop the new Lancer WRC, with a particular focus on the engine and suspension. But Mäkinen’s suspension gave way halfway through the eight-miler when he hit a hole in the road and he was immediately forced to slow.

Mäkinen tried his best to bodge a repair, but he was out. His final event with Mitsubishi after seven seasons that yielded four championships ended in despair.

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“I don’t know what happened, it was strange,” commented Mäkinen back at service. “It was a very fast left corner and there was a little hole on the inside which was marked on our notes, and we went exactly the right line, everybody else went exactly the same line there was no difference at all.

“Suddenly just ‘puff’. Rallying is not easy at all sometimes. If you are not lucky you are not lucky and if you are lucky you are lucky, everything works well. But today was a day which was not so lucky for us.”

Sainz was also in the wars. Loose stones had punctured his front-right tire and the run-flat mousse failed to do its job, meaning Sainz had to drive on the rim and was dumped to 14th place. It was now effectively a McRae vs Burns dogfight.

Burns had lost a further 4.9s to McRae on SS2 so was fourth, 7.4s behind, with the Peugeots of Marcus Grönholm and Didier Auriol just ahead of him. There was little to separate the fan favorites on SS3, Burns edging McRae by 0.1s, but they were both beaten by the Peugeots – which left McRae with just a 0.2s lead over outgoing world champion Grönholm.

McRae and Grist were suddenly corkscrewing through the air, the Focus tumbling after finding a hole on the inside of a corner

Then the crews headed onto Rhondda. McRae was on an absolute mission, pushing his Ford Focus to the ragged edge. Nicky Grist called the notes: “Into six crest 70, six left tightens and six right tightens to five minus, 30, five left plus cut into six cr…”


McRae and Grist were suddenly corkscrewing through the air, the Focus tumbling down the stage after finding a hole on the inside of that ‘six right tightens to five minus’ in fifth gear.

The silence between the pair was deafening as the car came to rest on its wheels.

Next on the scene was Burns’ and Reid’s Subaru. It was the second time in three stages the pair had met one of their title rival crews on-stage. The importance of passing the wrecked Focus soon hit them as they almost went off themselves just a few corners down the road. Burns braked too late and had to back the Impreza into a square-right, hitting some logs with the rear and stalling before pressing on his way again.


The mission had changed, for everybody. Burns only needed fourth place to secure the title and he was up to third, while Grönholm now led. And with McRae out and Sainz in trouble, he was unleashed with Peugeot’s manufacturers title looking safe.

Fastest on all-but one of the remaining five stages, Grönholm was in control and carved open a 36.6s lead by the end of the day. Team-mate Auriol had been trailing him, buoyed by the much drier than normal conditions, but when the rain and fog moved in on SS7 and SS8 the 1994 world champion slipped backwards.

The other works Peugeot of Harri Rovanperä swooped in. Quickest on the final stage of the day, he moved up onto the provisional podium behind Burns and his on-form team-mate Grönholm – who survived a hairy moment at the beginning of the final test.

Sainz’s day didn’t get any better in the dark of SS8, as he plunged off the road in his Focus and had to clamber out of the car to figure out how to escape.

It had been a brutal day that claimed several high-profile entrants. Subaru’s Petter Solberg had been second before a fuel pump problem forced him out on the first forest stage and team-mate Markko Märtin had to contend with a fire at the rear of his Impreza.

But the biggest retirement of all had to be McRae as he went from bookie’s favorite to longshot in an instant. He could still become champion for a second time, but needed Burns to falter.

“I made a mistake, I cut a corner just a bit too much and there was a hole in the inside and it flipped the car upside down,” he said.

“We were trying to win the championship and things like that can happen, I’m just sorry for the whole team. It was so near but we haven’t got it again.

“It’s the biggest disappointment of my career to date.”

Classification after SS8

Position Driver Co-Driver Car Time
1 Marcus Grönholm Timo Rautiainen Peugeot 206 WRC 1h20m15.0s
2 Richard Burns Robert Reid Subaru Impreza S7 WRC +36.6s
3 Harri Rovanperä Risto Pietiläinen Peugeot 206 WRC +52.4s
4 Didier Auriol Denis Giraudet Peugeot 206 WRC +2m10.0s
5 Carlos Sainz Luis Moya Ford Focus WRC ‘01 +2m26.9s
6 Alister McRae David Senior Hyundai Accent WRC2 +2m37.6s

Saturday November 24

Burns had two days and nine stages to complete to seal the championship, but nothing was guaranteed. As McRae put it: “The rally’s not finished yet, Richard’s still got to finish in the top four. Carlos is still going, so things could happen.”

