Thursday, November 22, 2001. It’s a date which, ordinarily, means very little to most people, but to rally fans – and those particularly in the United Kingdom at the time – it was far from your regular Thursday winter’s evening. If anything, the increasingly cold and dark nights were swapped for a buzz of feverish excitement. Britain was on the cusp of crowning its first World Rally Champion in six years and had not just one driver, but two firmly in the hunt for the title.
The drivers were, of course, Scotland’s Colin McRae and England’s Richard Burns. Hard-nose Lanarkshire vs suave-sophisticated Berkshire. It wasn’t Braveheart levels of animosity (the movie is littered with historical inaccuracies in any case!) but the divide was evident, creating a veritable sense of inter-nation rivalry to match any soccer match.
Burns secured the title with a steady third place, following McRae’s opening day barrel-roll crash, Tommi Mäkinen’s early retirement and Carlos Sainz’s puncture and subsequent brake issues, and rallying was firmly back in the forefront of UK fans’ minds.
But you’d be hard pressed to find anything like the sort of joyous, celebratory television coverage from the UK’s broadcast rights holders the BBC that you would expect for a British world champion. Indeed, for those who remember, everything seemed strangely subdued and very… unpatriotic.
Cheerleading isn’t something the BBC take too kindly to when it comes to its sport output but given that the corporation’s contract was at its end and rivals Channel 4 had picked up 2002 coverage right (for a tidy sum at that), you might excuse a little pride. So, why was everything so gloomy?
Broadcaster Mark James was the one of the BBC’s main presenters during the 2001 season, alongside Tiff Needell, having made his bow in 1995 covering McRae’s title triumph.
Speaking to DirtFish, James reveals that towards the end of the 2001 season the expected fever and excitement within the BBC camp was sorely lacking ahead of Rally GB.
“Near the end of the 2001 season, we found ourselves in a bidding war with Channel 4, and C4 were always going to win that,” James explains.
The BBC was appalled at the way it had been treated; we’d been made to jump through so many hoops, we’d been led onMark James
“David Richards had bought the rights for the WRC and basically pitched us against C4. And whatever we came up with, we’d lose because we didn’t have advertising.
“And at some point, towards the end of the season, we were told of the decision to give C4 the rights by the WRC. And the BBC was appalled at the way it had been treated; we’d been made to jump through so many hoops, we’d been led on, we did everything they wanted and then we were told that ‘actually, we’re going to give it to C4’.
“So, that had a big impact on us, and it made some within the company adamant that rallying would never come back to the BBC because of how we had been treated.”
As the UK audience sat down on that Thursday evening to watch a special BBC Rally GB preview show, hosted by James and with the yet-to-be familiar tones of Leigh Diffey – who is now NBC’s lead announcer for the IndyCar series – the mood was decidedly grim in TV land.
“I can’t actually remember what we did as a preview for that year’s rally,” admits James.
“By then, we’d obviously been told that we were losing the contract and in the past, we had also been criticized for not giving rallying enough interest [after McRae’s title] despite being on [the popular] Grandstand for years.
“So, we thought, after how we’d been treated, we would just treat GB as a normal sports program and ‘oh yeah, Richard Burns won the world title, goodbye’ sort of thing. And at the end of the program, it was very flat, so that is I suppose the one regret I have about that season with the BBC.
“In 1995, when I first started with the BBC, I was one of the first people there to congratulate Colin on the title, and in 2001 with Richard, it was almost a ‘so what?’ so that was a shame. It was flat, really, really flat.”
That last thought is particularly poignant given that, just four years later to the day, Burns passed away following a lengthy battle with a brain tumor. For James as well, it was a difficult pill to swallow, despite staying on in the WRC for the following year, working for the promoter instead of jumping ship to C4.
Even though the season ended under a cloud in the TV world, James still reckons the 2001 campaign was one of the best yet, if not the best.
“It was a season which had everything.
“Colin and Richard had a rotten run of results at the start of the season, as did Marcus [Grönholm] who, if the Peugeot was working well as it had done the previous year, would have won easily.
“Then there was Tommi, who also had a bad run during the season before his horrific crash in Corsica, which stopped [co-driver] Risto [Mannisenmäki] from ever getting back in a rally car.
