“At the time the notes just came out and he chose his line, but then when it corkscrewed us through the air we had this sudden situation of land, sky, trees, land, sky, trees and then bing-bang-bang-BANG-boosh! And that was it.”
Nicky Grist is of course recounting the terrifying Rally GB accident that ended his and Colin McRae’s World Rally Championship hopes for 2001 in an instant. They would never get as close again.
The 2001 season was a bizarre affair where nobody really had a clean season. As Grist acknowledges: “The 2001 season was a very low scoring season, the winner had 33% less points than the previous season. I don’t think anybody was having it their own way, everybody was dogged with issues or another.”
But having led the championship by two points heading into a winner-takes-all finale with Richard Burns and Tommi Mäkinen – with Carlos Sainz also in contention – McRae’s spectacular exit from the contest on stage four in his Ford Focus RS WRC 01 perhaps goes down as one of the biggest ‘what if’s of his WRC career.
“He was just absolutely on top of his game,” remembers then-Ford team principal and current M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson.
“He was on great form. He’d had some great wins where he won three on the trot and he’d got the car into a strong position to be really competitive. That was a difficult end to a long season.”
“Disappointing I suppose is probably what you’d say about it all,” adds Grist. “Other than those three victories back to back right in the middle part of the season the rest of it wasn’t great for us at all.”
So how did it all go wrong? And indeed, where did it go wrong? It may be tempting to assume that the massive Rally GB smash was the moment the title was truly lost – and perhaps it was – but there were several other factors that pegged McRae and Grist back.
It all started on the famous Monte Carlo Rally. After a steady start, McRae and Grist had climbed up to first place, battling Mäkinen and his Risto Mannisenmäki for the lead after the second day. But it all went wrong on the side of Col de Turini “which always haunted us”.
“Leading Monte Carlo with just a few stages to go, we were fairly confident that we were up for it,” says Grist.
“I can remember the situation now, we were literally only a couple of kilometers from the top of Turini coming up from the Sospel side and always that mountain it’s never treated us well. We had issues with Subaru on that side of the mountain for a couple of years and then lo and behold for this to happen.
“I remember everything was fine with no issues and then we just came into this hairpin right, and spun. Colin said ‘I’ve got no throttle, I’ve got no throttle’ and he was just ticking over there. We were literally right in the middle of the hairpin facing up the way we had to go because we’d just spun to a halt.
“[We] got on the radio and [were told] ‘you’ve got to switch the power off and reboot it’ and we started to reboot it and next minute here comes Tommi.”
Grist interrupts himself to impersonate the noise of Mäkinen’s Lancer.
“[Tommi comes] up on the inside of us and away he went. But of course that was it, the rally was finished then.
Colin said to me ‘get the tools’ and I said ‘what f****** tools, you’ve just thrown them over the side of the mountain!Nicky Grist
“We carried on, it did reboot itself and did get going but then on the drop down to the finish the thing went again. We stopped and the team said ‘the only option you’ve got is to connect the other throttle cable, the manual throttle cable’.
“So we had to get the tools, and next minute here comes WRC TV with the helicopter, hovering off to one side and Colin was cursing the s*** out of the car as he would. We put this throttle on, he threw the tools at the helicopter in anger, jumped in the car and finished the stage and we didn’t have enough throttle, we only had part-throttle.
“They said ‘you’re going to have to adjust it’. So Colin said to me ‘get the tools’ and I said ‘what f****** tools, you’ve just thrown them over the side of the mountain!’ And that was it, we retired there and then. From leading to a fly-by-wire throttle issue, that was a little bit the way that our season started.”
Over the course of the first four rounds, no points were scored. McRae spun and was swallowed into a snowbank, dropping five minutes in Sweden. Their Ford Focus WRC’s engine then failed in the monsoon conditions of Rally Portugal, while a fuel pump went on Rally Spain.
However, other than Mäkinen who’d won the Monte and Portugal and was third in Spain, none of the other likely title contenders had started well either.
