When Colin McRae raced a BMW in the BTCC
The late, great Colin McRae is best known for all-action exploits in the World Rally Championship, where he became the first British driver to lift the title in 1995.
But less well known is his sole BTCC appearance in the 1992 round at Knockhill, racing a BMW in equally spectacular style – making an impression on one team boss in particular…
McRae was loved by fans for his spectacular driving style, which reflected his motto of ‘when it doubt, flat out’.
The Scot’s successful career with Subaru – which lasted from 1991 through to 1998 when he switched to Ford – saw him working with Prodrive, which constructed the Subaru rally cars during those years – and it was they who offered McRae a chance to race in the BTCC during his home round of the 1992 camopaign.
Prodrive was then running the BMW factory team in the BTCC, fielding two BMW 318is E36 for Tim Sugden and Alain Menu, who broke his leg during a quad bike accident that weekend and was replaced by Kris Nissen.
1992 was the first time the BTCC had raced at Knockhill, and Prodrive entered a guest car for McRae as part of the promotion for the inaugural race at the Scottish circuit.
The Scot had minimal circuit racing experience and did not test the BTCC BMW until the day before the start of the weekend, with the team noting that McRae’s focus was fully on rallying rather than racing in the BTCC.
“Colin was really quite blasé about the whole thing,” said Tom Hunt, team manager, to motorsportmagazine.com.
“At the time we were running ABS, and Sugden and Menu were saying during the test that they couldn’t brake over the bump. Colin told them ‘if you want to brake there, just brake there’. He maintained that he’d be better off without the ABS so we removed it for one of the sessions. Within three laps he’d put it into the gravel.”
After his off during practice, McRae qualified 15th out of the 19 entered cars, 1.8 seconds from pole sitter and fellow Scot David Leslie.
The first race went considerably better as McRae slowly started making his way up through the field in spectacular fashion, sliding his BMW into the corners rally-style to finish seventh – although it should be noted that just twelve cars were classified in the 25-lap race, and McRae finished 36 seconds behind Vauxhall’s race winner Jeff Allam.
The heavens opened for the second race and even fewer cars would be classified, including a certain future rally world champion.
McRae was involved in a tough fight with future BTCC champion Matt Neal, who raced an older BMW M3 E30.
The Scot spent almost the first half of the race trying to get past, until he turned Neal around at the exit of the final corner on lap nine.
“Over the course of a lap I was definitely faster than him, so I was determined to try and find a way past,” said McRae to motorsportmagazine.com.
“Then, at the hairpin, he seemed to brake harder than usual, and there was absolutely nowhere for me to go. I couldn’t help giving him a tap. I kept going and he didn’t. I thought that’s what touring cars were all about anyway!”
The incident saw Neal retire from the race while McRae was disqualified, having crossed the finishing line in an impressive fifth position before the stewards had a stern word with him.
But that was apparently nothing compared to Matt Neal’s father Steve who, according to Motorsport Magazine, threatened to: “find McRae, rip his head off, and shit down his neck.”
“Matt was none too pleased, but Steve was definitely the spokesman. The quickest I went all weekend was probably the run back to the motorhome after the race,” said McRae.
The Knockhill round became McRae’s only BTCC race, although he did race in the 2004 24 Hours of Le Mans for Prodrive, finishing third in the LMGTS class behind the wheel of a Ferrari 550 GTS Maranello with none other than 1998 BTCC champion Rickard Rydell as co-driver.
McRae then left us all too soon after a helicopter crash in 2007, leaving behind the memory of one of the world’s greatest rally drivers who briefly dipped his toe in the touring car world as well.