“In the end, Richard won the title by two points from Colin, and if Colin hadn’t have rolled it on GB, he would have taken his second title. So many ‘what ifs?’ and so many variables which made it such a great year.”
Such was the bonkers nature of the season, barely anyone in the UK could have confidently predicted during the year that two Brits would fight for the title on home soil, given the poor starts from both drivers.
“The season had begun pretty much as expected, from a form guide point of view,” James continues.
“You had Mäkinen in the Evo 6.5, which was the kind of halfway point between a Group A car and a WRC car which they had the dispensation to do, winning in Monte Carlo and you thought: ‘ah yeah, here we go again, same old, same old’.
“As a British fan, you sort of expected McRae to pick up a second title after ’95 which just didn’t happen, and Burns had won a few events but had no consistency.
“So, we kind of went into Monte Carlo thinking: ‘ooh, is this the year’ and then Monte happened, and we were like: ‘ah, no!’
“Harri Rovanperä won in Sweden, Tommi won the next and the Brits are nowhere, it was going to be another year dominated by the Finns, but it started to turn around and we saw the interest in the UK audience growing as a result.
“And in 2001, it was more of a classic 14-round calendar, which was quite different to my first year in 1995, where you had 14 rallies but one every two years rotating to keep the costs down.
“The last rally of ’95 was the RAC, but because of the rotation system, there was no British round of the WRC in 1996, just as we were supposed to be riding the crest of a wave.
“But when 2001 came around, thanks largely to the excellent coverage by the BBC,” James pauses to laugh, “rallying was on the rise again in the country, and Colin and Richard were absolutely part of that.”
Like most motorsport broadcasters, James’s career started in radio before he made the switch to television, first as a continuity announcer and then in front of the camera. Back before the days of every stage being live streamed on an OTT subscription platform, TV crews were quite often the eyes and ears for crews back in the service park.
When Mäkinen and Mannisenmäki crashed 11 miles into the fifth stage of the iconic Tour de Corse, James and his TV crew were suddenly the nearest thing the Mitsubishi team had to news of their title-chasing star duo.
He was shouting down the radio that they had to stop the stage, that Tommi had had a huge crash, he was out of the car, but Risto was still inMark James
“I was actually a lot more closely involved in that than perhaps most people realize,” James explains.
“At the time, there was a comms plane with a repeater system that could talk to a rally car about 40 miles away. Those radios weren’t encrypted, so a lot of us bought radio scanners while the cars were on the stages; you’d have the scanner in your top pocket and an earpiece in as well to listen in.
“And we also had the TV crew radio on it as well, and it was a guy called Cliff Simmons who was the minder of the cameraman just up the road [from the crash] who radioed in, and you could tell in his voice that it was a bad accident.
“He was shouting down the radio that they had to stop the stage, that Tommi had had a huge crash, he was out of the car, but Risto was still in. And I ran into Mitsubishi, who were blissfully unaware of it all, told them all about it and they closed the doors and told me to stay with them to feed them more information that the TV guys relayed to me.”
The three-way conversation between the TV crew on-site, James in the Mitsubishi camp and the rally organizers is hard to imagine these days and goes to show just how crucial a role the production crews played in ensuring the right message was given at the right time.
That crash didn’t rule Mäkinen out of the title fight altogether, but it was a more reticent Finn who turned up in Australia two weeks later with stand-in co-driver Timo Hantunen, recording a solitary point for sixth place. He was with Kaj Lindström for the final round on Rally GB, still in with a shout of the title, before retiring with suspension damage following a crash on the opening day.
That essentially left McRae and Burns disputing the title, but McRae was soon also out of contention in spectacular fashion, meaning Burns needed only to finish fourth by the end of the rally. He went one better and claimed third, more than enough to secure the title.
Throughout his stint at the BBC, James witnessed the crowning of both of Britain’s WRC champions. His final memory from that historic day?
“I remember at the finish as Richard and Robert [Reid] crossed the line, Richard lifted Robert’s hand up and said, ‘you’re the best in the world’,” said James.
“And that wasn’t Richard bragging about winning the championship, that was simply Richard saying to his co-driver, his friend, the guy who had been through thick and thin with him, that: ‘you, are the best in the world’.”