The loss of WRC legend Colin McRae to a tragic set of events that occurred on the 15th of September 2007 when his helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350, crashed 1 mile north of the McRae home in Lanark, Scotland, was felt ( and is still felt ) deeply by motor sport fans all over the world. The fact that 2 of his friends and his own 5 year old son Johnny perished along with him, was nothing short of devastating…
A subsequent investigation revealed that McRae himself was to blame for the crash with the investigative team claiming that he was “…executing dangerous maneuvers” and that “…the helicopter crashed in a wooded valley while maneuvering at high speed and low height.” The news came as a complete shock to everyone following the news.
Without wishing to harp on about the political or personal sides to the situation, it was a deeply saddening and tragic time for all involved to be faced with, fans like myself included. Colin McRae was considered, and is still considered to be, one of the greatest global superstars rallying has ever seen; manhandling a Prodrive prepared GC8 all the way to his solitary 1995 WRC championship victory.
The 90’s were a great time for rally fans, with epic battles taking place between Subaru, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Citroen, Ford and Toyota. Colin was larger than life and I vividly remember him going through a stage so fast that it looked like he was always driving like his life depended on it. He crashed often enough and some of us joked that his nickname was Colin McCrash. The bravery and sheer commitment on any surface was stupefying. You just knew that when you watched Colin McRae drive, that he was going to either win or crash out completely. “If in doubt, Flat Out.”, he used to say.
Fast forward to the point where I found myself face to face with the very car he drove in the 1998 rally of San Remo, Italy; an S4 specification Subaru WRC GC8 Impreza. It was a deeply emotional experience for me, spiritual even. STi Mitaka were gracious enough to give me some quiet time and unlimited access to the car so that I could bring you this feature. They even removed the barricades around the car and helped me position it for clearer shots.
Opening the lightweight dry carbon fiber covered door, I slid into the bucket that Colin himself used to sit in. Gently, gingerly, I caressed the suede covered steering wheel that Colin used to wrestle with and saw at in total and utter concentration; wondering, pondering and reflecting deeply on what was and what might have been.
The thing that tipped my emotions over the edge were the earthy and unmistakable smells from within the cabin. It was distinctive and mechanical and worldly and familiar. The smell and aura of the WRC champion surrounding me. I suddenly realised my senses were being overwhelmed by the experience and, though I tried my best to keep the taps off, I could feel a distinct leak coming from the corners of my eyes.
I did manage to regain some of my composure after a time but, honestly, I was a little broken from the sheer depth of it all. I just sat there and let the fact sink in that I was sitting in a very significant piece of motor racing history, driven by a man we all knew and loved on some level. And dare I say it, I felt an unmistakable urge to just fire the beast up and attack some corners with it… but that thought was pure folly.
So I just craned my head back into the Prodrive bucket and zoned out for a moment while remembering some of the stunning feats of driving skill I’d seen from Colin during my years as a teen, watching every round of the WRC. To this day, I cannot recall the last time I felt this way when sitting in any car.
I think the only car I could possibly feel a stronger emotion in would be something Senna tackled. It was a profoundly moving experience and I am moved once again as I try to explain that experience with these words.
As for the car itself, the Subaru is a two door, 22B specification, Prodrive and STi built WRC GC8 that now belongs to STi (Fuji Heavy Industries) and is on display upstairs in the Mitaka showroom just outside Tokyo. There are other examples of STi rally machines there including a real and authentic Petter Solberg WRC machine from the late 2000’s.
It is a very special place to spend some time and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. Click here for more info on Mitaka Subaru.. it’s not hard to find.
With my emotions now in check, I went about capturing all the detail that went into the car that Colin campaigned in 1998. Incidentally, that year McRae finished 3rd in the championship, behind eventual champion Tommi Makinen and arch rival Carlos Sainz. The well documented tension and history between McRae and Sainz boiled over more than once during their time as WRC competitors.
In the end though, McRae ended up 13 points adrift of Makinen during the 1998 title chase. The 1998 Rallye Sanremo – Rallye d’Italia, from which this car was retained, was a good event though for McRae who managed to salvage a 3rd place finish, 1 minute and 15 seconds off his team mate Pierro Liatti and a further 15 seconds adrift of eventual winner Tommi Makinen.
Obviously, U.K based motor sport specialists, Prodrive and Subaru Technica International of Japan were responsible for taking the Impreza chassis and transforming it into a ‘roid raging rally beast of the deserts, roads and forests. They made many of them for each season and Colin McCrash had a tendency to find the scenery every so often.
This car is chassis number #026. On the subject of this chassis, Prodrive seam welded every single joint on a naked Impreza body and then welded in the multi point safety cage. The body is over four times more rigid than a standard GC8 Impreza and took Prodrive 300 hours each to make.
A World Rally Championship car from 1998 had to start out as a 2 liter car and be mass produced in numbers greater than 25,000 world wide ( for homologation purposes ) to qualify as a candidate for the championship. The only main things that had to remain stock on the car were its unibody construction, basic suspension design, engine block, cylinder heads and the basic outer body shape. About the only things that connect this car in any way to a normal road going 22B are the engine and the body! Everything else is radically modified as you’d expect.
