Remembering Richard Burns by Colin McMaster

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99 burns

On the 20th anniversary of the legend’s WRC title victory, his close friend, professional rally photographer Colin McMaster, explains why he was so special.

Richard Alexander Burns. Burnsie. RB. Richard. Or just mate, because that’s exactly what I had the honour of calling him, from when I met him back in 1994, when he was a young up-and-coming rally driver, through to when he died in 2005, a world champion and so much more. I spoke at his memorial service – a parting gift, so to speak. How I wish it had instead been returning a favour he did for me, giving the speech as his best man at what I know would have been the most amazing wedding to the love of his life, Zoe.

It wasn’t to be, as Richard succumbed to a brain tumour aged just 34. My mate gone. As always, he put up a terrific fight, but even he couldn’t win this battle. He died on 25 November, the same date on which four years earlier he had won his title, this cruel irony always there to cast a cloud over any happy memories of what he, his co-driver Robert Reid and the whole Subaru team achieved that day in Wales in 2001. But one thing Richard loved was a good party, and if he was in the mood, nothing could stop him, so I will do my best to honour that memory here with some stories that I hope both do him justice and are good enough that they would’ve made him squirm a bit.

Winning the world title was the culmination of a dream for Richard – a dream that I strongly believe he worked harder to achieve than most, largely because I got to witness first-hand a lot of the time and effort that he put in. Soon after we first met, my then girlfriend and I joined Richard and his then girlfriend in a house share – a lovely barn conversion in the village of Oddington on the edge of the Cotswolds. Oddington then became Kidlington on the outskirts of Oxford, where Richard and I, both now single, moved into a house together. We spent a lot of time hanging around with other race and rally drivers, and of course that gave me a great insight into the major differences between them.

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Competitive drivers can be single-minded folk, but Richard was absolutely dedicated to his sport and would do anything to improve. For instance, he was always trying to refine his pace notes to be quicker, requesting all the on-board video tapes from the television production companies and spending infinite hours studying them. A very few others might have had a similar level of talent to Richard, but it was pure graft that got him to the very top. He worked harder than any of his peers and analysed in great detail his driving as much as the stages he drove on in order to improve.

Only when he was happy would he switch over to The Simpsons, his favourite television show. One example of this hard work was his unique split-page pace-note system. He and his co-driver, Robert Reid, broke every corner down to three specific parts: entry, apex and exit. This level of detail was insanely hard to process, but they made it work brilliantly. They were such a team, and there was no better demonstration of that than in fog, where they were unbeatable, regularly setting times as though they could see and their rivals were blindfolded. Of course they couldn’t, but Robert was able to describe the road with such precision and Richard had total faith in him – and the capacity to take in all that he was being told – in order to bang in the times. Intelligent, fast, brave… This was a partnership that had it all.

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But maybe that hard work meant he didn’t always get the credit he deserved for being fast. Spending my life watching him through a lens, I can tell you with absolute certainty that Richard was bloody fast. His career statistics for fastest stage times tell that story, too; it’s not just a wistful old mate talking. You only had to watch with a bit of understanding to really appreciate his artistry behind the wheel, because his rapid progress could be deceptive. His style simply wasn’t supersideways, but it was silky smooth and he often carried a lot more speed on corner exits than rivals. You really could tell that on a rally like Finland, which is a super-high-speed event where precision is everything. For several years, only Richard could really take the fight to the locals eye to eye.

Of course, that style contrasted in almost every way with that of Colin McRae. The World Rally Championship in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a fantastic period for the Brits. Looking through my camera lens, Colin was always Mr Flamboyant and Richard just wasn’t: he had his own way of going fast, just as effective but not always as spectacular.

That head-to-head extended into the media, too, exacerbated because, when out of the car, Colin was spontaneous and spoke his mind. He also used the media pretty effectively to wind up Richard. Deep down, I always felt they were both fundamentally shy individuals and, after a few years of both of them being at the top of their game, actually quite good friends. Any niggle really stemmed from the early years, when Richard’s pace made life tougher for Colin’s brother, Alister, who was also coming up through the ranks. The trouble was that Colin couldn’t help himself, winding up the media for the sake of a good story and winding up Richard in the process. Even I have to admit that Colin had Richard beaten in the media – but on the stages, it was a different story.

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Just how well Colin and Richard really got on I saw for myself many times. They would often spend time together away from the sport, and my memories of them at Scottish rally driver Robbie Head’s wedding in South Africa in 2002 are some of the happiest I have. They shared a huge rental house in Cape Town, which became party headquarters for a week before the big day. I would say the McRae brothers partied harder than Richard and his then new love Zoe, but the mutual respect and friendship was clear for all to see.

That the wider world never got to fully see this side was a shame, because Richard was actually a really positive, extremely funny person to be around. But he always surrounded himself with an inner core of friends and confidants plus a few hangers-on, which at times made him appear distant, aloof and a hard nut to crack. When times got tough on rallies and the chips were down, Richard could come across negatively. He had so much positivity and determination to be world champion, but people let it manifest into this mood-swinging personality, which would get reported, irritate Richard and prompt him to withdraw even more. That wasn’t the real Richard.

The real Richard was the guy who in the early days turned up at the The Fox pub after events and regaled all the locals with tales of his latest successes. Or the guy who would quietly wind up Robbie, who took on interview responsibilities when Channel 4 went big time into covering the WRC. (Robbie was pretty green at holding a microphone and Richard was pretty merciless.) Or the guy who was at the centre of the party, making sure everyone was having as much fun as him.

