McRae magic and service park chaos: The story of Argentina 2001

Twenty years ago, McRae did the unthinkable while a spectator fire ended Škoda's rally

2001 Argentina Rallyworld wide copyright: McKlein

Landing into Buenos Aires 20 years ago, Colin McRae didn’t have much to smile about. Four rounds into the 14-event schedule and the Scot had yet to register a point. Sweden provided his only finish; ninth after a couple of minutes too many in a snowbank.

Twenty-four points up the road was Tommi Mäkinen. The Mitsubishi man landed a brace of wins and a third place to lead the charge in his pursuit of a fifth title in six years.

McRae knew something had to change in South America, but asked if he’d back himself for the win, he shook his head ruefully.

How could he win? He would be starting 14th for the opening leg around La Cumbre, where the soft, sandy stages would dig up, dig out and offer him little chance of exploring a line outside the tramline ruts which would appear in next to no time. And the only respite from the ruts would come when he met the inevitable rock, pulled out by one of 13 cars ahead of him.

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It’s fair to say, McRae wasn’t exactly brimful of self-confidence as he lined up for Thursday night’s superspecial at Pro-Racing on the outskirts of Villa Carlos Paz.

Sadly, the 2.11-mile Pro-Racing stage is no more. Back in the day it was, without a doubt, one of the best superspecials in the world. There was a bit of undulation, some camber, some quick bits, some very quick bits and some slow twisties too. It was all on gravel and it was all done in front of thousands and thousands of insanely passionate rally fans who have waited 361 days for this moment to come around again and aren’t afraid to show it.

That Thursday night was pure McRae theater. The crowds went absolutely wild as the Scot scorched past Saltires with a variety of spellings of his surname daubed across them.

Rarely are rallies controlled from Friday lunchtime, but that one was

The Ford star went to bed 5.3 seconds up on his team-mate Carlos Sainz.

McRae’s mood had lifted, but he still eyed Mäkinen’s place opening the road with some degree of envy.

His mood lifted even more when fog hung low over the road from La Falda to Rio Ceballos. McRae sensed an opportunity and gave it everything to lift 17.2s out of everybody in 18 miles. Quickest again in the following Ascochinga test, McRae arrived into Friday lunchtime service on the back of a 39.3-second lead.

The best of the rest, the next three? Sainz, Mäkinen and Richard Burns were split by just 2.6s. How on earth had McRae done that? He’d done it by doing what he could do best: snatching the inch on offer and turning it into a mile in the Punilla Valley.

Rarely are rallies controlled from Friday lunchtime, but that one was. The celebration on Sunday afternoon was immense. But there was an even greater sense of relief that McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist had finally put points on the board.

The 2001 season’s first of five longhaul rallies was a real reason to be cheerful for British fans as Burns harried McRae through the Argentina weekend. Between them, they were quickest on 17 of the 21 stages – which was an encouraging indicator for the year on gravel ahead.

Don’t forget, prior to 2001 Rally Argentina, Portugal had been the only dirt outing and with so much rain and mud around in Porto, nobody was reading too much into that result.

Argentina is always one of the best trips of the season, year on year you marvel at folk sleeping alongside the El Condor stage for the thick end of a week before the rally cars arrive.

2001 WRC Rally Argentina /Worldwide Copyright: McKlein

A key part of survival at that altitude in the southern hemisphere winter is the fire. They’re burning day and night to keep folk warm and provide hot coals for the parillas to cook more meat than you can shake a stick at.

On Saturday, way down south in Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, there was talk of one of those fires starting to burn out of control. Nobody paid too much attention. A developing McRae-Burns battle held the service park’s universal stare.

Things got a good bit more serious when emergency services directed to the scene, with reports of spectators’ cars now burning.

In total 20 spectator cars were lost to the blaze. A water tanker sat in service was pressed into action. The route out took the truck past the cars lined up ready to go into the regroup. In his haste to get on the road and out to the fire, the driver took a left-hander too tight, centrifugal force did its thing and the truck toppled onto the two factory Škodas of Bruno Thiry and Armin Schwarz.

2001 WRC Rally Argentina /Worldwide Copyright: McKlein

Thiry was in his car at the time, but escaped injury. Jens Pohlmann, a member of the Czech team, wasn’t quite so fortunate and was seriously injured in the accident.

That wasn’t the only fire on the event as Alister McRae and Kenneth Eriksson both had to battle back the flames in their Hyundais. Toshi Arai also suffered a fire-related incident without the flames when a spectator triggered the extinguisher on his works Subaru.

Sainz delivered a podium third place, but the Spaniard was happy to climb from the Focus, having driven the event with a trapped nerve in his back.

It’s fair to say, in terms of action and entertainment, Argentina delivered on every level two decades ago.