Belfast Telegraph

McRae has Circuit at heart

By Sammy Hamill

These days he may be eligible to claim his bus pass but Circuit of Ireland Rally legend Jimmy McRae says he will be ready to dust off his helmet and come out of retirement if anyone approaches his record seven victories.

McRae, a Scot, is proud of Irish achievements and has a special bond with the Circuit of Ireland which is why he flew from his Lanark home to attend the launch of the 2010 version in Belfast where it was revealed that the rally will have a new title sponsor, UTV Drive.

“The first major rally I won was the 1980 Circuit and I will never forget it,” said McRae. “I went on to win another six times and became more famous in Ireland than I ever was at home in Scotland but 1980 is the one that sticks in the mind most of all.

“It was exactly 30 years ago but I can still remember it clearly — battling with soon-to-be World champion Ari Vatanen over five days and never more than half-a-minute between us until he crashed just a couple of stages from the end.

“The odd thing is I almost crashed at the same spot and had pretty much decided to settle for second place because I knew I couldn’t go on at that pace and reach the finish.

“But then I heard that Ari had crashed behind and it was some relief I can tell you. We were both like exhausted prize fighters by the time we got back to Belfast.”

McRae accepts the days of the old five-day Circuit marathons have gone, curtailed by costs and the current regulations, but is encouraged to hear that, under its new regime, efforts are being made to bring back some of its former flavour.

Night stages are being introduced again this Easter along with a lot more razzmatazz and plans are afoot to expand it beyond the border area it currently occupies.

“I understand that for next year they are looking at the possibility of starting in the north and maybe finishing in Dublin with the route increased to three days,” he said.

“I think that would be a step in the right direction and more in keeping with the Circuits I remember.”

Of course, it isn’t just the name of Jimmy McRae that adorns the giant silver Ulster Automobile Club winners’ trophy — his son Colin’s name is there too.

He emulated his father in 1991 before going on to become World champion four years later. Sadly, Colin died in a helicopter accident in 2007.

But the McRaes’ Irish connection continues with their protégé, Dungannon’s Kris Meeke, now a world-class driver and current Intercontinental Rally Challenge champion.

“Kris came to Scotland to work with us back in 2001/2002 and I remember the first time I sat with him in a rally car I just thought ‘This is Colin all over again’ — a complete natural and totally fearless,” he explained.

“I get a real buzz out of seeing what he is doing now, fulfilling that potential we saw at the beginning, and he still reminds me of Colin. In fact when he crashed on the Monte Carlo Rally this year I almost kicked the television — just like I used to do when Colin made what I thought was a careless mistake.

“But that’s rallying. You can’t get it right all the time, not even Sebastien Loeb.

“And I certainly didn’t although on the Circuit I seemed to get it right most of the time.”

The Circuit will be centred on Dundalk, Banbridge and Newry and takes place on April 3-4.

Belfast Telegraph

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