Winding along gravel roads criss-crossing 1600 hectares of forest, I pull my car to a stop in the heart of Walters Arena, the rally stage and test venue half an hour north east of Swansea, Wales, and pinch myself. Through the windscreen I can see a Subaru Legacy RS, and Impreza and Focus World Rally Cars, all bearing the surname McRae on their back windows. But that’s not why I pinch myself; I’m in Wales and it isn’t raining, foggy or freezing cold. Hallelujah!
The cars are framed by a clear blue sky and from the service area you can see the stages that have featured in the World Rally Championship over the years. I’m not the only one who’s grinning from ear to ear at the thought of seeing the three significant machines fly around the place. Max McRae, grandson of “Gramps” Jimmy and son of Alister, is also looking decidedly perky for someone that’s just got off a plane from Perth, Australia. He didn’t sleep a wink on the flight. Would you?
Max is here nearly 25 years after Colin McRae, or plain Uncle Colin, became Britain’s first World Rally Champion and the youngest ever driver to clinch the title. He would like to follow in the family footsteps and become the third generation of McRae to slug it out for supremacy at the wheel of a rally car.
He hasn’t driven anything remotely like the three cars gathered at Walters Arena before. There has been motocross with Dad, then karting which brought a state championship to his name. He’s driven a couple of front-wheel-drive rally cars too: a Citroen C2 and a Suzuki Swift. And at the end of last year, he won a scholarship for a season in the 2020 West Australia Formula 1000 series, which will pitch Max against rivals in 400kg, 130kW, 1000cc Suzuki powered formula cars that can pull up to 3.2g through turns. But Max hasn’t been near a full-blooded rally car.
Yet for all that he admits that his heart is set on rallying.“I hope destiny is calling me for rallying. That’s really what I want to do with my life. For rallying, I’d be willing to do anything, even leave Australia and come back to Britain,” he tells me.
In October Max will take part in the McRae Rally Challenge, an invitational event for leading national and international rally crews that will feature two one-day single venue rallies, a power-stage finale on Sunday, and a Junior rally event, all held at Knockhill, the family’s local Scottish circuit north of Edinburgh.
“It’s a really special day, especially to be driving that car with the McRae name on it,” Max continues. At home, he has a collection of scale models of all the cars Alister, Jimmy and Colin have competed in. And with mentors such as Alister and Jimmy on hand, the teenager says he has a strong work ethic. “Dad’s always telling me to put the effort in. He says, ‘If you put the effort in, you get what you want, and hopefully, get your dreams.’”
One of those dreams is coming true today. Max walks around the three rally machines, his gaze falling first on the Subaru Legacy RS, the car that put Uncle Colin firmly on the map of the British and, later, the international scene.
Then there’s a 1997 Subaru Impreza S3, the first WRC-spec Impreza during the year that Colin won five rallies. And finally, the one that’s caught most of Max’s attention, a Ford Focus RS world rally car from 2001, the year Colin won three rounds and finished runner-up in the championship. The Focus is also the model that’s best associated with Colin after it featured on the famous Colin McRae Rally and subsequent Dirt video games.
First to be driven is the Impreza, which is owned by Girardo & Co, a classic car dealership in the UK. Max is talked around the dogleg manual gearbox, which is set at an unusual angle to help speed up gearchanges (a signature of all of Colin’s cars). With helmet secure, belts fastened, door shut and engine fired up, he practises a handful of standing starts. These aren’t any old starts. Soon there’s a full bore “let’s go win a rally!” launch.
The laps pass. The engine noise is so evocative; the flat-four burble offset by high-pitched turbo chirps. Max drifts perfectly around our hairpin vantage point, then pulls up and shares his impressions. “The gearbox is tricky initially, then it’s fine. It’s got a really torquey engine. The car feels very responsive and fun to drive. I can’t believe how much grip it generates on gravel. The engine is so strong and full of power as soon as you get on the gas. And it is louder than I imagined, and sounds really good.”
Pretty awesome, is his verdict. Next comes the Legacy, which Colin drove to second place on the Swedish Rally in 1992. Max imagines it will be fairly tame, judging by its conservative looks. But he discovers “it is still pretty full on!
It’s powerful, with enough boost to give you a shock and pin you back in your seat. There isn’t much lag and it feels well built and really together.”
The run in the Focus WRC doesn’t happen after all, but there will be another time for this young man. Max has almost no recollection of being with Colin, but says that driving his old cars has been an emotional, raw experience.
Max clearly looks up to Jimmy, his father and to Colin. For his part, Alister plays the proud dad role perfectly. He tells Max how well he’s done at driving the cars within his limits, building up to it, and getting a feel for their potential.
How does Gramps think his grandson will fare, given the struggle that young drivers face to get a foothold in rallying? “I’ve been involved in the Scottish scene and young drivers. You see these guys come in at 14, and they’re shy and their mother is worried about them. And then they get into a car and just come out of their shell and learn how to be competitive.” However, he is pragmatic enough to admit that getting beyond a clubman level is as challenging as any WRC stage, even for a youngster named McRae.
“At a certain age in motorsport, you’ve got rich drivers with loads of money but no talent and loads of young guys with loads of talent and no money,” he says. “At the moment, rallying is such a big step. There are some teams that will charge you up to A$270,000 per event before you’ve even paid for your own travel!”
By the end of the session, Max’s mind is made up. He wants to answer rallying’s call. “After driving the cars, it gave me a clear view of what rallying could be like for me. It’s a goal I want to achieve. I just need to build up, drive harder and harder, put in the effort, get noticed and get people [sponsors] on board.” No small task, especially given he still has to go to school, sit exams, and navigate his teenage years.
Jimmy half jokes about how pleased he is that Alister now has the responsibility of paying for a son to go rallying. Having been through it, twice, he doesn’t miss the financial commitment. But you suspect that by hook or by crook, the McRaes will find a way to propel the next generation of the family to rallying’s start line.
Which McRae is quickest?
Colin gets most of the attention but driving quickly runs in the McRae family. Jimmy ‘Gramps’ McRae won the British Rally Championship five times, while Alister (also a British champ) was a World Rally Championship mainstay through the 1990s and mid-2000s. Most families are competitive, but get these three together and it wasn’t long before they were setting timed laps in Colin’s 1997 Subaru WRC car. In an added twist of nostalgia, Colin’s long-time navigator, Nicky Grist, was strapped in to deliver the pace notes. Alister was quickest with a time of 2m07s but it was Max who threw up the biggest surprise by beating home 76-year-old Jimmy (2m12s played 2m14s).
The secret plan to reunite Mcrae and Subaru
Late in his career and with no full-time top-flight drive, Colin McRae struggled to come to terms with being separated from the sport he loved and excelled at. One of McRae’s biggest fears in life was having to go back to his original trade, plumbing. A qualified heating engineer, during one interview at his local pub in Lanark, he laughed about how only 15 years earlier he’d had his arm “down a blocked drain outside this very pub, up to the elbow in shit… I’ve had a job. There’s no going back to that place.”
So he set about engineering a potential return to WRC. In 2007, McRae spoke at length with Prodrive’s David Richards who ran the Subaru World Rally Team. As Richards tells it, the team was struggling and the opportunity to bring back the driver that delivered Subaru its first WRC victory and championship was something that appealed.
“We talked at some length about Colin joining us the following year,” Richards told Motor Sport News. “It would have been a great combination to have Colin back to Subaru. We had agreed a test for the following week [the week of McRae’s helicopter accident]. Colin McRae back in a Subaru again for one last big push? Sadly now we’ll never find out.”
Jimmy says: “That was as near as done. And also he had a contract with BMW to do the Dakar.”