Ten years ago today, Scotland lost one of its true sporting greats when Colin McRae died in a helicopter crash near his South Lanarkshire home. For the former world rally champion’s younger brother Alister – now on the far side of the world – it will be poignant and difficult, just the same as every day since the tragedy.
“It will be tough because this is the tenth anniversary,” said Alister. “More people are wanting to remember Colin. But, to be honest, this has been my life since that dreadful day. I’ve never stopped thinking about him. I do it every day and always will.” Alister followed Colin into rallying, their father and five-time British champ Jimmy having introduced both of them to the thrills of sideways driving.
It was ten years ago that Alister, pictured right, moved to Perth, Australia and he now classes himself as “semi-retired”. But, as he prepares to honour Colin’s memory by driving his 1995 world title-winning Subaru Impreza, Alister admits to facing the same problems as his brother in giving up the adrenalin rush of barrelling speeds and swishing turns.
He said: “Rallying is in the blood and, for the McRaes, difficult to get out of the system.
“Dad is 74 next month and he’s still rallying. He did the Ulster Rally recently and then nipped over to Flanders in Belgium for an event. I can’t stop if he’s still doing it! I can’t let him be the only McRae out there. But he’s an inspiration to me to keep going.”
The crash in Mouse Valley near Larkhall also killed Colin’s five-year-old son Johnny, his six-year-old friend Ben Porcelli and Graeme Duncan, 37. A sheriff later ruled that Colin, who didn’t have a valid pilot’s licence for the helicopter, had “imprudently and unnecessarily” embarked on a low-level flight into a heavily-wooded valley.
Five years ago, in a book about Colin, his widow Alison admitted he’d struggled to come to terms with the end of his rallying career, having quit a year before the crash. “There was a big thing in Colin’s head: ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’ ” she said. “There was part of him that just felt useless. He’d say: ‘Alison, I can’t do anything apart from driving cars’.”
Speaking to The Scotsman from the home he shares with his Australian wife Tara and children Max and Emmie, Alister said: “I can definitely relate to that. I was incredibly lucky, as was Colin, that my hobby turned into my career. We both put so much into it and got so much out of it. But the biggest fear in motorsport is when you’re not professional anymore.”
This explains why Alister is just back from Brittany in France, having competed in rallycross for the first time at the age of 47. In rallying you’re racing against the clock often on lonely forest tracks; in rallycross you’re on a circuit with other cars. Unsurprisingly, he loved it.
It was the ninth stage of the 2017 World Rallycross Championship in Loheac, watched by a mere 70,000 enthusiasts. “I wouldn’t say it’s a bump’n’smash event but there’s a fair bit of rubbing,” he laughed. “There’s action for sure. Rallycross is short and sharp with a lot of cars and you have to be aggressive.”
So, is he? “Oh aye. But for my first go I held back. You don’t want to be labelled the bad boy straight away!”
There was a wiper incident, a snag with which he’s not entirely unfamiliar if you check out his clips on YouTube. A popular one from his rallies – and he clocked up 76 of them – has him hurriedly rip out a radio cable and tie it to the defunct wiper so he could drag it across the mud-caked windscreen by hand. “Broken wipers are a problem in rallying but, as I discovered, an even bigger one in rallycross with other cars in such close proximity.”
Some of the clips in McRae’s video library last a mere five seconds. But they were gold to the enthusiasts who waited on sodden hillocks to film him roar past. He misses those sodden hillocks. “Scotland is green for a reason. It gets a lot of rain. I pine for the Scottish scenery and places like Craigvinean in Perthshire, one of the best stages in all rallying.
“Australia’s a great country but the long straight roads are very depressing for a guy like me.” It would be interesting, I say, if he liked to relax with a sedate pastime like chess or even Airfix car construction.
“No chance! I’d just get frustrated. The favourite thing I do now is getting on my motorbike. My wife says I’m happiest when I’m involved with speed. It needs a heck of a lot of concentration but to me that’s relaxing. You’ll never catch me just sitting in front of the TV.”
Bikes are where is all began for Alister, and stir happy memories of trying to keep up with Colin. “We were very competitive as brothers, but in a good way. And bikes, while we waited until we were 17 and allowed to drive, were the most fun because we’d be side by side on these brilliant Lanarkshire tracks.”
Colin’s triumphs will be commemorated at the Rallylegend event in San Marino in October, when Alister will be joined by former champions and his brother’s co-drivers Derek Ringer and Nicky Grist.
Meanwhile, Alister hopes to resume his nascent rallycross career when the championship moves to Germany and then South Africa.
Mere mortals can suddenly develop phobias in their mature years – doesn’t this happen to speed kings and skid demons?
“I think as you get older in rallying you maybe lose the ability to push to the limit but, using all your experience, you can keep doing well at it and I still love jumping in the car,” said McRae.
“I don’t think about the risks – it’s actually a pretty safe sport – or what might or could go wrong. You’ve got to enjoy your life.”
Now Alister is seeing Max, 13, show all the sparkly-eyed zeal for rallying that he possessed at the same age. “He races go-karts in Australia right now but is all the time telling me he wants to rally. I have to say it’s easier competing yourself than being a parent watching your boy do it. Goodness knows what my mother was like when Dad, Colin and I were all going in the same event. But, when we were back in Scotland in the summer, Dad fixed it for Max to have a hurl round Knockhill. He loved it, of course, and for three generations of McRaes that was a very special day.”