This afternoon - at around lunchtime, as it happens - marked the 20th anniversary of the moment that Colin McRae and Derek Ringer crossed the finish line of Clocaenog East to win the Network Q RAC Rally for the second year in succession and become Britain’s first World Rally Champions.
Winning the title with an astonishing display of speed on the closing event was an incredible achievement by the young Scot - not least because of the mental fortitude that he required to pick himself up after the penultimate round in Catalunya. There he’d been locked in a tussle with team-mate and championship rival Carlos Sainz - only to be informed by Prodrive/Subaru team boss David Richards that the pair should hold station in the closing stages.
Colin refused to accept this, so Subaru dispatched a bunch of team officials to the final few kilometres of the last stage to get him to slow down. Colin changed up a gear as he passed them by. Then later in service, he deliberately picked up a time penalty to hand the win back to Sainz - but not until he’d kicked a wastebin around the Subaru truck in frustration. It was an amazing sulk in public from one of the sport’s top stars - it’s hard to imagine one that’s matched it since, come to think of it - and it was easy to see how it could have resulted in a first-day retirement on the RAC as Colin over-stretched himself in a bid for revenge.
That didn’t happen - although Colin’s win on the RAC was far from straightforward. He suffered a puncture in a Scottish forest that cost him a couple of minutes, and he damaged front suspension and had to bend it back into shape with a log. Thereafter, though, Colin was utterly dominant; even when he was still recovering from that time loss and in second place, such was his speed advantage over Sainz that victory seemed inevitable.
On some of the Welsh stages he was more than a second per mile clear of his rival - a man who had won the event twice before, let’s not forget - and it was hard to not feel even slightly sympathetic for Sainz as he tried his best, often in treacherous and foggy conditions, and then gazed at the stage times in disbelief.
Watching some of the YouTube footage now - in particular, that closing Clocaenog stage from Colin’s in-car camera - I’m struck by a couple of things. Firstly, the crowds were utterly enormous; lining mile after mile of muddy Welsh forest to cheer Britain’s hero to the title. Secondly, the winning crew were simply stunned in celebration; “Yes! Spot on!” was about all Derek Ringer could manage, while Colin gave a clenched fist and little else. It was the classic understated British success from a modest, quiet guy; a true people’s champion; even the first interview at the closing service area brought pretty much single-word answers and confirmation that things hadn't quite sunk in.
If you’re wanting to know what happened in the hours that followed that success, I’m afraid I can’t enlighten you. I was there - bizarrely, that RAC was my first ever WRC round, attended as a cub rally reporter with Motoring News, now Motorsport News. But my junior status meant I had little to write - and that allowed me to frequent the Chester nightclub where the Subaru team, McRae family and British motorsport had decamped to celebrate. You can guess the rest.
Those were heady days - with Colin’s presence at the top soon to be joined by that of Richard Burns, allowing Britain to come as close as it ever has done to dominating the rally world.