On this day 15 years ago, Richard Burns sadly passed away due to cancer, exactly four years after claiming the 2001 World Rally crown. In an article originally published in Autosport magazine on 1 December 2005, David Evans recounts his incredible career along with tributes from those who knew him best
Diagnosed with an astrocytoma in November 2003, Richard Burns lost his chance of winning a second world championship after leading the title race for most of the season. The potential of recording another motorsport statistic paled into insignificance, however, when the magnitude of the medical battle he was now faced with revealed itself. Those with a medical insight didn’t rate his chances, but he took them on – and for two years flew in the face of the fancied opinion. The miracle never came, though, and Richard died last Friday evening.
Eight years old and determined to drive. The best he could manage was reversing the horseboxes around at the Pony Club meetings he had to attend with his sister. He graduated from shunting a Triumph 2000 around the yard to the Under-17s Car Club, where he really learned about car control, handbrake turns and, when meetings were at the Castle Combe circuit in Wiltshire, how to handle a car at over 100mph.
Richard made no bones about the fact that he didn’t like school. He didn’t really see the point. His only interest was cars. It was around this time that Richard joined Craven Motor Club and only then that he’d found his niche. He’d found rallying. Soon after he found himself in his first rally car, a Ford Escort MkII, at Jan Churchill’s Rally School in mid-Wales. That was it, he was hooked. Everything from that moment forward was directed to getting himself out of school or college and home to do whatever jobs he could to earn extra cash to put towards his future as a rally driver.
From this early age, the single-minded approach which would become a feature of Richard’s career in later life was clearly visible. It was because of this that his father dipped his hand in his pocket and shelled out £400 on a Talbot Sunbeam. Richard then cajoled some of his new best friends at Craven to come out and help him put a cage in and turn the car into something fit for the stages.
It goes without saying that he’d passed his driving test soon after his 17th birthday in January 1988, but he had more shelves to stack before he would make his first rally. That came in May 1988: the Newtown Stages. Finally, Richard Burns was a rally driver.
After his first half-season in the Sunbeam, it became apparent to Richard that this wasn’t going to be a rally-winning car without a big bag of cash being spent on it. As his bag fell some way short, he took a different road – selling the car and then borrowing cars as and when he could. That he was ready to climb aboard the MkII Escorts and Toyota Corollas of his friends and fellow Craven members and then race them between the trees showed his already burgeoning self-confidence.
One Craven member in particular took note of that self-confidence. Successful businessman David Williams had been running his own Metro 6R4 for some time. He’d also helped Richard out with the odd set of tyres here and there. Now, though, he couldn’t shake him off.
In the end he gave up and bought him a Peugeot 205 for the 1990 Peugeot Challenge. Now Richard really had something on which he could lavish all his time and attention. The 205 was stripped, painted, prepared beautifully and promptly rolled at a pre-season test by Williams. No matter. Richard still dominated his first championship season, winning every rally he finished. His reward was the loan of a Peugeot 309 Group N machine for the RAC Rally. Aged just 18, he finished third in class and 28th overall on his world championship – and factory-driving – debut.
Richard knew failure at this early stage would have serious consequences. So he went out and won his third championship on the trot
Richard returned to the one-make series the following season, but with Robert Reid alongside him and the pair went on to win the international category. A trio of British Rally Championship outings in a 309 came courtesy of legendary Peugeot boss Des O’Dell (the man who had spotted Henri Toivonen as a talent) who was impressed with what he’d seen. Despite running at the highest level in Britain, Richard won his class every time.
Towards the end of 1991, Richard would get a taste of what was to come, when he drove Prodrive’s development Group N Subaru Legacy on the Border Counties Rally, a highly-competitive Scottish Championship round. Despite never having competed in a four-wheel-drive car before, he took the Legacy to third.
With results like that behind him, you would have thought the 1991 Shell Scholarship would have been a given. It wasn’t. Alister McRae won it instead. Frustrated by the decision, the Burns-Reid-Williams trio were driven harder. A budget for the 1992 National Championship was secured, along with a Group N Legacy.
The second tier of the sport in Britain was then, as it is now, the domain of the well-heeled, but nevertheless talented, amateur. Success would require beating some of the country’s top drivers in considerably better machinery. Richard knew failure at this early stage would have serious consequences. So he went out and won his third championship on the trot.