McRae seemed to have dusted down his crystal ball, as Burns’ Subaru refused to start out of parc fermé on Saturday morning. It was stressful, but not terminal. Burns and Reid pushed the car out of the time control and then changed the spark plugs on the boxer engine, keeping themselves in the running.

“Not very pleasant but it was like a controlled panic,” Burns said once in the safety of morning service. “It’s happened before, we know what to do so not too bad.”

Once out on the stages, it was clear that Burns wasn’t interested in any heroics. It was Grönholm’s rally to lose, and he was again fastest on Saturday’s opening Resolfen stage – the longest test of the rally at nearly 29 miles.

Auriol went off on SS9 and lost a minute, being passed by Sainz on the stage. Alister McRae meanwhile could’ve helped out his brother Colin by getting ahead of Burns, and was clearly trying as he slid into a ditch on a Resolfen hairpin before nailing the throttle and pulling himself out of it.

Rovanperä had closed to just two seconds behind Burns after Resolfen but smacked some rocks on SS10, wincing as the impact damaged his 206’s steering. This was nothing compared to what Mitsubishi’s Freddy Loix was contending with though.

He lost the rear differential of his Lancer WRC on Friday afternoon and therefore lay just 12th before Margam, but his shrieks of fury as he battled through the stage indicated all was not well. His transmission was letting go and he lost third, fourth and fifth gears – forcing him into retirement.

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The rally would take a more somber turn on the second pass of Brechfa. In the thick fog and pools of mud, Sainz went off at a junction and collided with a wall of spectators. Thirteen were taken to hospital, but mercifully nobody’s injuries were life-threatening.

“We realized immediately that there were some injured so we pressed the SOS button, we advised our team,” explained Sainz.

“And the only thing I can tell you is that the next four hours were not very nice until we realized nothing serious happened. I’m really happy the people involved are not very badly injured and I feel very sorry about that [crash].”

Five drivers set a time for SS11 but the succeeding Trawscoed stage was scrapped, and as a mark of respect Ford decided to pull a visibly shaken Sainz and third driver Mark Higgins, who had been an encouraging seventh overall despite losing gears and puncturing on Saturday morning, from the rally.

Burns didn't care that he'd missed out on a fourth-straight Rally GB win. Reaching the finish, he grabbed Reid and exclaimed: "You’re the best in the world!"

“We now obviously need to look and work very closely with the authorities, the organizers to see exactly what happened and what can be done in the future to address the situation,” said Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson.

As Peugeot held a four-point lead over Ford prior to Rally GB, Ford’s decision guaranteed that Peugeot would retain its manufacturers’ title. But on Saturday night, championships were the last thing on anybody’s mind.

Some buzz was reinjected into the rally as another running of the Cardiff superspecial did take place, and was won by Alister McRae’s Hyundai.

Classification after SS13

Position Driver Co-Driver Car Time
1 Marcus Grönholm Timo Rautiainen Peugeot 206 WRC 2h21m34.2s
2 Richard Burns Robert Reid Subaru Impreza S7 WRC +1m35.4s
3 Harri Rovanperä Risto Pietiläinen Peugeot 206 WRC +1m44.6s
4 Alister McRae David Senior Hyundai Accent WRC2 +4m14.7s
5 Armin Schwarz Manfred Hiemer Škoda Octavia WRC Evo2 +5m56.7s
6 Kenneth Eriksson Staffan Parmander Hyundai Accent WRC2 +6m10.1s

Sunday November 25

Just four stages remained of the 2001 season, but the grandstand finale that had been anticipated hadn’t materialized. Although his night’s sleep was poor as a wedding karaoke in his hotel disturbed him, Burns had as straightforward a task on the rally as he could have dreamed it to be – he could even afford to drop two positions and still win his first world title.

“There’s still quite a bit of work to do but obviously I’ve got my fingers crossed, so I’m just going to drive as comfortably as he can,” he promised at morning service.

“He will take the championship for sure, but we will take it back next year,” smiled rally leader Grönholm, with a statement that 12 months later proved to be entirely accurate.

Rovanperä wasn’t as chilled as his contemporaries though. He wasn’t out for a Sunday drive, he blazed a trail to go quickest on the day’s opener, deposing Burns of his second place. Grönholm put his team-mate in his place on SS15, but Burns’ reduced pace meant Peugeot was on for a dominant 1-2.