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He was a charmer, too. I can say that with the confidence that only someone whose bedroom was below his can testify. He did settle down, but it’s fair to say that the boy from Reading who spent every spare moment with a spanner under his rally car in the early days learned a lot about women during those first years of success.

He also had a great taste in road cars; I recall that a 996-generation Porsche 911 GT3 and a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro SS were among his favourites.

But he was also measured. When he was having a drink, he knew his limits, and he wasn’t averse to slipping any extras into the potted plants.

Even if you egged him on, he was an exemplary driver on the road, too. “Linford Christie doesn’t sprint down to the shops,” he always used to say. Although I do remember one occasion when he took the sump off his company car after a bad landing on a humpback bridge near Charlbury and the neighbours made him clean up the oil slick off the gravel drive. And another at my wedding, when we had 24 friends out in South Africa, culminating in the big day. We hired people carriers and my best man was happy to act as chauffeur, including some enthusiastic gravel driving in one of the big game parks when one of our buddies – the most amateur of amateur rally drivers, Richard Stoodley – decided to race him in the other car. I don’t think we saw any animals, because there was so much dust in the air!

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Richard was caring, too. I remember when our next-door neighbour was diagnosed with leukaemia, he stepped in and offered to do the school run for their 12-year-old daughter. He loved it, just because it put a smile on her face in a difficult time. That was Richard.

And he could be generous. The Monte Carlo Rally always coincided with his birthday, and he would never skip a celebratory dinner before stepping into his rally car the next day. He would always pay – which is a dangerous thing when you invite some photographers along to join in.

That said, he sometimes slipped back into the money-saving ways of his early days. Around 1998, his career was flying and he bought his own house… about 30 metres from mine. Unfathomably, he decided to move in his furniture himself. Big mistake. We manhandled his mattress onto the top of BTCC racer Jason Plato’s Renault Laguna Estate, with Richard lying on top to keep it in place while we were meant to be tying it down. Needless to say Jason decided to take him for a ride down the road.

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And then there was his family, who he adored. He spoke to his grandmother after every rally, as she was his biggest fan, and after his grandfather died, he wore his wedding ring on a leather necklace to keep him close. This actually came off and flew out of the window when he crashed at high speed in Finland in 2000, but it was so important to him that he rummaged through the undergrowth and flattened trees until he found it. Richard’s relationship with his father was also an extremely close one. Alex Burns was the driving force of Richard’s progress through the lower ranks of the sport, and he was often by his side on the WRC rallies. He was the first person Richard hugged when he stepped out of the car as world champion at Margam Park.

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I got that picture, and many more that weekend, of my mate winning a world championship. Back then I still shot on film, so I had a fair bit of work to do before downing tools and heading to a nightclub, where I found literally everyone celebrating. The Franchitti brothers, Dario and Marino, had come down, and it was one big party. Typical of Richard, he had nestled himself in a roped-off VIP area with his inner sanctum, so I saw him, had a couple of drinks and just hit the packed dance floor where everybody was making fools of themselves – me especially. One noticeable absentee was Colin, who was back in Lanark after crashing out early on, but I know he rang Richard to congratulate him. I also remember Richard showing me a text from Carlos Sainz. “Welcome to the club” was all it said and all that was needed.

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These are the memories I choose to treasure. It’s hard to say what would have happened to Richard’s career had he not died so young. The competition in the WRC was ramping up and he was due to return to Subaru in 2004, just as its car’s competitiveness was about to dwindle. I think his competitive instincts would have taken him towards Dakar and rally-raid driving, and he would also have made an excellent young driver manager and advisor. Maybe he could even have bucked the trend of co-drivers becoming team managers or FIA politicians, as he was a true thinker, much like Ari Vatanen. Today, I could see him in Extreme E; as a nature lover, he would’ve loved to be involved in something highlighting climate change – and also visiting new places.

He would be married to Zoe, too, and I would have got to make the best man’s speech that I really wanted to. Instead, I found myself stood in a great big barn of a church in Chelsea, London, having agreed to his wish to address his memorial without knowing the other speakers would be professional broadcasters Steve Rider and Jeremy Clarkson. It was both nerve-wracking and a true honour. Those 10 minutes of my life passed in a blur, but I still have a recording of the service and sometimes listen to it with a wry smile. I think I did my mate Richard justice then, and I hope I have here, too.

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Subaru to Peugeot

The day after winning the 2001 WRC title, Richard was in London doing some PR stuff with Subaru. I caught up with him in the evening at his house, where he asked if I would go with him to Wales the next day. He was going to test the Peugeot 206 WRC “in case I never get to drive it again”.

A bizarre contract situation meant that Subaru had the right to keep Richard if he became world champion in 2001 – a situation that had looked unlikely in the summer, when he had signed the contract with Peugeot. Two days later, he was due in court to find his way out of his Subaru contract.

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So we went to Wales, on a pea-souper of a November morning, in a helicopter. He drove the Peugeot at the famous Higgins Rally School and we were back home in time for a pub dinner the same evening.

The pictures I took that day were just for Richard, and to this day they remain unpublished. He genuinely wasn’t sure if he would ever be allowed to drive the car again. But two days (and a large cheque that I’m pretty sure he didn’t sign himself) later, he joined Peugeot.

Colin McMaster

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