The 1992 season was key in many ways to Richard’s development. The four-wheel-drive experience flowed, he built up a good rapport with backers from Elonex and, perhaps most importantly, his relationship with Prodrive also developed. He and Reid began making gravel notes for Colin McRae on the Scotsman’s occasional WRC outings. In addition to that, Richard was also being asked to do the odd bit of test and development work on the works Legacy RS.
Having worked briefly with one McRae in 1992, Richard would get to know another of the Lanark lads particularly well the following season. He and Alister formed Prodrive’s junior team in 1993, both tackling the BRC in a brace of Elonex-backed Group A Legacys. After being edged out of the Scholarship drive a little over 12 months earlier, the chance to level the scores was all the inspiration Richard needed. This was a stunning season for Richard and Robert as they won the first three rounds and then clinched the title with win number four on the Isle of Man.
Now it was all starting to happen. Seventh place on the snowy 1993 RAC Rally confirmed Richard’s future in the sport. He was offered a two-year contract by Subaru.
Much of his time in 1994 would be spent in the Asia-Pacific Championship, but his first competition of the season was the Safari Rally in a Group N Impreza. Now a fully paid up professional, but still only 23 years old, Richard headed into the wild of Kenya and came up with fifth overall and second in class. Results-wise, that was the highlight of the year – which must have come as something as a disappointment given that 1989 was the last season he’d finished without a title under his belt.
In an attempt at broadening Richard’s experience, he was given the number three Impreza on selected gravel WRC rounds in 1995, along with further APC outings. Despite showing promise on each of the events, that first win eluded him. To make matters worse, Subaru had informed him that he wouldn’t be retained the following season.
Subaru’s loss, however, was Mitsubishi’s gain. The Rugby-based team stepped in and offered him another APC season plus two WRC rounds in the Lancer. Burns signed – and then delivered the perfect Subaru send-off, clinching his first WRC podium behind the newly-crowned world champion McRae and team-mate Carlos Sainz on the RAC Rally.
After his first proper test in a Lancer, Richard must have wondered whether he should have taken up Subaru on its change-of-heart contract extension offer at the end of 1995. The Mitsubishi’s transmission was different to what he had been used to – and it would take a while to get to grips with.
After a disappointing couple of retirements early in 1996, Richard was awakened to just how well these cars were built. He bent one on his first event with the team, but it was going on to finish second in Malaysia after he’d slapped the back of the car against a tree at 60mph which amazed him the most. He would end his season thanking his lucky stars for that strength.
Before that, though, came the breakthrough: New Zealand. Not counting as a full WRC round, there was still some tough APC competition – including Kenneth Eriksson and Piero Liatti in factory Imprezas – and Richard beat them all in a controlled and quick drive. Despite unflinching support from the likes of Reid alongside him and Williams and his family back in Britain, Richard knew he needed success. For somebody who had delivered wins so early in his career, the stretch between the 1993 Manx International Rally and New Zealand three years later must have felt like a lifetime.
After the win Down Under, however, came that second test of the Lancer’s strength. A rare mistake from Reid had sent the pair pinging through the Catalan trees at 90mph. Both knew they were lucky to escape, Robert in particular, given that he’d smashed his crash helmet on Richard’s seat.
Despite unflinching support from the likes of Reid alongside him and Williams and his family back in Britain, Richard knew he needed success
Despite three trashed Lancers from eight rallies, Mitsubishi upped Richard’s WRC programme for 1997. And he repaid them with his best ever world championship result on his first outing of the season: second on the Safari. Another highlight came in Argentina, when he scored his first ever fastest time at the pinnacle of the sport. His end to the 1997 season is one that few British fans will forget. This, for the RAC hardcore, was when Richard showed his mettle.
Colin McRae hadn’t been beaten in these parts since 1993, but Richard was up for it. He stormed past the Scot in Radnor, taking 1m30s out of him in the fog and, no doubt, eclipsing the memory of rolling out of the 1989 Severn Valley in a borrowed MkII – the last time he’d been beaten on the Welsh borders test. Richard was 15 seconds to the good on the final morning when he was forced to stop and change a puncture. The battle was over. For now.
Clearly a force to be reckoned with, Richard finally got his first full WRC programme in 1998 – his first win, on the Safari Rally of that season. He crossed the finish of the final section with a cacophony of swearwords. He cared not a jot that he’d rendered in the in-car footage all but useless, all that mattered was that he was a big-time winner.
There would be one more win that year – the one Richard really wanted: his home round of the world championship. By then, however, he was going back to Subaru. This was the time when Richard’s team-mate Tommi Makinen was at the height of his power. Aware that he would be the Finn’s number two, he returned to Banbury in place of Ford-bound McRae.
