Sunday 16th September.
I was really looking forward to a day of exceptional sporting choice and hopefully quality. Three international Twenty20 cricket matches to enjoy – including one involving England. A Formula One race at Spa – one of the very great racing circuits. MotoGP at Estoril – with a real chance of a fine race after all the testing Michelin had just done, and one more treat on the telly – a two hour review of the Tour of Britain, in which British road cyclists (especially the Manx Express – Mark Cavendish) had done extremely well.
Sadly, although all these events went ahead according to their broadcast paths, I found it hard to muster any enthusiasm for these, my favourite of sports.
I had woken in the small hours to hear a report on the news that a helicopter had crashed in Lanarkshire and it was confirmed that one of the dead was Colin McRae. It was one of those times when you don’t quite know if you’re really listening to a news report on the radio or if you’re having some deeply unpleasant nightmare.
I went back to sleep. When I resurfaced, there was no mention of a helicopter crash on the news – it was several hours before I heard that what I had suspected was indeed true and former World Rally Champion Colin McRae had indeed been killed, along with his young son Johnny, and the two other people on board. It was a horridly bizarre echo of Stevie Hislop’s death in the skies above Hawick on 30th July 2003.
While the deepest sympathy goes to Colin’s surviving family, his wife Alison, father Jimmy, fellow rally driving brother Alister, and close friends, all Colin’s fans are reeling with shock and grieving. His close friend, motor-cycle ace Valentino Rossi dedicated his win at Estoril today to Colin. I saw how moved Vale was before the race as he spoke of his friendship with the Scotsman, and I believe that he fought so hard for the win to honour Colin’s own fighting spirit. Rossi – normally the most ebullient of spirits was in tears on the podium.
Colin had droves of fans outside his own specialised world of rallying – in which he became Britain’s first World Rally Champion in 1995 after a thrilling final event decider with Subaru team mate Carlos Sainz on Rally GB. Although not to win another World Title, Colin held the record of 25 WRC wins until recently overtaken by Sebastian Loeb. He moved from Subaru to Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport (Ford) team and after wins at the Safari Rally (oft considered the toughest test of man and machine) and Portugal, only just missed out on a second World Title in 2001.
His next move to Citroen did not bring great rewards. Colin never really gelled with the French team – despite having spent the time and energy to become comfortable with the language. At the end of 2003, Colin effectively retired from the World Rally stage, though he took part in the Paris-Dakar rally. He then moved to sportscars and drove, with great credit at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
He made further occasional appearances at the WRC - and some strong performances with Skoda had led to his name being linked to a full return to the discipline for 2008.
But Colin was more than just a great of World Rallying. He was a keen and talented motor-cycle rider, a sports and saloon car driver, and had his go in single-seaters. With fellow Scot David Coulthard, he competed in the 2006 Race of Champions at the Stade de France, and was due to do so again at Wembley this winter. He also pioneered motor-sport in the world of computer games. The ground-breaking Colin McRae Rally was released by Codemasters in 1998 and has been updated and made available to all the latest platforms on a regular basis.
However, despite his global status and following, Colin always remained close to his Scottish rallying roots, and the last few years have seen him either as a competitive or supportive presence at even the smallest of rallies. I had the pleasure of meeting him, though very very briefly, in Cooper Park in Elgin as he walked around, signing autographs, chatting with the kids, and smiling a lot.
He was, and it is with pain that I write that word, a truly great ambassador for his sport, his country and a terrific example of how to conduct yourself in both victory and defeat. Tributes have poured in from his friends and colleagues. David Richards (who in an ironic postscript to this tribute, today walked away unhurt from a helicopter accident as he returned to Britain from the F1 race at Spa), Nicky Grist, Max Mosley, Jackie Stewart, Malcolm Wilson have all had warm and genuine things to say, but I leave you with the words of Colin’s mate David Coulthard:
“Why is it always the good guys it happens to?”
Colin McRae: 1968-2007