It is, as my colleague Matt Burt put it earlier today, a poignant time of the year for rally fans, as we remember not only the world titles of Colin McRae and Richard Burns but also, sadly, the death of the Englishman through a brain tumour precisely four years to the day after he claimed the sport’s top prize.
My own thoughts fly back to a quiet Monday afternoon in the office of weekly motorsport title Autosport in late 2003. I was pretty much done piecing together the rally news for that week’s issue when the phone rang. It was Claire Caudwell from the CSS management firm that represented Richard Burns, calling to inform me that her man would “like a chat”.
Calls like this are not received lightly. More than their F1 counterparts, rally journalists rely on direct access to the drivers (I once befuddled Autosport’s F1 man by informing him that I had all of the top drivers’ mobile numbers; he didn’t even have Michael Schumacher’s PA’s number). So when a top man like Richard calls you in for an audience, it’s normally to deliver a dressing down for mis-quoting him or getting a fact wrong in a report. I’d had my fair share of chewings – and not just from Burnsie.
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Still, the request for an interview was slightly odd. “He wants to go over Rally Catalunya,” said Claire. “Can you come to his place in London, say, tomorrow morning?”
Now it made a little more sense. Burnsie had been, frankly, pretty poor during the most recent round of the series, running in the bottom half of the top 10 before crashing out without much of an explanation on the final day. It was a stark contrast with his drive on the same event 12 months earlier, when he'd kept Peugeot's renowned asphalt specialist Gilles Panizzi very honest throughout the three days. Richard's time with Peugeot Sport was coming to an end and while he was still one of four drivers who could go into the final round of the WRC, Rally GB, with a shot at the title, he clearly wanted to reassert himself after an unusually poor run in Spain.
So at some ungodly hour of the following day, I moseyed up to a smart, spacious apartment in Maida Vale to meet Richard. With Claire and his girlfriend watching TV in the background, he was in relaxed mode, but the steely determination and focus that I’d seen so often was clearly evident.
No, he did not have an explanation yet for why Catalunya had gone so badly. Yes, he was confident that switching back to Subaru to replace the retiring Tommi Mäkinen for the 2004 season was the right move. Yes, he was confident of a good display in the Welsh forests – especially if it happened to be foggy (for all his incredible natural ability, Colin McRae could never match his local rival when visibility dropped to a few yards).
After an hour or so it was time to head back to the office to write up the story - and time for me to impart one small piece of news of my own to Richard. Autosport was about to take me off the world rally circuit, as it turned out, and bump me from deputy editor to editor - promotion, if you want to call it that.
Richard smiled at the news; then he reached across to tap me solidly on the head. “Big chief editor, eh? Check out the brain on John Mac,” he japed, to giggles from the others in the room. “You won’t be wanting to speak to us for much longer, then; you’ll be loving it up with the F1 lot.”
I assured him this wouldn’t be the case. He smiled again, shook my hand, and closed the door.
And that was the last time I’d see him. My memories of half a dozen years reporting on WRC come and go - great action, great characters, great moments - but for all sorts of reasons, those few seconds are burned into my soul.
The following week I was piecing together the rally pages for Autosport once more when word reached us that Richard would not, after all, be part of the four-way title fight on Rally GB, after being taken ill during the pre-event reconnaissance. The crown would go to Petter Solberg after a thrilling fight with Sébastien Loeb - but it would be a week or two before the gravity of Richard's situation would emerge.
Burnsie fought like hell, but within two years he was gone. He was a consummate professional, a hell of a driver and, above all, a thoroughly decent human being. I miss him still.
A foundation set up in Richard’s name continues to do good work for those facing neurological injury and illness. You can access it at www.richardburnsfoundation.com, and watch a moving video tribute to the man below.