When asked who I thought the best driver of my generation was, my mind naturally turned to my favourite motorsport – rallying. Hurtling along at over 100mph on narrow, slippery, twisting roads just a few feet from immovable objects or perilous drops may seem like madness but it’s a sport that separates the men from the boys. Or to put it another way, the drivers with no imagination from those who can’t help but think of big accidents and mangled limbs.
It’s a branch of motorsport that contains a very long list of truly great drivers but there’s one in particular I’d like to pay tribute to. Richard Burns.
He was the first British driver I really supported, willing him on in each round of the WRC. It wasn’t just that he had a Union Jack against his name – I admired his disciplined and methodical approach to each rally and his down-to-earth manner. Quietly spoken and modest, he seemed like a genuinely nice bloke and the archetypal British racer.
Richard was just eight years old when his Dad let him loose in a car in a field near their home. The rallying bug bit and as soon as he was old enough he was competing at club level in a Talbot Sunbeam bought by his Dad. He did all he could to fund his early rallying career, including stacking shelves in his local supermarket and offering driving tuition to other competitors.
He quickly rose through the club ranks and in 1991 became the youngest British works rally driver when he drove a Subaru Legacy RS in the British Rally Championship. This was a series he dominated, winning the title four years in a row.
His talents brought him to the attention of the WRC teams and Mitsubishi quickly offered him a drive. His first win came in 1998 when he piloted his Lancer Evo to victory on the treacherous Safari rally but it was his next win at the Rally of Great Britain that really pushed him into the limelight.
It was his championship-winning year that really showed his true determination and spirit. The 2001 season opened badly for Burns, with retirement in Monte Carlo and a 16th place in Sweden seeing the Brit miss out on valuable points. Fourth place in Portugal netted three points but Spain saw Burns miss out again. Lesser drivers would have started to despair and give up the fight. Not so Richard Burns.
He fought back on the dry gravel tracks of Argentina and Cyprus, finishing both rounds in second place behind fellow Brit Colin McRae. Mechanical failure saw Burns relegated to the sidelines in Greece while McRae won again. At this point Burns had 15 points, McRae 30 and Tommi Makinen 31.
From there Burns recovered to record two 2nd place finishes and a win in New Zealand, while Makinen and McRae had their own share of problems. In the end it all came down to the last round in Great Britain. When McRae and Makinen both dropped out of the running all Burns had to do was finish in 4th place to seal his first ever championship. He went one better, finishing third behind the Peugeots of Marcus Gronholm and Harri Rovenpera. It wasn’t the win he wanted in front of his home crowd but it was enough to make him World Champion.
It had been a tough campaign and had tested Burns’ resolve, as well as his relationship with the Subaru team. What struck me is that he never lost his cool. In the mid and post-race interviews he was always calm and collected, unlike some of his rivals who liked to whinge and moan or cast veiled insults at their rivals. If he’d suffered a setback he was philosophical and already looking to the next round but when he won he wasn’t cocky or complacent.
Critics say Burns was too restrained in his driving and didn’t have the outright speed and flamboyance of the likes of McRae and Gronholm. That may be true but he was also less likely to throw away a points finish by parking his car on its roof. Planning was his strength and this was backed up by probably the most complex and detailed pace notes that any driver has used. With co-driver Robert Reid firing detailed descriptions of the road ahead Burns was able to remain calm, confident and avoid taking risks.
In order to finish first, first you have to finish – it’s a mantra that Burns followed closely, particularly in the 2003 championship.
Despite not winning a single round in 2003 a string of podium finishes meant that Burns had a good chance of claiming the title at the final round in Great Britain. The championship was set for a four-way battle between Burns, Solberg, Loeb and Sainz. Burns was behind on points but had the advantage of home turf and a big crowd cheering him on.
Sadly he wouldn’t make it to the start of the race. While driving down to the event Burns lost consciousness at the wheel. Fortunately friend and rival Markko Martin was sat beside him and managed to stop the car safely. Burns was rushed to hospital and eventually diagnosed with an astrocytoma – an aggressive form of brain tumour. This meant the end of his championship challenge – the title went to Petter Solberg – but sadly for British rallying fans it also meant the end of his career.
Richard put up a long and brave fight against the tumour, with positive results from treatment in 2004 and further surgery in 2005, but this was one adversary he wasn’t going to beat. On November 25th 2005 Richard finally lost his battle and died at the age of just 34, four years to the day after he won his championship title.
Great Britain had lost one of it’s champions, cut down in his prime. We’ll never know if he could have sealed that second Championship title. We’ll never find out if his planned return to Subaru in 2004 would have seen a repeat of his first Championship win. What we do know is that Richard Burns was a fighter, an inspiration and England’s only World Rally champion.