There would be a trio of Subaru drivers in 1999, with four-time world champion Juha Kankkunen and Bruno Thiry joining Richard and Robert. Having come to terms with the Mitsubishi, the Impreza WRC99 now seemed like something of a culture shock. There was an H-pattern gearbox and a general lack of feedback from the car to Richard.
It was mid-season when things started to improve. In Argentina, Richard had led the rally from the start and looked well-set for his first Subaru win – only for his engine to die for 10 seconds on the penultimate stage, allowing Kankkunen to close within a second. The pair were told not to push each other in the final stage, as a 1-2 was a near-cert, but the Finn put everything into it and came out on top.
There were a few lessons left for Richard and Robert to learn at the top of the sport, but that Sunday afternoon in Cordoba, they learned another valuable one. The net result of Argentina was – as you might have guessed – a redoubling of efforts and second on the next event, Rally Finland, where he almost beat Kankkunen in the Finn’s backyard.
The balance of power in the sport was now shifting Richard’s way. In 1999, from Argentina to the end of the season, he was first or second on every rally he finished. His chance of winning the title that year went out of the window with a gearbox problem in Sanremo. That year proved, however, that with the right car, Richard and Robert would be champions in 2000.
That car came in Portugal. It was lighter, leaner and meaner. Richard loved it and it went on to become his favourite rally car. He won out of the box in Portugal and then did the job he’d come close to 12 months earlier with a win in Argentina. The one thing which Richard and Subaru could do little about in 2000 was Peugeot and Marcus Gronholm. This was their year and Richard admitted as much after a ripper of a scrap in Australia, where he had to give best to Gronholm. It was another step, though. Richard was getting closer. The top of the world was now well within his sights.
Looking back at 2000, Richard’s chances of winning the world championship had been considerably better that season than they were in 2001. There were no points in Monte Carlo, while Sweden was looking good until he buried the Impreza in a snowbank. Finally, points from fourth place arrived at round three in Portugal. Things weren’t going to plan.
He came close to winning Argentina, but then Acropolis and Safari brought more disappointment. Kenya, particularly so. At this stage of his career, Richard had a knack for the African classic: he’d won it for two of the previous three years – and fancied kickstarting 2001 with a similar result. Suspension failure on the first section ended everything, including, most thought, the title chance. Twenty-five points separated Richard from the top of the table, with just 60 more on offer.
In some ways, the Safari retirement could have been a blessing in disguise. Richard, Robert and their chief engineer Simon Cole left no stone unturned on their three days in Nairobi. They went through every element of the team with a fine-tooth comb and, along with team principal David Lapworth, came up with a plan for the remaining six rallies.
When Sainz dropped back with his own problems, fourth would be enough. Richard finished third and became the first Englishman to win the world championship
The main thing was not to think about the championship and focus on the rallies. Finland and second place was a good start. Then it was the long trip south to New Zealand. In 2001, before the regulations changed, the leader of the rally at the end of the preceding day would start the next leg first on the road. Richard was wary of the ball-bearing surface on the North Island and barely featured in the top 10 on leg one. Saturday, north of Auckland, was where it was at for him. Fastest on all but two of the eight stages, he jumped up the order to go into the final day 43s up on McRae. Burns won.
Retirement and fourth place from the ensuing Sanremo and Corsica rallies probably put the title from his mind, but second in Australia teed up an amazing four-way fight in Britain. Joining him in the ring would be McRae, Makinen and Sainz.
Almost immediately the pack was halved. Makinen retired from SS2 with broken suspension, while McRae went a couple of stages later before the mother and father of all crashes. When Sainz dropped back in Rally GB with his own problems, fourth would be enough. Richard finished third and became the first Englishman to win the world championship.
A couple of other important things happened in 2001: Richard met Zoe Keen, who would become his long-term girlfriend and much more; and found himself in the Royal Courts of Justice fighting for his future with current employer Subaru Tecnica International.
Richard won the battle to drive for Peugeot in 2002 – but again, must have found himself wondering if the move had been the right one. The 206 WRC was a tricky beast to tame, seemingly some way from the Impreza he’d made home for the past three seasons. Three rallies in, however, and Burns’s consistent approach was once again found to be the best: he was on the podium with third place in Corsica. Next time out, he went one better with the runner-up spot in Catalunya. That, unfortunately, was as good as it would get.
