Richard Burns – The tale of two November 25ths

In 2001 Burns won the title but in 2005 he passed away. David Evans tells the story along with Robert Reid

010308P Burns_mkl_059

Robert Reid sits back and smiles. Smiles because some of the pain has eased. It’s 16 years today. Sixteen and 20.

“Do you know, Richard being Richard, I’ll bet he passed away on the same minute that we crossed the finish ramp…”

One date. Two very different days. November 25 will always be remembered as Richard Burns day. On Sunday, November 25 2001, he and Reid were crowned World Rally Champions. On Friday, November 25 2005, Burns passed away having battled cancer for two years.

This is the story of those two November days.

010601CY Burns_Mkl_221

It’s early morning, not long after five and Reid is already awake in a boutique hotel on the outskirts of Cardiff.

“I always woke before the alarm on events,” he says. “As well as the alarm, Willy [Verhoeven, Subaru crew co-ordinator] always gave us a call or a knock on the door at the time we asked for. Let’s be honest, there wasn’t much chance of me sleeping in that Sunday…

“For Richard and I, the morning routine varied a little bit depending on what time we were leaving the hotel. We were never ones for: ‘What time’s breakfast?’ we were always about the time we were leaving. If it was really early, I’d grab a croissant or something an eat it on the way to service.

“My kit was all sorted the night before. I’d lay the racesuit out, everything I needed. And I’d sort my co-drivers’ bag out as well. I’d lose count of how many times I packed, checked and checked that bag again. But once I zipped the bag up, that was that. No more checking. That was kind of the point that I could go to sleep.

“I do remember lying in bed that night and thinking: ‘S***! We could be world champions tomorrow and what then?’ I remember quite vividly wondering if we did win, would I want to continue? This was my Everest, something Richard and I had been working to for the last five or 10 years and dreaming about since we were really young. Sunday was the summit day. And what then?

“Richard and I had some family and friends down with us on the 2001 Rally GB. It was nice to have a bit of support. We weren’t in the team hotel. Things were a little bit strained, what with the court case looking [Burns and Reid were challenging their Subaru contract in the High Court in an attempt to move to Peugeot], so we’d decided to do our own thing. That was actually pretty rare, but it gave us some space that we needed.

“Being away from the team meant we drove ourselves to service, which was quite strange. As usual, we started the morning with a call to ‘Crikey’ [Simon Cole, Burns’ engineer] to talk through tire choices, the weather and the morning ahead. That was pretty standard.”

She said to me: 'He’s dying, you know.' I was like: 'No, no, no, he’s got some time yet. It was the denial thing Robert Reid

Among the family and friends visiting were Dario and Marino Franchitti. Four years on and Marino was there again on November 24.

“Richard was in The Wellington Hospital, in St John’s Wood, London,” says Reid. “Mino was in on the 24, he was there with Neil Primrose [the Travis drummer is a close friend to Team RB]. Burnsie wasn’t so good by now – but he’d still raise a smile when he heard your voice or saw you in through the door.

“He’d been hospital for a while, but early on I was still sure there was still time. By coincidence, my second cousin Susie was in charge of the ward Richard was on. A week or so earlier Susie and I had gone out to get some food one night and she said to me: ‘He’s dying, you know.’ I was like: ‘No, no, no, he’s got some time yet.’ It was the denial thing. She sat me down and talked me through what was coming and what we’d face.

“Zoe [Scott, Richard’s partner] was sleeping in the hospital with him, but that night I went back to their flat in Little Venice. I’d stay with Zoe sometimes or sometimes I’d stay in a hotel nearby. Sometimes you needed company, sometimes you needed space. The next morning I arrived into the hospital and everything was as it had been. Zo went back to the flat to freshen up.”

Going into the world championship finale in 2001, four drivers were in with a shot of wearing the crown: Burns, Colin McRae, Tommi Mäkinen and Carlos Sainz. By the morning of Sunday November 25, four had become one and fourth place would suffice for Burns to become the first ever English World Rally Champion.

