I remember when it all started.
This was 2003. Two years ago and maybe a month. I still have the October/November issue of RallyXS that covered the home stretch of the WRC season—an intense battle between four horses: Citroen's Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz; Subaru's Petter Solberg; and Peugeot's Richard Burns. Ten points between them and Burns up front with 55. Loeb, in his first WRC season, held up the rear with 45.
After Rallies Corsica and Catalunya—two gravel events, where we have since learned that Loeb can do no wrong—the order flip-flopped. Loeb and Sainz shot to the top and Burns dropped down to fourth. But now the distance was five points. It was the first time that Burns had trailed in the standings in six months. The season came down to the last rally on the calendar, the Wales Rally GB. And in a game where timing is everything, Burns seemed right on schedule.
Back in the day, Colin McRae was the Ace of Wales. But the ‘90s were over. All that's left was the game. PlayStation2 had perpetuated a legend that had peaked over five years earlier. In that time Burns had not only surpassed McCrash as the top British rally driver, he had surpassed everyone else as the top rally driver, period. More importantly, he was Swamp Master 2, having won in Wales three years in a row. 1998 to 2000. His first in a Mitsubishi Carisma.
Still, the odds for a Burns championship were long. Given the points standings, Burns would've had to win with Loeb and Sainz finishing lower than the top four and Solberg lower than the top three. Here's the thing: none of that mattered. You just felt like it was 2001 all over again, when Burns rolled into Wales down two points to McRae. That year, McRae was true to form, somersaulting into a ditch on the opening leg. Burnsie cruised to a fourth place finish, enough to win the championship, which was his style.
In many ways, 2001 resembled 2003. Burns didn't win much. He didn't even podium that much. He was just always there. Fourth place, fifth place, the occasional second or win. And then the championship. In 2003, he didn't win at all. The key to Burns's success was always his consistency. Of course he was fast, but he was also methodical. Not the glam stuff that conjures cool nicknames and sells computer games. All its good for is winning titles in the new generation of the WRC (see Sebastien Loeb).
And so that was our anticipation heading into Wales. We were waiting for the inevitable. But then the impossible happened.
I remember getting the news on my morning visit to Autosport.com. Burns had blacked out at the wheel of his Porsche. Markko Martin was sitting next to him on that drive to Wales and until recently, I couldn't think about the incident without thinking about sort of reflexes Martin must have had to steer the car safely to the side of the road. (Now, I can't get over how Martin must be coping with the year he's had—the loss of a co-driver and a friend in the span of three months.)
Timing is everything. All of this seems like ages ago, but I remember it took two or three days for the news to sink in. At first I thought it was tragic that something like that would happen prior to the finale and not after. At first I thought it was only terrible timing. Even as the diagnosis came out, I couldn't separate the tumor from championship fight. Timing is everything. But what good is a tragic diagnosis when it comes before, after or during a rally? Still, I don't think I'll ever be able to separate the two.
When I heard that Burns had passed away, the first thing I did was dust off that Oct/Nov RallyXS. There's no less than three pieces on him: one column, one news bit and a long feature. It revealed just how much was going on in his life. He was competing for his second WRC title. He was preparing for a switch back to Subaru. And he was house hunting with his girlfriend Zoe in the hills of Andorra.
Recently, I've wondered how the world would remember Burns. After all he doesn't have a videogame to carry his legacy. People who knew him and wrote about him have said that he liked to do things his own way—like leaving Subaru for Peugeot. Like living in Andorra. All I know is that for three years, he was the best rally driver in the world. First he was fast. Then he was consistent. Then he was champion.
And if none of that makes you appreciate Richard Burns, maybe this will. It's a quote from his co-driver Robert Reid on a gaffe that he made at the Rally Catalunya in 1996:
"There was a Third gear right-hander approaching. I turned the page in my pacenote book and looked at the first note on the next page. When I called it, something totally different came out. I have no idea how. I was going to stop rallying after that, but Richard was great. He went to [Mitsubishi] and told them this was the first time anything like this had happened. He also told them he was supporting me and he expected everybody else to."
For more information on Burns, please check out these links.
Official Richard Burns Web Site
BBC Memorial by Maurice Hamilton
Richard Chang is a columnist for AutoWeek and Racer magazines. Fumes appears the first and third Tuesday of every month. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.