On the remaining 23 rallies he would contest in Peugeot overalls, he would finish second on a further five occasions and third on a similar number.
To label Richard’s time at Peugeot as simply consistent would be to ignore the kind of assiduous approach which was his trademark. And while there might not have been any wins in the Peugeot, there was plenty of effort – and even more close shaves. Not known for being a crasher, Richard’s 2002 effort in New Zealand would rival anything a McRae or Makinen could have offered.
Midway through 2003 came the news that Richard would return – for the third time – to Subaru for the following season. The differences of the past had been put behind them. He, Robert and all of the Burns bunch were looking forward to it. The French exchange hadn’t worked out quite as they’d expected. Perversely, there remained a good chance that Richard could take the number one back to Banbury. He’d stacked up the points throughout 2003, leading the season for the most part, only to be robbed in the most horrible of circumstances.
On the way to Rally Great Britain, where he expected to form a part of a three-way fight for the title, he collapsed at the wheel of his road car. He was diagnosed with an astrocytoma and would not drive again.
David Williams: The man who kickstarted Richard’s rallying career
Richard was one of the kindest, most gentle and sensitive people I ever met. He loved animals, art, music and, of course, his family, particularly his grandparents. He loved them to pieces. Whenever he got home from a round of the world championship, they would be his first port of call. He was a gentleman who also happened to be a world champion.
Richard was a very shy and introverted person. Quite often those traits were mistaken as arrogance but that just wasn’t the case at all.
I was one of the people who Richard badgered to become involved when we were in Craven Motor Club together. Doing so changed my life and set me on course for the adventure of a lifetime, taking me to places I never expected to go.
Then, of course, he won the world championship in 2001. But not even his biggest moment in rallying came close to the pride that I felt in the way he dealt with his illness” David Williams
It’s incredible to look back at what we were trying to achieve. We looked so professional, but really we didn’t have much of an idea. We wanted to do things right, so everybody in the team had to buy their own rally jacket and pay their own way.
To try and cut costs, we would book a bed and breakfast room for four people and then cram eight of us in. People thought we had a lot of money, but we didn’t.
We might not have been the best-funded team, but the Peugeot 205 always looked absolutely perfect. Back then, Richard didn’t know so much about the car, he was the mudguard and sticker specialist.
At the time, we’d also noticed the works Peugeots were immaculate inside the wheel arches, so after each event we’d send Richard under there with a can of Hammerite and not let him out until our car looked as good.
Behind the wheel was where Richard really shone. He never expected to be world champion when we set out, he just liked driving cars and happened to be very good at it.
I remember when we went to test the 205 for the first time. I was competing in a 6R4 around then, and thought I’d have a go in the Peugeot. After my car, the 205 seemed pathetically slow. I didn’t bother braking for the corners, there didn’t seem much point – I didn’t seem to be going that fast. We clipped a bank and rolled down the road. My head was resting on the gravel, Richard was above me. I told him not to undo his belts, because he’d fall on top of me. But he did, then he got out by using my face as a step-ladder!
When Richard turned professional and went into the world championship, I went on most of the rallies with him when I wasn’t there, he was always on the telephone telling me what was going on. My business and life went on hold at that time, it was such an adventure.
Then, of course, he won the world championship in 2001. But not even his biggest moment in rallying came close to the pride that I felt in the way he dealt with his illness.
For me, these last two years haven’t been miserable, they’ve been inspirational as Richard tried to beat the cancer. He put more effort into getting well than anything before. And throughout the whole thing, he didn’t complain, he just got on with it. As always.
David Lapworth: Richard’s former Subaru team boss and friend pays tribute
I don’t like being drawn into debate about who the best driver was. When you get to world championship level, you’re splitting hairs to try and figure out if Colin McRae is better than Tommi Makinen; they’re all good.
What I can do, though, is identify a unique approach. That’s what Richard had. He was able to calculate his strategy and then make it happen. That’s how he won the championship in 2001.
In the middle of that season we looked quite a long way away from Tommi and Colin. It was 12 or 15 points or something like that. We sat down and went through the strategy. While some drivers would have tried to win every rally from there until the end of the season, Richard thought about things and decided that wasn’t the way to go.
He looked at the gap and said he needed to take two points off Tommi and Colin in every rally. If he did that, he would be champion – he didn’t need to win every rally and it wouldn’t matter if Gilles Panizzi won on asphalt, just as long as Richard was narrowing that gap. He did it.
