Colin McRae, Britain's first World Rally Champion and still the youngest driver ever to win the title, was killed on Saturday (15 September) in a helicopter accident close to his home in Lanark, Scotland. He was 39 years old. The accident also claimed the lives of his son, Johnny, and two family friends.
McRae was part of Scotland's rallying dynasty; his father Jimmy is a five-times British champion and younger brother Alister lifted the domestic title himself. But Colin enjoyed the greatest success of the trio; he won back-to-back British crowns for Prodrive's fledgling Subaru team in 1991 and '92, then graduated to the full world championship.
His breakthrough victory at the top level came in New Zealand in 1993 and he became the first Briton in 18 years to win the RAC Rally the following year. Then in 1995, a gritty display on his home event earned him the world championship crown after a tense end-of-season battle with his Subaru team-mate Carlos Sainz. Spells with Ford and Citroen and Skoda followed, taking McRae to 25 world rally victories and three runners-up places in the WRC; he is still third in the sport's all-time winners list.
Mere statistics do little to illustrate McRae's influence and reputation, however; he had a dogged competitive spirit and an utterly spectacular driving style, so his fan base stretched way beyond the United Kingdom. Furthermore, his computer game series took the sport into millions of previously uninterested homes worldwide.
Colin could genuinely claim to be one of the world's greatest all-round competition drivers. He won on fast gravel roads in New Zealand but paced himself beautifully to win world rallying's roughest event, the Safari, on three occasions; he could challenge on the snows of Sweden, yet give the French specialists a bloody nose on Corsican asphalt.
Beyond rallying, he was no slower. He tested a Jordan F1 car in 1996 and set times that would not have disgraced the middle of the grid; he raced a Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 Hours, sampled Porsches in a one-make series, tested a British superbike at Knockhill, starred in a NASCAR-style stock car race at Rockingham and led the Dakar Rally.
While he recently expressed a desire to get back into the world championship, Colin was also happy experimenting with his own machinery; he bought a Group B Metro 6R4 for fun, built probably the world's ultimate Ford Escort Mk2 and created his own rally prototype, the McRae R4. He also sponsored his local car club's Scottish championship event.
Colin was an unlikely hero; unassuming and shy out of the car, he viewed media and PR work as a necessary evil and though he always had time for his fans, he found their attention bemusing at times. But to his friends, he stayed remarkably normal for a wealthy sporting superstar, a devoted father with an impish sense of humour that he was not afraid to unleash on his friends in the local pub, or unsuspecting journalists and rivals.
Motorsport these days has far too few genuine heroes; publicity machines, marketing departments and the ever-present PR representatives tend to stifle individuality in the name of corporate policy. But Colin McRae's raw natural talent and down-to-earth personality lifted him above all of this, allowing the public to worship what he could do with a car and connect with his personality at the same time. For those reasons alone, his loss to motorsport is immense. To the families of all those involved in Saturday's accident, Autocar extends its deepest sympathies.