It’s hard to believe that 18 years have passed since Richard Burns became only the third British driver to win a World Championship Rally since the series began in 1973.
On this day (March 2) in 1998, the Mitsubishi driver, co-driven by Scot Robert Reid, won one of rallying’s toughest tests, the Safari Rally. And in doing so, he joined Roger Clark and Colin McRae in that elite band of British winners.
The third round of the 1998 WRC was Burns’ 25th start and only his third championship-qualifying Safari. He’d finished fifth in a Group N Subaru Impreza in 1994 and taken second in ’97 for Mitsubishi so his stock in Africa was high. Despite gearbox trouble and a slipping clutch, as well as the worry of a cambelt failure in the identical car of his rally-leading team-mate and reigning World Champion Tommi Mäkinen, Burns hung on to take his maiden career victory, with a winning time of 8 hours, 57 minutes and 34 seconds – a full 9m27s clear of his nearest challenger, the Ford Escort WRC of four-time World Champion Juha Kankkunen. The outcome meant that Burns had became the first Englishman to win an overseas round of the WRC.
It had been a typical Safari Rally of attrition, with many of the big names – Mäkinen, Subaru’s Colin McRae and Piero Liatti, and Toyota’s Carlos Sainz – all dropping out with mechanical woes. Third went to 1981 World Champion Ari Vatanen, one of the original flying Finns standing in for regular driver Bruno Thiry who was injured. Forty-five-year-old Vatanen, who won the Safari for Opel in 1983, finished an impressive second on the road, but dropped back behind Kankkunen to help his fellow Finn’s Championship challenge.
March 2, 1998: an historic day in the annals of World Rallying. And a day when Richard Burns joined the sport’s elite.