Nigel Frazer chats to Niall McShea about his World title and working on blockbuster movies with Tom Cruise

Niall McShea became Fermanagh’s first ever world rally champion when he claimed the Production World Rally Championship in 2004.

It would be the high point of his rallying career.

The Monea driver hoped the win would catapult him into a car that would allow him to compete against the likes of Sebastian Loeb for the world driver’s title and that opportunity did come tantalisingly close, only to be snatched from him.

Today he still uses his driving skills as a stunt driver for television shows and Hollywood movies, but despite rubbing shoulders with Tom Cruise he concedes that his missed rallying opportunity remains a source of frustration.

“It was one rung short on the ladder that I wanted to climb to the World Championship,” Niall admitted. “At this point in time I have the fondest memories of all of it. I can look back now with fond memories, but for a long time I couldn’t. I felt I could have made it to the very top. I got very far but I didn’t get to the step I wanted to.”

Back in 2004 McShea sealed his dramatic title success on the final round of the championship in Australia, moving into the lead of the series for the first time all year with only three stages of the season remaining.

His title challenge started with a third placed finish on Rally Mexico, but his victory hopes looked all but over after three rounds when he crashed out of rallies in New Zealand and Belgium. He got back on track with a fourth place finish in Argentina, and two second places in Germany and Corsica left him hot on the heels of Alastair McRae coming into the final round in Australia. McShea needed to beat the Scot to take the title, but he found himself almost two minutes adrift with just three stages remaining before events conspired to put him into pole position. “The start of the stage was a long straight and Alastair McRae was starting the stage just in front of us,” Niall recalled.

“He took off and when he got to about third gear the gearbox broke. He got out of the car and I watched him throw his helmet into the trees, and I knew at that point we were ahead on points in the Championship. I remember clutching the car to put it into launch mode at the start of the stage and my foot was bouncing on the clutch with nerves. I had been in those situations before and I know you can still make a silly mistake so you still push hard to make sure your mind works and you don’t distract yourself with silly thoughts.

“Our car was using a lot of oil because of a bent con rod but I knew if I finished the rally and didn’t crash or break the engine then we would win it, and that is what we did.”

Niall’s ascent to world champion started from small beginnings. Having been drawn towards rallying by his two cousins Paul and Noel, Niall competed on his first rally just months after passing his driving test, finishing inside the top ten on Enniskillen Motor Club’s Lakeland Stages Rally as a 17 year old. Funding his rallying was a struggle in the early days but Niall secured a job as an electrician to help him gather a rallying budget.

“I became an electrician like my cousin Paul, because you could earn some good money and I needed that money to go rallying,” he said.

“I bought an Orion when I was 19. I borrowed money to buy it and I hadn’t got a road car, but I always thought if it went terribly badly then I would just have to work to pay it off and that would be that. It was a hobby for me and I never thought that I would ever be able to make anything of it.

“I never had as much as I would have liked to go and do more rallies, but I did what I could with what I had, and I was happy enough with that.”

Niall first came to prominence in England when he was persuaded to enter the Nissan Micra Challenge in 1997.

He bought a damaged Micra and turned it into a rally car before going on to win the championship. That earned him a deal with Asquith Autosport to contest the British Rally Championship in a Citroen Saxo, but it was winning the Ford Motoring News Rally Champion of the Future Award that really gave him a glimpse of where he wanted to be.

“I got to go to Gran Canaria and the Race of Champions and got to meet Colin McRae and a lot of the other World Championship drivers,” he explained.

“My first time in a World Rally Car was with Juha Kankkunen testing in Lapland for Rally Sweden. I went from the very bottom rung of motorsport to having a look at the very top rung very quickly.

“I was able to spend time with maybe 12 world championship drivers and learned a lot from them just by watching them. That was a massive learning curve, but a brilliant one. That all started at the Race of Champions when I was able to get a few phone numbers and I was able to ask them could I come and attend tests, and maybe my perseverance made it easier for them to say yes rather than no. I was extremely lucky.”

The next step in his career was winning the Roger Albert Clarke Award, where judges Malcolm Wilson and Bertie Fisher were among those to acknowledge his potential.

“I heard that afterwards that those two pushed very hard for me to win it, and I was extremely lucky and fortunate to get that,” he revealed.

“That allowed me put a plan together and my thing was to get to the Junior World Rally Championship, which was brand new for 2001. That was all I wanted to do. That gave me £50,000 to start me in the JWRC and that paid for two rounds with the help of Malcolm Wilson asking RED Motorsport to give me a Ford Puma for nothing!”

The Puma proved unreliable and failed to finish the opening two rounds of the series, but when Niall switched to a Citroen he started to show his speed, culminating in a second placed finish behind a young Sebastian Loeb on Rally GB.

The 2002 JWRC campaign was another plagued by unreliability but his career took another leap forward when he completed a deal with John Lloyd to fund his rallying. “We effectively had a management arrangement where he invested almost a million pounds in my career over the next five years,” revealed Niall.

