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The world's fastest driving instructor
Mar 31, 2009

Former British Rally Champion and WRC veteran Alister McRae has just completed a whistle-stop tour tutoring Kiwi rally drivers.

As far as driving instructors go, Alister McRae is not your usual clipboard classifier.

He doesn’t teach three-point-turns, nor emergency stops, and his teaching garb involves a crash helmet and a fire-retardant suit instead of comfortable slacks and a short-sleeved shirt.

But, nevertheless, an instructor he is – except in this case, he’s dispensing 20 years of rallying expertise, not the finer points of the road code.

Of course, the name McRae and international motorsport are inseparable, thanks to the sporting endeavours of five-times British Rally Champion Jimmy McRae and his two sons.

The elder, Colin McRae, tragically died in a helicopter accident just over 18 months ago, and was the 1995 World Rally Champion (WRC) synonymous with the international rallying pedigree of Subaru.

Alister, the younger brother, followed in the footsteps of his father to become British Rally Champion in the same year his brother became the first Briton to take away the WRC crown.

From there, he went on to develop Hyundai’s first WRC contender before partnering Francois Delecour at Mitsubishi for a difficult WRC season in 2002 and then contending the 2004 Production World Rally Championship, a title which was his until a mechanical failure on the last round.

More recently, he won all but one of the 31 stages in the Competition Classic category of the 2008 Quit Targa West rally in WA and, earlier this year, debuted the McRae Enduro in the Dakar Rally 2009.

Last week, however, he was in JR’s Bar & Grill in Rangiora, as special guest for a fundraiser for 16-year-old New Zealand Rally Championship driver Matt Summerfield, one of many local drivers he had been tutoring while in the country.

So, Alister, how did your latest trip to New Zealand to tutor Kiwi rally drivers come about?
“I moved to Australia a few years ago, but prior to that I used to do a lot of testing myself, helping out with driving. I’ve been down once already to New Zealand to do some stuff and there was a bit of interest and it was a case of tying it all in together.

“This is day five and its time to go home now.’‘

What kind of drivers have you been tutoring?
“It’s been all different. Some older guys who just want to do it for fun and get things moving. We did some work with Mark Tapper, who is obviously going on to do some world championship stuff now. A big variety of drivers.’‘

And what is your impression of the rally driving skill here in New Zealand?
“It is the same as anywhere, there are some good drivers but it’s like all sports – and especially motorsport – a good driver can be left behind because of the costs involved. I think Matt, for a 16-year-old, to drive the way he drives (is great). When you give him information to improve his driving style he can change it very quickly, for a young guy like that to do what he is doing is great. And to get the support he is getting, to try and move him up the ladder – more of that is needed to get young guys to come through because it is so expensive to get started, especially in the present climate.
“It is going to be even more difficult in the next couple of years. But it is just one of these things, if you are a good footballer then you know you need your football and you are going to train hard. With motorsport there is a cost to the cars and entering and competing in events. It is not as easy to get young talent to come through.’‘

Both you and Matt got into motorsport at a young age, but are you still surprised to see a 16-year-old challenging in a national rally championship?
“He is definitely a talented guy for sure, and especially at that age. But if you look at any motorsport, it has changed over the last decade. Especially in rallying, experience counted, but you look now and the young guys are coming through sooner and sooner.

“There are guys in F1 at 20-years-old, you’ve even got Marty Wilson from the UK in the world championship at 20-years-old. It’s great that in New Zealand you can actually start at a young age, in the UK you have to be 17 and have a driving licence before you can actually compete.

“Matt has been competing for quite a while now and rallying for the last year. He’s already done a season and he’s 16. It lends itself to bring guys through at an earlier age.’‘

So what happens in a typical Alister McRae rallying tutorial?
“It’s very relaxing. Obviously with the experience I have got and the different cars I have driven, I can sit next to somebody and basically tidy up their driving and explain to them how to get the best out of a car. Obviously, throughout the day, it’s putting that into practice – showing them myself, driving the car, explaining about the set-up of the car and how they operate.

“It’s not just getting in the car with the driver, you’ve got to set the car up, you’ve got to have the relationship with your co-driver, you need to be able to do pace notes, do all of that. It takes time and experience, but what I try to do is fast-track that so they can learn from the 20 year’s experience I have had.’‘

You recently debuted the McRae Enduro car in the Dakar Rally 2009. It looks like quite a formidable machine. How did that come about?
“That is something I’ve been involved with for probably three years now. We are working with new regulations in the FIA and we are looking at a new class in rallying. Before, you had your T1s, which was your Mitsubishis and your Volkswagens that are very expensive, and the next class down was T2s, which was basically a slight modification in your Land Cruiser or Pajero, and they wanted to try and have something which was not as expensive as T1, but more appealing than the T2 class.

“That is where our concept grew from. We knew the FIA were looking at this, there had been rumours on for a while. It was about speaking with them and what they were going to look for, and then basically trying to pre-empt what the rules were going to be. So we built a space-frame, with a T1-type chassis and a standard engine and transmission to keep the cost down.’‘

It was your first Dakar Rally, how did it go?
“The first round in Dakar, that was the first event for the Enduro. The regulations had been in for Dakar and it was pretty much us on our own. My role within Dakar was we had three cars in the event, we had sold three cars to a Dutch team, and the Dutch owner asked if I was interested in driving with him. Not to go for a result, but to try and help the customers and be a support, so we entered our test car and just went for it.

