Finding Richard and Colin – part 1: The memories, the journey, the speed
We take a Subaru WRX STi to hallowed ground in the wheeltracks of Richard Burns and Colin McRae
Racing a car flat-out between trees and along cliff edges on surfaces that most normal people would struggle to hit the speed limit on requires a huge amount of talent – and equally large plums.
The people who do this are called rally drivers, and they’re a special breed. The loose, insecure terrains they shoot over more often feature gravel, snow, ice, and mud than smooth tarmac. It is a dangerous, dramatic sport that produces competitors of real character and bravery.
Britain has produced many rally competitors over the years, and two men above all stand out as exceptional talents – Richard Burns and Colin McRae. Both men won the World Rally Championship – the sport’s ultimate prize – and both men were also triumphant in their native Wales Rally GB. They achieved both of these dreams behind the wheel of a Subaru.
Tragically, we lost both of our WRC Champions at young ages. Burns, to the cruelty of a brain tumour at the age of just 34, McRae in a helicopter crash when he was just 39 years of age. Despite both men having drastically different characters and driving styles, they were both hugely likeable characters who won the hearts of rally fans across the globe, and not just on the British Isles, where they are quite rightly regarded as heroes.
Colin McRae was a man who only knew one way to drive, that way of his embodied perfectly by his famous “If in doubt, flat out” quote. McRae suffered some of the largest accidents in the WRC, but he was without doubt an outrageous talent at the wheel, and easily one of – if not the – most exciting rally driver of all time. Few can forget his celebrations as he took his first WRC rally win here in 1994, or better still, his only WRC Championship crown in the following season.
Richard Burns was a different kettle of fish. A more cerebral driver, with a steady, smooth approach. It was considered unusual for a driver as young as he was to be so composed at the wheel, and he was praised for advancing rally driving by applying what he knew from circuit techniques to the stage. He won the Wales Rally GB on three occasions, two of those coming at the wheel of a Subaru.
As a boy who grew up watching these brave men conquer the world in that distinctive blue-liveried Subaru Impreza WRC car, I wanted to pay my own tribute to our two champions, gone but not forgotten, by taking the latest generation of Subaru’s performance car – now named the WRX STi – to the wilds of Wales, and onto the beauty and danger of Snowdonia’s roads. In doing so I hoped to find a little bit of the spirit of Burns and McRae, feel a touch of what they must have felt pushing their cars to the maximum in pursuit of their dreams. They might be gone, but the inspiration and memories they provided us certainly hasn’t. With that in mind, I grabbed the keys, and shot off for Snowdonia.
It’s fair to say that things have changed a bit since Richard and Colin were around. Technology, culture, motor racing, oh, the volatile political climate. There are some things though, that haven’t changed much at all and I happened to be sat in it.
The Subaru WRX STi would look familiar to Richard and Colin. Aside from a weird hatchback period, the car that became this latest generation hasn’t changed all that drastically from the old Imprezas our heroes would have been so used to. Our test car even had the same distinctive blue paint, a paint that became distinctive through rallying. One exterior change the chaps would notice right away is the absence of the famous gold wheels, though the new dark ones look superb anyway.
Blue and burly, the WRX STi is still powered by a turbocharged ‘boxer’ 4-cylinder engine, 2.5-litres in size and producing roughly 300bhp, only fractionally more than the 276bhp nearly all Japanese performance cars were supposed to have due to a manufacturers’ “gentleman’s agreement” over in Japan. Of course, it’s also still four-wheel drive – anything else would be heresy – allowing it to scamper along twisting tarmac ribbons and find grip where others find an accident. Technological advancements have added things like a touchscreen system and fancy settings you can play with to find the right balance for what you’re trying to achieve in the car. That isn’t really what this car is about though.
Day one with the car involved the six hour pilgrimage to North Wales. Misty Snowdonia awaited, and the Subaru WRX STi was ready to roll. We did it in five hours, which tells you exactly what you need to know about this car. This is a car to jump into, strap on your belt and drive. Not once in those five hours was a coffee break taken, and every mile driven from Devon to Snowdonia was driven “enthusiastically”. There’s no need to play around with the settings, you don’t need to alter modes in the WRX STi to have fun. The car is constructed to allow the driver to have fun.
That feeling the Subaru WRX STI gives you is a potent mixture of confidence, aggression, and ambition. The desire, no, need to go faster and find the most rapid route to your destination is matched by the total faith in the mechanical parts underneath and around you as you accelerate that little bit earlier, and brake that little later. It isn’t all that often you find a car that give you that confidence and a stamina for driving. Driving the WRX STi is like being drip fed a caffeine substitute – you don’t get tired, you just keep your foot down and chew up the road ahead.
It is something you can imagine serving Richard Burns and Colin McRae well as they fought to find the speed, strength, and bravery needed to become World Rally Champions. For a driver to pursue glory, they need a glorious machine to give them an edge. The Subaru WRX STi still has that spirit about it, it hasn’t changed all that much because it simply doesn’t need to. It’s an over-achiever, a rebel, and an athlete all rolled into one, and perhaps that’s why it strikes such a chord with us Brits.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Richard and Colin sensed something of themselves in their Subarus all those years ago.
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