This month’s Dayinsure Wales Rally GB (27-30 October) will mark a very special milestone in the career of British rallying legend Jimmy McRae.
It is 40 years since the ever-enthusiastic Scot first appeared on Britain’s round of the FIA World Rally Championship and, to celebrate that anniversary, he’s contesting the WRGB National Rally back behind the wheel of an identical Vauxhall Magnum to the one he campaigned back in 1976.
“The car looks exactly the same as it did then… as indeed do I!” jests Jimmy who turns 73 on the opening day of the event.
Somewhat surprisingly, McRae didn’t start rallying until he reached 31 but he still found the time to notch up no fewer than five British Championship titles and to teach two of his sons to become international stars. Like their father before them, both Colin and Alister won British crowns and Colin went on to become this country’s first-ever World Rally Champion in 1995.
Starting so late in life, Jimmy couldn’t waste any time making his mark and, while 1976 is remembered by most for Roger Clark’s victory, further down the field McRae’s WRC debut was almost as impressive and significant.
“I’d only started rallying a couple of years earlier, so it was a pretty daunting experience to find myself in the World Championship,” he recalls. “It was a very tough rally and we were only in a Group 1 Magnum, but we managed to finish 12th overall and second in class, so it was a pretty special occasion for me. It also set me up as a works driver for Vauxhall for many years to come.”
Back then, of course, the event travelled all around the country whereas today the spectacular action takes place predominantly in the Welsh forests. Jimmy clearly is a fan of both formats.
“On that first event we started in Bath and the route went through the Midlands, north Yorkshire, the Scottish borders, the Lake District and back through Wales. We completed 70 stages totaling nearly 450 miles – you couldn’t drive flat-out all the way – particularly in a Group 1 car – as you’d break it,” he admits. “I did feel the event lost a bit of its magic when it first became more regional but now the atmosphere is coming back and, once again, it’s the place be – that’s why I keep coming back.”
As you’d expect, over the past 40 years McRae has experienced more than his fair share of highs and lows on what’s always been one of the most challenging rounds on the WRC calendar.
“Finishing on the podium twice and being the first two-wheel drive car home was pretty special,” he says referring to his two third place finishes. The first of these came in 1983 when his Opel Manta 400 was beaten only by the all-conquering four-wheel-drive Audi quattros of Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mikkola. The second came four years later when Jimmy was rallying a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and finished hot on the heels of Juha Kankkunen’s victorious Lancia Delta HF 4WD and Blomqvist in a factory-entered Ford.
Those podiums, though, weren’t the only memorable moments. Jimmy still savours the chance he had to drive an MG Metro 6R4 in 1986 when he finished eighth in the very car that will be performing as part of the Group B Showcase at the Cholmondeley Castle RallyFest in association with GreenThumb on the Saturday of this month’s rally.
“That was a fantastic opportunity and another highlight as we knew those Group B cars were about to be banned,” he continues before switching to the personal pleasure experienced through the success of his two sons. “Then, of course, there’s 1994 when Colin won for first time and 1995 when he won again and, with victory, the world title. Alistair finished fourth that year, too, so all-in-all it was a great family effort.”
As for lows on the gruelling event? “There have been plenty of those over the years,” he grins, “but 1980 was probably the biggest. We were rallying the Vauxhall Chevette HSR and I had just taken the outright lead from Henri Toivonen in Kielder Forest, when I stuck it into a bog – that was pretty disappointing.”
More recently Jimmy suffered more frustration on last year’s WRGB National Rally when forced to retire on the final stage when set for a top ten overall position and second place in his class for historic cars. It is the kind of result he would love to achieve again later this month. By his own admission, though, it is going to be a tough ask.
“The bad weather really took its toll on some of the more modern cars last November, so that showing might be hard to repeat. My aim must be to finish 12th – that would match my first result from 1976 and that seems to be a pretty perfect target.”
Tickets on sale
Tickets to follow Jimmy McRae and all the other top rally stars on this month’s event are now on sale. Advance adult ticket prices start at just £20 for the family-friendly RallyFest at Cholmondeley Castle, £25 for a day ticket or £99 for the full four-day event pass. All tickets include free parking and an event programme priced at £9. Accompanied children aged 15 and under are admitted FREE – a real half-term treat for families. The latest event and ticket information can be found on the official www.walesrallygb.com website and the official Rally Planner is now available online, providing fans with all the details required to plan their visit.
Combine the thrill of spectating with the indulgence of fantastic hospitality at Dayinsure Wales Rally GB between 28 and 30 October. World-class rally action always delivers an amazing spectacle, but nothing compares to enjoying the day from the comfort of our fabulous hospitality facilities at Sweet Lamb, Cholmondeley Castle and Llyn Brenig. For more information on hospitality visit walesrallygb.com