“Things hadn’t been massively straightforward for us. Coming out of parc fermé the morning before Richard and I had to change the spark plugs in an effort to persuade the car to start. The whole event was fairly big stress with small things on the car and, of course, the atmosphere wasn’t great with the Peugeot thing hanging over us.

“It was nice to get into the first stage of the day. Getting through Rheola the first time settled us down nicely. We weren’t especially quick and Harri [Rovanperä] got past us in there. It didn’t matter. We were still third and we had a decent margin over Alister [McRae] in fourth.

011123GB Burns 1

“The final day was quite a long one: four stages and around 70 competitive miles or something. Certainly, it wasn’t a walk in the park.

“But eventually, it was all about the park – Margam Park. When we finished that final stage and Richard told me – in no uncertain terms – that I was the best in the world… it’s hard to describe those feelings. Of course, there was relief that we’d go through the stage, but immediately I was stressing a little bit about making it to service and the finish in time.

“Coming back into Swansea and Cardiff on the Sunday afternoon was always tricky on Rally GB. There was always a lot of traffic around. On those occasions, you always try to get a little bit ahead of yourself, just so you’ve got some slack time in your pocket. That day, we were inevitably a bit behind – we’d spent quite a while celebrating with everybody. But the traffic was building.

Standing there with Richard was incredibly emotional. We’d done it. We’d reached our Everest Robert Reid

“Service done and we were on our way to the finish and the celebrations. Heading into Cardiff and the traffic was getting heavy. I was straight on the phone to Fred Gallagher [Rally GB clerk of the course] to tell him how bad the traffic was. ‘Don’t worry, the penalties will be canceled,’ was the response. In the end, we made it without any penalties.

“The last thing you need coming down the M4 at that time is some idiot who wants a race – but that’s exactly what we got.

“Richard was a bit surprised when it was his own road car that was trying to race him. His own road car being driven by Dario. He might have got a bit of a race… The atmosphere at the finish was fantastic. Standing there with Richard was incredibly emotional.

“We’d done it. We’d reached our Everest.”

011123GB Burns Mcklein 0085

Or they thought they had. The fight to reach the very top of the world of rallying was dwarfed by what came when Burns was diagnosed with an astrocytoma in 2003. For two years he battled the odds, confounding medical thinking and left consultants astounded by his fight and ferocious will to beat his biggest rival.

“There was nothing unusual about that Friday morning. The consultants had been in and around and done their usual checks on Richard. Richard’s father Alex and I were with him and Zoe would be back very soon. Alex wanted some fresh air, so we left the room to go outside for a minute or two.

“And that was the moment. I was sitting beside his bed when Richard slipped away. He went to sleep.

“What was the time? Oh, I don’t know.

“Do you know, Richard being Richard, I’ll bet he passed away on the same minute that we crossed the finish ramp…

011123GB Burns 7

“Actually, the date didn’t register with any of us at all. It was a few days later when somebody wrote something about Richard requesting the life-support machine be turned off on November 25. Well that was total b*******… Richard was never on a life-support machine.

“What came straight after that? I don’t know. It was a bit of a blur.”

Becoming a world champion for the first time is always something worth celebrating.

“Clare [Craig, Richard’s close friend and PA] had organized a limo to take us to the after-rally party. It was a pretty big night. We had to be in London for some filming at Marble Arch the next morning. Warren Hunt, a mate and a driver Richard and I had competed against earlier in our careers, agreed to drive us down to London.

011123GB Burns 6

“It was pretty rough, a fairly big hangover – not the frame of mind you wanted to be in when somebody with a camera was asking you to do: ‘Just one more take…’ We didn’t mind. We were world champions.”

And world champions they will always remain.

“While I don’t remember so much in the immediate time after Richard’s passing, I do remember the evening. Phil Harrison, a mate from Sony who had worked with us on Richard’s computer game and Neil [Primrose] and I went out on the town.

“Now that, that was a very big night. We had a lot to talk about and one very, very big life to celebrate.”