“In 2003 John bought me two Mitsubishis to do the Championship. Maybe it was my style of driving or the spec of the car, but we would normally be right at the front or near it and then the car would break, or maybe I would break it. There was a few times it broke and a few times I broke it. I bust it on the second last stage in Argentina over a jump when we were first or second just by not being careful enough. We were leading in Germany and then it broke a gearbox.”

The 2003 season finished strongly with his first PWRC rally win in Corsica, and allied to a switch to Subaru he was confidently preparing for a 2004 campaign before a late hitch almost ended his plans.

“In 2004 it looked as though it would be a good year with what was like a semi works drive for a Group N team, but that all fell through very late in the day,” he explained. “John Lloyd came to the rescue very kindly and Lloyd Helicopters were my main sponsor for 2004. I didn’t win any of the rounds and we won the championship with £110,000 less that the next lowest budget. To actually win it with the lowest budget by a huge amount, that to me was as good as winning every round! We put in some really good strong performances, and sometimes it can go your way.

“That year Marcus Gronholm went off on the very first corner of the first stage in Germany, and I went off on exactly the same corner. When he went off he had wiped out a tree and destroyed his car, and I went off straight over the stump of the tree without any damage because the tree was no longer there, and drove back up onto the road and finished second in the rally. That was a stroke of luck.”

Having got to within touching distance of the title with one round remaining, another financial obstacle looked like it could derail his championship chances.

“Before we went to the rally all the money from John Lloyd was gone, and more,” he admitted.

“I owed a lot of money to have got that far, and I would have received a massive fine and a ban from driving if I had not gone over the start line in Australia. The team sent the car to Australia without being re-prepped from the previous rally, and there was a really old engine in it. They had only sent me out to drive over the start line and technically start the rally and then immediately retire, but I got so much support from all the rally drivers and businesses at home and I was able to pay off the bill and was able to compete in the rally. I was extremely grateful to everyone that helped out.”

He had a welcome home party on his return to Enniskillen, but behind the scenes of celebration he knew his chance of securing a top level drive for the following season was slipping away. His best chance of climbing behind the wheel of a title challenging car for the 2005 season was with M-Sport who ran the Ford WRC team.

Team manager Malcolm Wilson had been one of Niall’s biggest backers in awarding him the Roger Albert Clarke trophy earlier in his career, but when the Ford supremo had to make a choice about his driver line up he opted to look elsewhere.

“The welcome home party that they arranged in the Forum was absolutely amazing, but two days prior to that John Lloyd had told me that I could have a million pounds to do the 2005 World Championship if I could get the 16 rallies with Ford,” recalled Niall.

“Malcolm Wilson took Roman Kresta, a Czech driver, for £1.25 million and that was hard to take. I thought I was going to make that step, and that 2005 Ford was an awesome car. It was a rally winner. I knew Roman Kresta would make no work of it, and he didn’t.

“I knew I would have definitely made a better job of it than he did but I didn’t get the chance to prove it. Rally Ireland was the first time I drove the Subaru and we were able to put in some really good times. I remember Malcolm saying to me ‘maybe I should have given you that chance back then’, but it was all done and dusted by then.”

Niall went on to make occasional appearances over the following years including a PWRC win at Rally Ireland in 2007 before signing a deal to compete in China with Skoda Red Bull with Marshall Clarke navigating.

It was during this spell that another door opened to Niall, with Top Gear keen to use his driving skills on the BBC television programme. Niall survived the transition period following the departure of presenters Clarkson, May and Hammond and when Matt LeBlanc joined the team Niall used his connections to help him break into Hollywood.

“Wade Eastwood is Tom Cruise’s stunt co-ordinator and Matt LeBlanc was able to introduce me to him, and through them I have been able to meet a lot of stunt co-ordinators from a lot of movies,” he revealed.

“I did Mission Impossible 6 in Paris a few years ago, and in 2018 I did Pegasus, a Chinese movie that grossed 260 million in the first few weeks of its release.

“I’ve worked on Transformers and The Mummy and a month ago we were in Cyprus.

“Last week I was due to go to Rome for the next Mission Impossible 7 and 8. When I was a kid Days of Thunder was one of my favourite movies and I now have got to work on a few movies with Tom Cruise. That has all been because of the rallying.

“I still get to drive cars that I could never afford a wheel for! I get to go to some amazing places and I have been very, very fortunate.”

Niall has kept in touch with the local rallying scene, and helps out young drivers including Callum Devine who is tackling the European Rally Championship with Enniskillen’s Brian Hoy this season. Despite his recent move into an alternative form of work he still has not ruled out a return to a rally car someday.

“I haven’t done a rally since the end of 2015 but I would love to,” he admitted. “The Pegasus movie was a rally movie and had 11 cars and I was the only driver so I did a huge amount of kilometres and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am 46 and I would like to think I could still compete with these young boys, although I would need four or five rallies to see where I would be at. I still seem to be able to make them go fast up and down the road.

“I’m very lucky that I get to drive the world’s most expensive cars on Top Gear and drive them at 200 miles an hour. That is damn cool, but it’s not strapping on a helmet and making pace notes and doing what I really love to do. I miss it.”