“After the first four events we were a little dejected because at the end of the day we had nil points after four rallies,” Grist admits. “But Richard Burns only had three, Marcus Grönholm only had four… although we were 24 points behind Tommi, you never know in this championship.”
Round five is when McRae and Grist’s season began to turn around. Quickest on the first proper stage of Rally Argentina by a gargantuan 17.2 seconds, the duo led the event from start to finish and duly won not just the succeeding Cyprus Rally but also the Acropolis too.
“All of a sudden with those three victories, after Greece we were level pegging with Tommi [on 30 points] and right in the mix again. And we thought ‘wow, what a difference that makes’.”
Winning three of the roughest rallies of the season on the bounce may not fit the perceived McRae legend, but Grist worked with McRae to refine how he described those stages on the recce and “once we’d changed the pacenote system all of a sudden all these rough events became Colin’s strongest”.
“Colin was very, very mechanically sympathetic to the car,” adds Colin’s father and five-time British Rally Champion Jimmy McRae.
“If you sat beside him it was all poetry in motion, things happening and there was never a rush at a gearbox or anything like that. He just knew what the car could take on the rough and he was mechanically sympathetic. Any of the engineers, Prodrive or Ford will tell you that.
“Look at the first year of the Focus, winning the Safari Rally with that car that had hardly been tested but he won the rally and never won a stage. That was just pure mechanical sympathy, get the car to the end. He was good at that, definitely.”
We didn’t factor Richard in really amongst everything at this pointNicky Grist
And at this stage, exactly halfway through the season, McRae and Grist were suddenly looking like a strong bet for the 2001 title. Although the asphalt of Sanremo and Corsica would likely be a struggle, there were some encouraging events coming like the Safari, New Zealand, Australia and, of course, GB.
But unfortunately the Safari would prove a disaster as the steering broke on the third section, so “all of a sudden we were knocked right back to square one again” as Mäkinen took home 10 points for victory.
“It was on such a slow part of the route as well, something which we cautioned and everything else – but it just let go” remembers Grist.
“We were gobsmacked at that really, but it just sort of goes to show even if you’ve got the right pace you still need to have a technically strong car and for some reason we must’ve caught something at just the wrong angle, and bang.
“We ended up with literally no steering with one wheel just going everywhere. When you’re trying to drag a car out, it doesn’t like that sort of stuff.”
Finland would go better as McRae and Grist sealed third while Mäkinen retired on the opening stage. Grönholm won with Burns in second, but at this point that wasn’t too major a concern.
“We didn’t factor Richard in really amongst everything at this point. Our focus was mainly on Tommi, and we did expect Marcus to go quite well in the Peugeot but up to Finland, Marcus had seven retirements out of eight events,” Grist says.
“It was awful, it harks back to our 1999 season which was the most frustrating season I’ve ever, ever had in rallying. His season was worse than ours!”
Even when Burns won in New Zealand, it therefore wasn’t seen as a big problem because McRae and Grist were second and Mäkinen again failed to score.
But retrospectively, perhaps New Zealand was the beginning of the unravelling. The event was a tactical affair with road order, as back in 2001 the running order was decided by the overall classification the previous day. So whoever led the rally overnight would be first on the road, unlike today when the leader is the last World Rally Car onto the stage.
Burns held a 42.6s lead over McRae at the start of the final day, but, with a cleaner road to attack, McRae could reduce the gap.
“We were then slowly but surely chipping away at him because of our position second on the road allowing us to use a little bit of his clean line,” Grist explains.
“After SS19 it was down to 17s, then it’s down to 16s, then it’s down to 15s and Richard was just about hanging on at that point, but then we spun on SS23. It was probably Colin trying a little too hard and then the gap opened up big time.
“But for Colin you see, there’s a few stages to go and that’s what you’ve got to admire about Colin. He was such a trier. The gap was 15s with two stages to go, we had an opportunity to try and do something, although to get potentially 15s in 20km [12.4 miles] was hard work, but Colin was never scared of trying.”
Ultimately on this occasion the win eluded them, but Grist believes “it wasn’t a complete disaster” as the result moved them level with Mäkinen at the head of the points table, while Burns’ Subaru was still nine points adrift.