The engine was built by STi Japan and uses the traditional “flat-four” configuration that we all know and love. Subaru believed that the 2 liter boxer 4, because of its longitudinal layout and lower center of gravity, was going to prove superior to the transversely placed inline fours of the competition.
While the crank remained stock, virtually everything else was heavily modified, with the pistons, rods and cams swapped out for lighter and stronger units to reduce rotational inertia. Giving the engine a simply massive 36psi of boost pressure was an IHI snail and a lowered compression ratio of 9.1:1. To put that into perspective, a standard, road going Impreza STi makes up to 8psi.
The turbo system is aided by an anti-lag set up that kept the snail spinning even when Colin was off the throttle. It was a complicated system that used a combination of retarded ignition timing, the dumping of extra fuel into the cylinders and a slightly open throttle to essentially force the expanding fuel that was burned from the exhaust manifold walls to keep the turbo spinning. This meant boost ( and with it power ) was almost always at peak levels and available virtually all of the time. This is one of the lesser known secrets as to why WRC cars were so deadly point to point.
The car also ran a huge 3 core radiator and water injection system to cool intake temperatures that then eventually found its way ( no surprises here ) onto road going STi Imprezas. Because power levels were restricted by the FIA, thanks to the very simple but highly effective use of a restrictor plate, the car developed the mandatory 300bhp @ 5500rpm with a significant 480 Nm of torque being developed @ 4000rpm. The redline for this engine was 7000rpm. With peak power and torque levels being developed just 1500rpm apart, you can see just why these monsters were the quickest machines in the world, point to point.
Aiding in the delivery of this fury to all 4 wheels was a Prodrive built drivetrain that consisted of a traditional H-pattern, 6 speed “dog-box”, 2 electronically controlled, front and center differentials and one rear mechanical LSD. The front and center units used hydraulic pressure to activate a clutch pack that could vary the amount of lock via a dash mounted adjustment dial at Colin’s fingertips.
Stopping this insanity was a more than capable setup of huge 365mm ventilated and slotted discs at the front with 305mm ventilated discs at the rear.
These were bitten into by a liquid cooled, 6 piston/4 piston AP Racing caliper set-up that was used specifically for tarmac rallies.
McRae used to say he preferred manual brakes without ABS because he liked the feel and feedback of them and while sitting there in the car, I came to the conclusion that he must have had legs made from steel; the brake pedal was harder than the six-pack of King Leonidus‘ from the movie “300”.
Converting this enormous stopping power to grip, are 18 x 8 inch magnesium Prodrive wheels that are wrapped in slicks supplied by Pirelli. Colin used to burn his way through as many as 48 of them in a single rally.
The prices for parts that made up Colin McRae’s 1998 WRC charger were not for the faint hearted. As it turns out, Colin used to do two rallies in each chassis before they were sold on; for $330,000 each. If you felt you had enough money to purchase one, you then had to consider what it would cost to maintain it.
If you wanted a fresh engine, you’d have to cough up $55,000. Did you hit the embankment and trash the right front suspension and brake assembly? That’ll be $10,000, thanks. Manage to lunch a gearbox? No problem – you’re instantly $18,000 poorer. Even each individual gas-discharge headlight is $2000 per side.
But taking all that into account, you were still up for some blisteringly fast speeds in such a capable car and in any condition you care to name. This thing could smoke all four wheels from a standstill to 100kph in 4.1 seconds. In the rain.
By the time you read that sentence youd’ve banged your way through 4 dog-gear changes on the way to a 1/4 mile time of 12.8 seconds on rain tires. In the dry, it was easily capable of 10 second 400m sprints and 2.8 second 0-100kph hole shots on slick tires. Keep in mind this car is now pushing 20 years old. And even today, there’s very little on this planet that would be able to keep up.
It was such an absolute privilege and an honor that STi Japan gave me the opportunity to be able to pore over this magnificent machine in all its preserved glory and to allow me to quietly reminisce on the times that I enjoyed as a younger man, watching one of my all time favorite drivers go absolutely berserk in every condition imaginable.
I took the other seat for a while, where Colin McRae’s partner in madness, Nicky Grist, used to sit.
From there the view was different; the ambiance the same. The organized chaos of carbon fiber, switches, dials, fuses and buttons that adorned the office compartment Grist used to occupy, deeply involving from a fans perspective.
Check out the floor panel… Grist had switches at his feet for both the screen washer… and the horn!
I’ll never forget it as long as I live. And neither will you, should you ever make the trek to Mitaka and see this car up close and personal.
The final moment came when it was time to say “goodbye to Colin” and his WRC legacy that sat before me.
I was deeply troubled because I knew that I couldn’t recreate the feeling even if I’d seen the car a second time the same way I did that day. Not even here in words, can I get close. Something like this has to be seen, sensed, touched and smelt. If in doubt, FLAT OUT.
RIP Colin and thanks for the memories…
Words and Photos – Adam Zillin
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