“We didn’t mind if we had to stop and help the other guys, we would and that’s what we did. In the end we managed to get three cars to the end of our first Dakar, which is probably a bit of a record to manage to do that.’‘

It was the first Dakar Rally held outside Africa, with Chile standing in for the locale. Apparently it was tough going even for the Dakar veterans, just how tough was it for you?
“It was obviously my first time, so I can’t compare it to another, but talking to the other drivers, they said they would have expected to have had three or four very heavy days on a normal Dakar in Africa, where as out there we had 11 real heavy days, and that definitely starts to grind you down a bit.

“I wasn’t doing what I normally do, I’m normally out in motorsport to go as quick as I can and see if I can try for a result, whereas we were there to support the customers. So for me that was very alien, and then the length of the event and severity of it, there was probably a time when it felt like hell.’‘

You lost one car out of four, so overall was the Dakar a successful proving ground for what the McRae Enduro can do?
“We had four cars on the start line and we lost one car after day three or day four, it was basically a turbo problem. There was the possibility that the guy could have driven it through the stage but it would have been very difficult. He would have been down in power, but rather than being stuck in the desert for the night he opted to retire.

“It wasn’t like we retired with a major issue, it was just an unlucky problem that happened at the wrong time. But we did get a 75 per cent finish rate in our first year there, which is exceptional.’‘

So what’s next for the Enduro?
“I’m just back from the UK, where we are trying to plan the route forward and it looks like we are going to go with a different engine in the car this year. We are just trying to confirm that, but basically we want to get more horsepower and torque for the car. Currently it is a Ford engine, a 2.7 litre turbo diesel engine that they run in the Land Rover Discovery, so we are just trying to finalise the technical side of it and the changes we make afterwards hopefully this year.

“For me it would be nice to go and do Dakar again, but as a competitor who is trying for a result. However, the main focus at the moment is to get the car sorted, develop the cars and then obviously sell them on to customers.’‘

Has building a car always been a dream of yours?
“Probably not. I was approached by two people I knew from motorsport previously, and it was their idea, they wanted to try and do something, and obviously were keen to try and link in with the McRae name and see if I was interested.

“It probably took 18 months from that point to put everything in place, to have the confidence to go ahead and build the car. That took another eight months, so it has been an ongoing project and not something that I thought I ever would do, but it’s just one of these things that come along and is of an interest.’‘

How closely have you been involved in the design?
“We employed a company called MDV, which is a motorsport engineering company. I worked along with them with what I thought was required and obviously they worked from the engineering side to come up with a design. Then we worked together on the body along with an ex-designer from Ford for the shape of the car.”

You moved to Australia a few years ago, where you recently had considerable success in the Quit Targa West rally. Can we expect you to become a Targa regular now?
“The Targa stuff over there is interesting, it’s a lot of different cars. It would be nice to do the ARC, but I think we are going to do some more Targa events instead. I’m still busy with things like this and back in the UK, so it probably wouldn’t be easy to do a full programme, but I’m sure if we managed to get a sponsor and a manufacturer on board then for sure we would do that.’‘

A highlight of your career was in 2003 when you came to the New Zealand leg of the WRC as a privateer – following Mitsubishi’s decision to take a sabbatical for the season – and was rewarded with a points-scoring result. Do you like coming back to NZ?
“Yeah I do it’s a country which loves its motorsport, and it’s got some of the best roads in the world for rallying, so it’s always a pleasure to be down here. I’m back down for the targa rally in May, driving a Mk II Escort, which I’m looking forward to.’‘

New Zealand rallying has always worked under the fear that its round of the WRC might one day be cut due to the country’s geographical isolation and growing concerns over cost and environmental impact in international motorsport. But can you ever envisage a day when the WRC would not have a stop-over in New Zealand?
“No, I don’t think so. As I said, it’s got some of the best roads in the world for rallying.

“There will always be events down here, its just a shame the way regulations have gone at the moment, where you get a rally on the second year, which I’m sure makes it very difficult for the organisers to keep the event going, to keep sponsorship, to keep interest going. It’s probably not going to be an easy job down here for the organisers, with the WRC, but I’m sure they’ll do a good job like they have with everything else.’‘

So, overall, you’re quite optimistic for the future of the sport?
“Yeah, I think rallying at the moment is down and the financial climate is not helping, but the FIA is working on it and the new S2000 regulations have already paid manufacturers to build cars. So when the world championship goes with new regulations, I think in 2011, whether it be S2000 or not there will be seven manufacturers who will have cars there.

“Whether they are all going to turn around and do the world championship, I wouldn’t think so, but at least there are cars there. And you hope some of them will come to do it.’‘

*Alister McRae will be competing in the Dunlop International Classic Rally of Otago on May 16-17.

Article by By TIM GREY – The Press www.stuff.co.nz

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