Updated: Sep 5, 2020
A feature on one of my biggest idols. England's only World Rally Champion who passed away 14 years ago today.
Today marks eighteen years since England’s only World Rally Champion was crowned and fourteen years since he sadly passed away.
Richard Burns was one of the nice guys of motorsport, a very calm and likeable character who was meticulous in his approach to each event he entered. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up watching him compete at the highest level.
I will be completely honest and admit that, at first I did not fully understand rallying. I remember in 1999 watching Trans World Sport with my Dad and talking to him, trying to work out how you could have a race in which none of the drivers were directly competing against each other. My dad tried to explain the sport however this was initially in vein.
That was until my Dad’s friend Simon, who worked as a video editor for the WRC, bought me the 2000 World Rally Championship review video for Christmas when I was six years old. This is when I first encountered Burns as he contested for Subaru up against the likes of Mitsubishi, Peugeot and Ford.
I would watch the video over and over again, drawn by the cars and driver skill on show. I still think that 2000 was a year unrivalled for competitiveness and strength in depth. As well as Burns there were legends in every team, four-time champion Juha Kankkunen was Burns’ teammate while Mitsubishi had Tommi Makinen, Ford had Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz, even the newer manufacturers such as Seat had 1994 Champion Didier Auriol and Toni Gardemeister as their drivers.
Burns drove for Japanese giants Mitsubishi, Subaru and Peugeot during a WRC career spanning thirteen years and 104 rallies in total, winning ten including three in Wales. Such was Burns’ consistency he achieved 34 podiums, ensuring he averaged a podium finish every three races, a fantastic record.
Born on the 17th January 1971 in a small village just outside of Reading, Burns’ first experiences behind the wheel were in his father’s Triumph 2000 at the age of eight. Soon after Burns joined the Under 17 Car Club where he became driver of the year in 1984 at the age of thirteen.
At the age of fifteen, Burns’ father arranged a trip for Richard to have a day out at Jon Churchill’s Welsh Forest Rally School, where Burns was able to drive a Ford Escort.
From the moment Burns was eligible to drive he entered rallies in a Talbot Sunbeam, joining the Craven Motor Club, pestering anyone he could find for help in his quest for the top. His enthusiasm and sheer speed caught the eye of fellow member and successful businessman David Williams, who bought him a Peugeot 205 to compete in. Burns subsequently won the Peugeot 205GTi Rally Cup in 1990. His success caught the eye of Prodrive who entered him into the 1990 Wales Rally Great Britain.
Williams continued to aid Burns, buying him a Group N Subaru Legacy and, with the support of Prodrive and the help of new co-driver Robert Reid, won the British Rally Championship in 1993 at the age of 22, the youngest ever winner of the championship. It was Burns’ fourth consecutive title and on top of this he continued to contest each year’s Great British WRC event.
Prodrive monitored Burns throughout his junior career and as he developed as a driver, his involvement with Subaru increased. Prodrive considered Burns as a driver for the future and let Burns help out the team with McRae’s pace notes for gravel rallies.
During the mid-nineties Burns slowly started to have a more regular presence in the WRC team, achieving his first podium in 1995 on home soil.
For 1996 though, Burns switched to Mitsubishi, contesting in half of the rounds alongside championship winning teammate Tommi Makinen. He would race for Mitsubishi until 1999, when he returned to Prodrive and Subaru to spearhead their title assault, replacing Ford-bound Colin McRae, partnering the legendary Juha Kankkunen.
In his first season back with Subaru Burns shone, winning three times, only missing out on the title to former teammate Makinen by seven points.
At the turn of the millennium, Burns was once again second in the standings, this time behind Marcus Gronholm.
After coming so close two seasons in a row, Burns realised his dream of becoming WRC Champion in 2001, beating fellow Brit McRae by two points. Such was Burns’ consistency throughout the year, he only won once that season. A jubilant Burns celebrated as he crossed the line with long time co-driver Robert Reid the duo holding each other’s hands aloft inside the car. A testament to Burns’ character was him shouting “you’re the best in the world” to Robert, fully overjoyed he had driven Robert to WRC glory, rather than being absorbed in his own personal achievements.
It would prove to be his last year with Subaru as he joined Peugeot for 2002 alongside 2000 title rival Gronholm. Burns finished his first season with Peugeot fifth however 2003 was much more competitive for Burns, fighting for overall honours once more. Burns headed into the final round in Wales with a chance of winning the title, up against Peter Solberg, Sebastian Loeb and Carlos Sainz, despite not winning a rally all season.
Burns was never able to battle for the 2003 crown. While travelling to the event with fellow competitor Marko Martin, Burns suffered a blackout at the wheel of his Porsche on the M4 near Newport. Two years to the day after winning the World Rally Championship, Burns was forced to withdraw from the final round of the 2003 championship. Soon after, Richard was diagnosed with an astrocytoma, a type of brain tumour, and he underwent radiotherapy treatment.
Although initial signs were that the surgery was a success it quickly became clear that the tumour was malignant.
Attempts were made to remove the tumour in April 2005, however these proved unsuccessful. On the 25th November 2005, four years to the day after winning his crown Burns passed away aged 34.
I remember the news vividly, I was, and still am, a supporter of Burns and always looked out for him and how he was fairing, both during his career and afterwards during his fight against illness. Burns’ passing was a very sad day not just for me but for British motorsport as a whole, which is why I am writing this piece now.
Looking back it was also such a shame, not just on a human level but a sporting one as well. After two winless seasons with Peugeot, Burns had signed a deal with Subaru to partner Peter Solberg in 2004, returning to where it all began with Prodrive. Away from the rallying scene Burns was also making headway with his image, bringing out the game Richard Burns Rally in 2004 to rival Colin McRae's efforts on the gaming scene. Everything was on the up for Burns which makes it all so much more upsetting.
A year after his passing, at the 2006 Goodwood Festival of Speed, the Richard Burns Foundation was launched, a charity founded to “inspire and support people with serious injury and illness”.
The RB Foundation has also worked alongside various charities such as the Michael Park Fund, which helps to develop safety at motorsport events and Spinal Track, a charity dedicated to helping drivers in motorsport with spinal injuries resulting in paralysis.
Spinal Track was founded by Andrew Bayliss and Nathalie McGloin, the world’s only female tetraplegic racing driver, who has used her experiences in motorsport to help others. On the 28th March 2018, the trustees of the RB Foundation made a major donation to the Spinal Track charity.
This donation to Spinal Track was the last donation the Richard Burns Foundation made, marking the end of their eleven-year era.
For me, although the Foundation has done endless amounts of positive work, for example, donations to purchase fantastic equipment for those in need during this eleven-year period, it upsets me that it has now closed. In my opinion, Burns can never be forgotten and if this small piece has encouraged one person to read up on Richard, or watch some of his videos on the internet then I would consider this contribution a success.
Richard Burns was a quiet man, and one who was hugely respected both in and away from motorsport. His reserved gravestone in his home village of Checkenden reads, “Always and forever, a gentle man and a brave champion.” I do not think anyone could put it better.
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