Little changed on the following two rounds on asphalt as Mäkinen retired from both – spectacularly so from Corsica – McRae and Grist were outside the crucial top six and Burns crashed in Sanremo but collected three points for fourth in Corsica.
“The leading lights of the championship scored next to b***** all on those two events,” says Grist. “Again it was still all to play for, and then we went to Australia.”
I’d forgotten about, thanks for reminding me! That was a contributing factor as well to not winning the championshipMalcolm Wilson
The penultimate round of the season has to ultimately be chalked down as another missed opportunity, and some believe it was even where McRae and Grist’s championship was lost.
It was incredibly close after the first leg – Grönholm led, Burns was second with Didier Auriol third and McRae fourth (just 5.3s shy of the lead) while Mäkinen languished in sixth, struggling with the immature World Rally Car version of his Mitsubishi Lancer.
But unlike on other events, the Rally Australia organizer – in the wake of the extremely controversial road slowing in 2000 where Carlos Sainz was even excluded for stopping between the yellow and red boards at the end of a stage – had decided to allow drivers to choose their road position.
Crews convened after Friday’s Langley Park superspecial to decide their road order for Saturday and although McRae was present, he was deemed to have arrived late and was therefore kicked to the back of the queue.
That meant he was to start the second day first – which became second when Ford instructed François Delecour to incur 13 minutes worth of penalties and run first, only for Delecour to then crash heavily on the leg’s third stage. McRae dropped over 1m40s across the day.
“I’d forgotten about, thanks for reminding me!” says Wilson.
“He was just late to arrive at the picking ceremony and to be honest the organizer just decided to penalize him. Obviously yeah, that was a contributing factor as well to not winning the championship.”
McRae and Grist eventually salvaged two points for fifth, one more than Mäkinen could muster which put them a point clear. But Burns had scooped six points for second and was therefore just two points adrift heading into the season finale – dubbed the ‘Battle of Britain’.
“We knew exactly what we had to do,” says Grist. “We had a good recce and we went into the superspecial down in Cardiff docks. OK we were quickest there but it was only a short 2.5km [1.5-mile] blast. Ultimately it was all about what we were going to do on the stages. It was on the stages where it mattered.”
McRae was a rocket out of the blocks on St. Gwynno, beating Burns by 4.9s to produce what Grist calls “some of the best onboard footage you could get, certainly from that era anyway”. But the battle was already down to two, as Mäkinen had pulled a wheel off and was out.
“All of a sudden that meant for us our focus was on one person and one person only, and that was Richard. That’s all that mattered,” describes Grist.
“But once we cleared stage two we were 7.4s up and Marcus and Didier in the Peugeots [were between us], and the Peugeot at that time, the car had come on quite a lot and it was evident the engine they had was really strong and powerful as well because they finished second and third to us on that St. Gywnno stage.
“But then on stage three, Tyle, Marcus won the stage, Didier was 2.3s slower, Richard was 2.6s slower and we were 2.7s. All of a sudden we basically were still leading but our lead was only at 0.2s to Marcus. It was quite a close thing, but Richard was still 7.3s behind us.
“But when the stage times were coming in, Colin was going ‘f***, f***, s*** we were slow in there’ and I said ‘yeah but listen it’s early days, it’s only a short stage’. I said ‘at the end of the day we just need to focus on what Richard’s doing; and he said ‘but Marcus is so quick’ but I said ‘it doesn’t matter about Marcus, let him get on and do what he wants to do’.
“‘We’re not in a battle with him. This is for the championship and we’re still 7s up on Richard’. He said: ‘yeah, but we need 30s, if we have a puncture or something’.
“I said ‘well you’re not going to get 30s in a stage’, and ‘we’re going to have to just keep plugging away and get 30s at the end of the day, this is the way it has to work’.”
After a short road section, McRae and Grist headed back into the forest almost directly opposite the previous stage.
Rhondda was up next.
