As far as British rally fans are concerned, the noughties can't get out of the door quick enough. We're glad to see the back of them.
The 10 years which proceeded them couldn't have been better. We were riding the crest of a wave as Colin McRae collected his first world title and Richard Burns looked ever-more likely to become the first Englishman to claim the same crown.
Richard Burns and Robert Reid at the 2001 AUTOSPORT Awards © LAT
Burns' 2001 World Rally Championship is the silver lining in an otherwise pretty dismal decade for British rallying. Never mind 10 years, in just over five years we lost six of the most entertaining characters the sport has ever known.
Mark Lovell and Roger Freeman were the first to go. Just a couple of years after winning the SCCA American title in 2001, Lovell crashed his Subaru USA Impreza out of the Oregon Trails Rally in July 2003. Both he and Freeman were killed outright in the accident.
It's hard to put into words just what a couple of characters those two were. Lovell had been crowned British national and British Open champion in successive years in 1985 and 1986, but he never quite made the leap from the national to international stage. On asphalt, at least, he should have done; few in the world were quicker down a switchback stretch of tar.
No matter what the situation, Lovell always had the right words to hand - he was a public relations dream. Freeman, on the other hand, had his own words. And the story from his side of the car was always the one worth listening to.
It wasn't long after this loss that we first learned of Burns' illness.
In the two years that followed, as he battled an astrocytoma which would have killed virtually anybody else almost immediately, Burns demonstrated a fighting spirit which lives on as his legacy. It towered way above anything he did in a rally car. The courage, determination and complete lack of self-pity RB managed until 25 November 2005, stands him out as one of the world's great human beings.
It wasn't like Burnsie wasn't used to a good scrap, having gone toe-to-toe with McRae for 100-odd WRC rounds over the previous 10 years. The Burns-McRae battles are rapidly becoming the stuff of legend. And, as each year passes, the talk gets taller, the cars get faster and the heores more heroic. Long may it continue.
Watching the French media hang on Sebastien Loeb's every word, it's easy to forget that was us - the Brit pack - at the start of this decade. When 1999 became 2000, McRae was just a year into his mega, multi-million pound, richest rally driver ever deal with Ford and Burns was riding higher than ever at Subaru. As a nation, we were on top of the world.
The titanic battle between these two drivers marked virtually every rally in the early part of the decade. Two stand out as classics. The first was the 2000 Catalunya Rally. Day one in the hills around Lloret de Mar was wet. It absolutely poured down, much to the glee of Burns and his Pirell-shod Subaru.
Burns was away and in the clear, making the most of the advantage his car-tyre combo had over McRae's Michelin-booted Focus. But then, the weather turned and the Scot reeled RB in. And then he beat him in a final-day classic. Just 5.9 seconds separated the pair at the end of three days of racing in Spain. These were the days when nobody beat McRae in a final-day fight. Or, nobody apart from Tommi Makinen. Clearly Burns read the wrong script in New Zealand, 2001.
Richard Burns and Robert Reid in the Subaru on the 2001 Rally New Zealand © LAT
In an attempt to find a more favourable place further back on the road, Burns took the brave decision to drop a load of time at the end of the opening day down under. But when the rally turned north, to the glorious roads around Paparoa, Burns unleashed his attack. Setting fastest time after fastest time, he hit the front and stayed there, staving off McRae's final-day assault to win a tactically brilliant event.
All too often, it was McRae who won the balls-out plaudits. His dramatic, win or bust style, looked quicker than Burns' more considered approach. But it's worth remembering that in 2000 and 2001 nobody set more fastest times in the WRC than Burns. Anybody who ever doubted the 2001 champ's speed should think again.
But it was McRae who had got there first. Winning the 1995 title, he'd become the first Brit to top the world. And we'll never forget him for that. Just like we'll never forget the unceremonious and utterly unwarranted way he lost his drive with Citroen in 2003. Changes in the way the sport was working called for less drivers and McRae found himself out in the cold.
A season which ended so badly for the Britons had started out so well, with McRae leading the title race after round two and then Burns and McRae running one-two after the third round. Burns' Peugeot 206 would remain steadfastly at the top of the standings for much of the year. Right up until an uncharacteristic off in Catalunya. Hindsight offers the horrible insight into the reasons for Burns' loss of pace in the second half of a year which should have been his.
For McRae, unemployment from the WRC meant the opportunity to tackle Dakar and Le Mans. He did both, and loved the chance, but he still hankered after more conventional rallying. The McRae magic was rekindled when he came close to winning the 2005 Rally Australia - only to be robbed of a certain podium by Skoda's incompetence at changing a gearbox.
McRae had made his initial rally return in the Fabia for Rally GB in September that year. The Scotsman's seventh place, however, had palled into insignificance following Markko Martin's crash in which his co-driver Michael 'Beef' Park died.
'Beef' was another of the sport's massive characters. He was loved by all who came into contact with him. He was a traditional Englishman with a love of Gloucester rugby club, shooting and, of course, his family. From a personal perspective, the loss of 'Beef' was one which took a long time to come to terms with. The WRC in-control remains a poorer place without his trademark laugh and jibe about anything and nothing.
By the time 'Beef' died, the world of WRC journalism had already suffered a major loss, when David Williams died in August 2005. DKW as he was universally known - or Deke when he was out of earshot - had written more entertaining words on our sport than anybody else could conceive. The trust he earned and the stories he wrote still stand as the measure of how far we still have to go in this industry.
The WRC pays tribute to Colin McRae © LAT
Just when British rallying thought it had lived through every nightmare possible, that day in September 2007 happened. Our sport plastered across the news, on every bulletin on every news channel. McRae was gone. It was true. Scarcely believable, but true. And in the worst possible circumstances, in a helicopter crash a mile away from the family home in Lanark, with his son Johnny and two family friends also losing their lives.
The days which followed this tragedy went in a daze. It just wasn't right. Standing watching the tears flow at the memorial service in Lanark was one of the hardest days I've known in this job.
It's at those times that you have to remember the good times. And, while there mightn't have been many in the last decade, there were plenty from the years before.
Apologies for having written a fairly desolate description of the last decade. In an attempt to brighten the mood as the end approaches, I'll re-tell one of my favourite McRae-Burns stories. I'd thought of recounting tales of how the two waged their psychological war through the seasons, but I thought I'd leave you one of the funnier ones.
The time is mid-2003 and Britain's best are waiting at a stage start and contemplating life. Burns is considering a Subaru contract, while McRae's looking for the brighter side of life on the dole.
McRae: "Looks like the job centre for me."
Burns: "You could always consider telesales."
Burns: "Why not?"
McRae: "I don't know anything about televisions."
Shoves, Roger, Deke, 'Beef', Burnsie and Coco, thank you all for enriching my life so much - it really wouldn't have been the same without you. A new decade is upon us, but you'll never be forgotten.
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|The decade's top 10 WRC drivers|
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