Eleven years ago, the legendary Scottish rally driver Colin McRae made two guest appearances for ŠKODA Motorsport in the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC).
It was an unexpected return for McRae who had retired from the sport back in 2003. Whilst he had taken part in various high-profile events such as the Le Mans 24-hour race and the Dakar Rally since then, there had been little sign that he would bow to mounting public pressure and make a return to rallying.
It was therefore something of a coup for ŠKODA Motorsport when they announced that they had signed up McRae and his long-time co-driver Nicky Grist to drive a FABIA WRC in the Wales Rally GB 2005. McRae finished in 7th place overall in his first competitive rally for two years and thoroughly enjoyed competing again, especially in front of a partisan home crowd.
As for ŠKODA, a competitive performance from such an iconic driver gave the whole team a boost, so it was in both parties’ interests that the deal should be extended to final round of the 2005 WRC season; the Rally Australia.
His optimism proved to be well founded as McRae put in one of the most memorable drives of his career. He actually made relatively slow start to the rally and sat in 10th place overall after the third special stage. But a remarkable drive on stage four saw him record the second fastest time which lifted him up to 6th and from that point on, McRae never looked back.
He pushed the FABIA WRC to its absolute limit and used all of his experience to record a string of remarkable times. McRae sat third at the end of the first leg and had climbed up to second by the end of the second day.
A small blip at the start of the final leg saw McRae back in third, but he was again making up time on second place after the third stage of the day. Indeed, Harri Rovanperä, who was the driver in second spot commented that he believed he wouldn’t have been able to keep the FABIA WRC behind him.
But then, unfortunately, with just three stages remaining and McRae on course to record ŠKODA’s best-ever overall finish at the time, disaster struck and problems with a clutch replacement forced McRae to retire. It was a sad end to a scintillating performance from a driver clearly relishing his time behind the wheel of a competitive rally again.
The performance served to enhance McRae’s huge reputation within the sport, as indeed did his reaction to his retirement. He went to the nearby ‘Fenians’ Irish Bar, ordered himself a pint and spent the following hours watching the outcome of the rally and chatting happily with journalists and fellow punters.
It wasn’t the fairy-tale ending that both McRae and ŠKODA Motorsport had perhaps hoped for; but it was nonetheless the rally which showed that the FABIA WRC could mix it with the very best in the WRC. And as for the performance of McRae, who is no longer with us to share his own views of the event, the final word is best left to his co-driver Nicky Grist.