I was a bit shocked by it to be honest, I didn’t expect that. We were only on stage fourNicky Grist
“By the time we got in there some low cloud had come in and all the rest of it, so we had to drive in this sort of fog almost, although it was [more like] quite heavy mist because it was in a cloud,” Grist continues.
“Of course Richard’s pacenote system was very, very good in the fog. I don’t know whether this had a bearing, Colin never mentioned it, but I just sensed a bit of urgency when we came out of this fog, even though we didn’t drive through it for that much of a distance.
“And then inevitably we had this series of very quick corners which came out one after another after another, and Colin just set a line for a five right plus and he said that he chose his line and he had an opportunity to change the line if he needed, but he decided ‘no it’s OK, I’ll go with it’ and of course then the inevitable accident happened.
“What he couldn’t see behind the grass was there was a small banking on the other side which then the front of the car slammed into and corkscrewed us through the air, and it was a big end-over-end, side-over-side accident, bing-bang-bosh and we ended up on the outside of the road, right-hand-side of the road facing back the way we came with steam billowing out of the car, the bonnet crumpled up in front of the windscreen in front of us.
“We knew at that point, that was it. The championship was done. For us, we could play no more part in it.
“I was a bit shocked by it to be honest, I didn’t expect that. We were only on stage four, it sort of happened all of a sudden. I looked at him a little bit in disbelief I suppose, and said ‘are you OK?’. ‘Yeah, I’m OK’. And that was it, there was nothing much said really.
“The helicopter came and picked us up and took us back to service, and basically that was it, there was nothing more that you could do. The only thing we could do was just wait and see what happened in the rally and with Tommi already out of the rally, for whatever reason if Richard had a mechanical or an off or something we could still be champions, and that had happened to Tommi in previous years when he retired and Carlos broke down on the last stage with an engine failure.
“I mean I didn’t think it was going to be a possibility, but I think from our point of view while we couldn’t be world champions, I’m glad that Richard and Robert [Reid] were and the championship came to Britain, which I think was a great thing.”
Fifteen centimeters were ultimately all that were in it. Had McRae’s Focus been those 15cm outside the cut, he would have continued on his way.
“That is rallying,” reflects Jimmy McRae. “Sometimes it can be less than six inches and you can just get it that wee bit wrong.
“In hindsight you’d maybe say he shouldn’t have been trying as hard as he was so early on, but that was Colin. That was his speed. Definitely if that hadn’t have happened he’d have won… well we don’t know.”
“It probably goes down as one of the most disappointing finishes to the season,” adds Wilson, whose Ford team was also in a fight for the manufacturers title with Peugeot.
“Rally GB was the last event, the home event, and Colin could win the championship and then unfortunately the big crash. So that was a real downer because we were in a strong position to actually win the championship.
“So I must admit it was a difficult time for everybody because we put so much effort into the whole program since we’d started with the Focus in ’99 and we really had got everything to the point where we were regularly winning WRC events, so it definitely was hard for everybody in the team to see what happened on that particular final event.”
McRae had come close to winning the 1997 title after becoming the youngest ever world champion in ’95, but 2001 was his best opportunity to succeed as, for the first time ever, he led into the final event.
Brother Alister McRae – who finished a season and career-best fourth overall on Rally GB 2001 with Hyundai – doesn’t think “you can say it’s the one that got away, I think there were a few that got away, but for sure I would say that would be the one that would’ve hurt Colin the most”.
“Colin from memory cleared off from the rally very quickly and went and did a bit of motorbiking with some mates and I guess just got away from motorsport,” he recalls. “I would say it was definitely hurting him for sure.”
Grist didn’t pay too much attention to the rest of the rally either.
“I just kept a glancing eye on what was going on, didn’t really try to focus on it too much. I kind of got over it reasonably quickly and just accepted it and just had to move on really.
“I mean at the end of the day we were paid to do a job and we’re professionals in the sport, sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, and you’ve just got to take that as it comes.”
Rallying is indeed a rollercoaster ride, and every single frontrunner in 2001 that lost out could put forward a justifiable case as to why they should have been world champion.
But McRae and Grist really did unfortunately snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.