Day 1: Great Orme
It’s the Ford I’m dwelling on most as I stand looking down the snaking coastal wall of Marine Drive on the Great Orme peninsul which will host one stage of this year’s Rally GB.
The DNA in the modern, road- going successors to those three 1973 WRC cars is easily traceable to that fabled era of motorsport, but none has undergone the dramatic morphosis that the Ford Focus, née Escort, has had. It sits here in limited Heritage Edition – huge, orange and brutalist next to the slimline silhouettes of the Alpine A110 and Abarth 124 GT.
Put a 1973 Escort next to the 2018 Focus RS and Marvel Comics would be impressed at the transformation. It was, in fact, the Escort RS1600 that proved untouchable even to Alpine in the British WRC round in 1973. And having experienced the way today’s Focus RS Heritage Edition charges down Marine Drive as if the next corner has personally offended it, I’d put money on it being the fastest of our three rally-derived stooges today too – certainly over most real-world terrain – despite the Alpine’s identical 0-62mph time of 4.5sec.
Although we’ve grouped our three modern rally-bred heroes together for their shared history, it’s their future that’s pertinent, and that of today’s WRC and – more specifically – the Wales Rally GB.
There’s an increasing sense of showmanship to the WRC that suits our vehicular show-offs. For the first time in the rally’s history, it will run on closed public roads right into the centre of Llandudno, a cheerful, bunting and candyfloss kind of place that’ll form a uniquely British contrast to the fire and brimstone spectacle of a WRC car in proper use.
The Focus RS feels like a fire and brimstone kind of car if you want it to, especially with the Mountune tweaks and Quaife limited-slip diff of the Heritage Edition. In fact, the Focus is the only car here that really does drive like a rally car as we know it, with its super-aggressive yet mobile four-wheel-drive handling.
The Alpine feels much, much closer to its historic roots. Perhaps a few decades of dormancy will do that to a brand. I’d already done more than four hours and 250 miles of gritty-eyed dawn-watching in the Alpine, but notably it had left me only wanting to spend even more time with it, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better place to do so The Great Orme peninsular is so stunning that it actually looks like a James Bond car chase backdrop, with its long-sighted, wall-lined road ribboning off into an ocean horizon.
But for all the road’s magnificence, the Alpine humbles it. There’s an instantaneous lightness of touch here that I haven’t experienced in any modern car other than a Lotus. The A110 seems to levitate down the road with barely any conscious thought or effort, yet you feel totally keyed into it. Absorbed. As if you’ve plugged in a shared cerebral ECU.