If any of us had thought that previous circuit racing coaching would make us naturals at this, we’re soon divested of that notion. Within the first few seconds of the briefing, instructor Rob says: “There are no racing lines here.” Ah, best keep my mouth shut and ears open.
Briefing over, it’s time for the first practical session. Thrown in at the deep end, I’m given, somewhat intimidatingly, a Group N-spec Subaru Impreza WRX to take to the gravel course.
I take it slow and steady, with Rob most of the way around telling me to up the power and stop braking in the middle of slides.
They are slides that are too weedy to have been caused by a handbrake. While encouraging a more push-on style, Rob’s also keen to point out that a four-wheel-drive car grants only extra traction, not extra grip.
There’s not much grip at all on the loose surface, so what quickly becomes apparent about rally driving is how much of it is down to feel and instinct and that you just have to ‘go with it’. You need commitment, poise and positioning and, crucially, you need to look as far ahead as you can to plan your next move.
Dealing with that last point is my main struggle. I’m too stiff in the way that I’m driving the car, doing things in regimented isolation rather than with the natural, effortless flow that a master such as McRae exhibits. And those racing lines that instructor Rob mentioned are indeed alien.
Corners are approached from the middle to inside of the road, rather than from the outside as you would on a circuit. The theory is you need that extra room for your car’s tail to hang out.
It’s tough, but great fun, especially when I really string a couple of corners together and nail the car’s weight transfer from left to right through a fast chicane.
The fun continues when I switch to a classic Ford Escort RS2000, an altogether different beast from the Impreza. It’s rear-wheel drive for a start and does without such luxuries as power steering and servoed brakes.
Trying to pull away from a standstill in third gear doesn’t make a fine start, but I soon get to grips with this session on car control around a tight course in London Rally School’s front yard, practising that TCP sequence for handbrake turns, and also the technique for suddenly coming off the power to get the weight to transfer from the back to the front to get a powerslide going.
Then it’s back out on the gravel stage, this time in the Escort. With a bit more experience behind me, this run feels faster than in the Subaru despite the car’s lower power output. As I start looking farther down the road, it’s possible to keep the power on more confidently and start to use more of that magic ‘feel’ Jimmy and Rob mention as being the key to driving a rally car quickly.
Even so, I don’t feel consistent enough and my ham-fisted operation of the controls is slowing progress. “Not bad,” is Rob’s verdict. “Just the two things to work on: the straights and the corners…”
With such encouragement ringing in my ears, it’s a passenger ride with McRae for some last-minute tips before a timed run. Around the course, his right foot is mesmerising because he seems to drive and steer the car almost exclusively with it.
Then it’s my turn. A steady start, a few powerslides, more looking ahead, and then it’s TCP time. I turn in, depress the clutch, pull the handbrake… and it happens. I get on the power too hard, too early and spin through 180deg. Game over. I point the car back the right way and finish the stage.
My 1min 46sec time is 13 seconds off the pace setter, placing me eighth out of 10. So, no, I won’t be giving up the day job any time soon.
New four-part series ‘Idris Elba: No Limits’ transmits on Discovery Channel on 6 July at 9pm.
What does it take to be a rally champion? Just ask Jimmy McRae
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