For 2003, McRae signed for Citroën, a team of winning pedigree due to its successes of the previous year with young Frenchman Sébastien Loeb but otherwise undertaking its first complete campaign at World Rally Championship level. McRae's second-place finish on his début in Monte Carlo alongside Loeb and Carlos Sainz whom, aboard the Xsara WRC, helped complete a 1–2–3 finish, transpired to be the finest result he would achieve for the team, for the season was to end with seventh in the drivers' championship, with no victories. Rule changes that were to be brought in for the 2004 season changed the previous practice of having three nominated points-scorers within a team to two. With Loeb partway through a multiple year contract, this meant the Citroën factory team, under Guy Frequelin's leadership, were forced to choose between dropping McRae or Sainz. With Sainz being the more successful of the two during the 2003 season, it was McRae who had to look elsewhere for 2004. David Richards, McRae's former boss at Subaru, who had by now taken over WRC's commercial rights holders ISC and worried that the loss of a character like McRae would damage his ability to market the sport, set about trying to help McRae find a drive for 2004. McRae was unable to find a team, and for the first time in over ten years he would not be competing in the World Rally Championship.
Other manufacturers were not content with modifying their 'bread-and-butter' cars. Renault bankrolled the small volume sports-car maker Alpine to transform their little A110 Berlinette coupé into a world-beating rally car, and hired a skilled team of drivers too; then in 1974 came the Lancia Stratos, the first car designed from scratch to win rallies, and the dominant asphalt rally car of its time. These makers overcame the rules of FISA (as the FIA was called at the time) by building the requisite number of these models for the road.
In an attempt to cut costs, since 2006 new regulations required mechanical front and rear differentials, while the central differential remained active. Active suspension and water injections were also prohibited. Cars entered by a manufacturer had to be equipped with the same engine for two rallies; further limitations were imposed on the changing of some parts, including suspension, steering, turbochargers and gearboxes.
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McRae, made his debut on the gruelling Dakar Rally Raid with Nissan in January 2004, and impressed the team by scoring two stage wins on his way to a memorable finish on the gruelling Sahara event. He returned to the Dakar in 2005 and was fastest on two of the first three stages in Morocco, before crashing out of the rally towards the end of stage six.
In August 2007, McRae claimed to still be working on finding a seat for the 2008 WRC season, stating that "if it doesn't happen next year, then I won't (return) because you can only be out of something at that level for so long." In 2017, talking to Autosport podcast, David Richards confirmed that he and McRae had talked about McRae's comeback to Subaru for season 2008. Robert Reid was contacted by McRae who asked him to be his co-driver and the pair was due to test together, but unfortunately the test never happened because of McRae's fatal helicopter accident.
Although there had been exceptions like the outlandish Ford V8 specials created by the Romanians for the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally, rallies before World War II had tended to be for standard or near-standard production cars, a rule supported by manufacturers because it created a relatively even playing field. After the war, most competing cars were production saloons or sports cars, with only minor modifications to improve performance, handling, braking and suspension. This kept costs down and allowed many more people to afford the sport using ordinary family cars, so entry lists grew into the hundreds.
While nowadays we are used to rally cars being visually close relatives to hot hatchbacks and saloons, it wasn’t always this way. The Lancia Stratos was the first car purpose built for the World Rally Championship; however, its rakish supercar looks and Ferrari-sourced V6 suggested it was better suited to the car park outside Monte Carlo’s casino than the world’s toughest rally stages.
After several years of varying success, McRae switched to the M-Sport-run Ford factory team for 1999, driving the new Ford Focus rally car. The deal saw McRae earning six million pounds over two years, which at the time made him the highest earning rally driver in history. This move was immediately rewarded with two consecutive wins at the Safari Rally and Rally Portugal. A number of shunts and reliability issues for the new car for much of the rest of that season, however, resulted in only sixth place in the championship standings overall. Moreover, a rare personal pointless run had begun for McRae that year which was only to be halted with a podium on the following February's Swedish Rally, the beginning of a recovery which saw McRae victorious on the asphalt turns of Catalunya and the gravel of Greece, and post 4th in the 2000 overall standings. Midway through the 2000 season, the lacking reliability of the Focus had led to McRae threatening to leave the team if the problems continued. The upturn towards the end of the season resulted in him deciding to renew his contract with Ford for a further two years. McRae's intermittent success with Ford continued into 2001, where after failing to score in any of the first four rounds, including having momentarily led defending winner Tommi Mäkinen on the stages of the season opening Monte Carlo Rally prior to being forced into retirement, he then went on to score three consecutive victories in Argentina, Cyprus and Greece to tie with Mäkinen at the top of the points table. However, having again led the championship outright entering the final round in Great Britain, McRae once more missed out on a possible second title, crashing out and finishing second in the drivers championship, two points behind Subaru's Richard Burns.
The funeral for Colin and Johnny took place on 26 September at Daldowie Crematorium near Glasgow, conducted by the Rev Tom Houston, who had married the McRaes, and the Rev Steven Reid, chaplain at Johnny's school. An address was given by Robbie Head, a former rally driver and commentator who was a close friend of McRae's, with the Rev Houston giving the benediction. McRae's niece and nephews performed the tune Highland Cathedral, a popular funeral song. The song "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding, a favourite song of McRae's, was played when the family entered the chapel (coincidentally, Redding himself also died in an air crash). The Proclaimers' song "I'm on My Way" was played when they left. Colin and Johnny McRae were cremated in the same coffin. Among the attendees at the funeral were fellow Scottish racing drivers Jackie Stewart and Dario Franchitti.