At the same time, some people underestimated his speed in a rally car. For anybody who doubted that, take a look at him in Finland. On only his second visit he finished runner-up to Juha Kankkunen and then he was the only driver able to give Marcus Gronholm a run for his money in the Peugeot. And Finland is the rally which all the drivers acknowledge as being the fastest of the fast rallies. Richard had the speed, there was no doubt about that.
I don’t think people appreciated how tough he was mentally as well. That second place in Finland in 1999 was born out of a slightly controversial Rally Argentina, when Juha had beaten him and maybe shouldn’t have. Richard wanted to put him back in his place, in Juha’s back garden. Richard had enormous determination.
During rallies, he was focused and single-minded, but away from events he was tremendous company. Geographically we lived quite close while he was driving for us, and our social circles overlapped. This meant we spent time together away from the sport. I remember one time we climbed onto our motorbikes and rode over to Donington to watch a MotoGP race.
“What I can do, though, is identify a unique approach. That’s what Richard had. He was able to calculate his strategy and then make it happen. That’s how he won the championship in 2001” David Lapworth
We just parked the bikes up among the thousands there and went and sat on the bank and watched the race with the rest of the afternoon. It was a great afternoon.
Richard was quite unlike many of the other drivers I’ve worked with. He was well aware of the world outside of the world championship. He was well-rounded, intelligent and capable of conversation about anything. Sure, rally cars and cars in general were quite high up his list of conversational matter, but the sport wasn’t everything in his life.
After Richard had been away at Peugeot for a couple of seasons, everybody at Subaru was looking forward to him coming back to us. He learned a lot during his time at Peugeot and I have no doubt he was coming into the window where he would have been driving better than ever and at his absolute best. What’s so sad is that now we’ll never know.
Simon ‘Crikey’ Cole: Richard’s former Subaru engineer recalls a determined driver and a great bloke
I first met Richard when he was driving for Subaru in 1995. I worked with him on a couple of events, but then I worked with him full-time as his rally engineer when he came back to the team in 1999.
Richard was massively professional and diligent. His approach was more like that of a racing driver than a rally driver. He wanted to discuss everything about the car all of the time. When he arrived at the team, he was coming out of Mitsubishi, where the focus of the team had been Tommi Makinen. Richard was very keen to gain respect of everybody at Subaru. And he was quick. People think about him being consistent, but Richard was among the fastest drivers as well.
To be honest, we didn’t have the best of starts when they came back. That 1999 season was a bit tricky but, even when things weren’t perfect for us, there was never a question of anybody going off and sulking.
The 2000 car was good, but then the championship came the following season. Halfway through that 2001 season the championship looked a long way away. It’s fair to say the pundits would have given us long odds. Nobody every stopped believing, though.
Richard was an amazing driver. On Rally GB, he needed third place for the title and he finished third. He was perfectly capable of driving at a reduced speed without taking chances or going off the road, which is something many of the current drivers struggle with.
I was really pleased when the championship came but, at the same time, there was some sadness. Richard told me he was off to Peugeot, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to go and do something new and went to the BAR F1 team. It was an end of an era.
Colin McRae: Burns’s former rival – who became a good friend – remembers their fierce rivalry
It took some time for Richard to show his real speed. It looked like he’d make a good, consistent second driver but, when he went back to Subaru after his time at Mitsubishi, he’d found real speed.
Richard and I were different drivers. Richard built himself up, getting quicker as he had the confidence with the car, whereas I went over the limit and then came back from there. That’s just the way we were; there’s nothing you can do about that; it’s in your character.
Around 2000 and 2001, Richard and I were battling on all of the rallies, and there’s no doubt that there was definitely some needle. It was a very fierce rivalry. Richard said a lot of things about me in the press and I said a lot about him, but throughout that time we kept in touch and talked away from rallies. We never took any of that stuff to heart.
That era came to a head on the 2001 Rally GB when we were both fighting for the title. I’ll never forget it. Things went wrong for me and Richard chose the right tactic. He was such an open and honest guy and told me he was lucky to stay in the event as he’d been off as well.
Richard was definitely a special character. He went about things in his own, sometimes awkward, way, but he was such a genuine man who was very, very good at his chosen profession. It was great to see the way he relaxed once he’d won the championship.
Okay, we’d been friends and rivals before, but after that we could start to go out for a beer or a meal. We all take competing in the WRC so seriously, so it was good to have somebody that I could go out with and not take things so seriously. We travelled all over the world and to have had a fellow British driver who I got on with meant a lot to me.
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