Alister McRae ran into bother when his windshield wiper seized up on Sunday morning in heavy rain, but he did what all good rally drivers do and got resourceful. He engineered a make-shift solution using the radio cable from his Accent WRC’s cockpit, and it proved effective enough for McRae to seal a season’s best fourth place.

Škoda’s season also ended on a high with Armin Schwarz in fifth, but sixth place for Hyundai’s Kenneth Eriksson allowed it to draw level with Škoda in the manufacturers’ championship. However, Škoda secured fifth on countback thanks to Schwarz’s fourth place on the Monte Carlo Rally.

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Grönholm proved what might have been with a crushing victory in his Peugeot, winning 11 of the 16 competitive stages of the event. His season had been torrid, but he took deep satisfaction from winning the demanding Rally GB. Rovanperä executed the perfect team result with second, but the cheers were reserved for car #5.

He may have missed out on a fourth consecutive Rally GB victory, but Burns didn’t care a jot with a much bigger accolade at stake. Crossing the finish-line of Margam 2, the 30-year-old reached over, grabbed Reid’s arm and exclaimed: “You’re the best in the world!”

Grönholm, Burns’ team-mate for the following season, was first to congratulate Burns as he reached the stop control.

“I drove even worse than my grandma in the last few kilometers, but it feels fantastic,” Burns offered the media as he tried to process what he had achieved.

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A fumbled sentence captured the gravity of the moment perfectly.

“I can’t believe it, I’m sorry,” said Burns. “Of course I’ve been thinking about it today but how the hell, you can’t imagine when you get here, how good it feels.”

A truly bonkers season had ended with a topsy-turvy rally, and a fully deserving champion.

Rally GB 2001 overall classification

Position Driver Co-Driver Car Time
1 Marcus Grönholm Timo Rautiainen Peugeot 206 WRC 3h23m44.8s
2 Harri Rovanperä Risto Pietiläinen Peugeot 206 WRC +2m27.1s
3 Richard Burns Robert Reid Subaru Impreza S7 WRC +3m15.4s
4 Alister McRae David Senior Hyundai Accent WRC2 +6m48.8s
5 Armin Schwarz Manfred Hiemer Škoda Octavia WRC Evo2 +7m31.3s
6 Kenneth Eriksson Staffan Parmander Hyundai Accent WRC2 +8m11.0s
7 Didier Auriol Denis Giraudet Peugeot 206 WRC +8m21.1s
8 Bruno Thiry Stéphane Prévot Škoda Octavia WRC Evo2 +10m55.6s
9 Grégoire de Mauvias Jack Boyere Peugeot 206 WRC +14m17.7s
10 Toshi Arai Tony Sircombe Subaru Impreza S7 WRC +15m06.4s


Thursday November 22
SS1 Cardiff Super 1 (1.52 miles) 1910

Friday November 23
SS2 St Gwynno (8.43 miles) 0826
SS3 Tyle (6.55 miles) 0853
SS4 Rhondda 1 (16.45 miles) 0929
SS5 Crychan (8.11 miles) 1240
SS6 Halfway (10.84 miles) 1304
SS7 Brechfa 1 (18.52 miles) 1603
SS8 Trawscoed 1 (16.32 miles) 1651

Saturday November 24
SS9 Resolfen (28.86 miles) 0855
SS10 Margam 1 (17.35 miles) 1123
SS11 Brechfa 2 (18.52 miles) 1353
SS12 Trawscoed 2 (16.32 miles) 1441 [cancelled]
SS13 Cardiff Super 2 (1.52 miles) 1910

Sunday November 25
SS14 Rheola 1 (16.73 miles) 0758
SS15 Rhondda 2 (16.45 miles) 0942
SS16 Rheola 2 (16.73 miles) 1218
SS17 Margam 2 (17.35 miles) 1336

Competitive distance: 219.96 miles

WRC 2001 drivers’ standings

Position Driver Team Points
1 Richard Burns Subaru 44
2 Colin McRae Ford 42
3 Tommi Mäkinen Mitsubishi 41
4 Marcus Grönholm Peugeot 36
5 Harri Rovanperä Peugeot 36
6 Carlos Sainz Ford 33

WRC 2001 manufacturers’ standings

Position Team Points
1 Peugeot 106
2 Ford 86
3 Mitsubishi 69
4 Subaru 66
5 Škoda 17
6 Hyundai 17