So I take the keys from Malcolm Wilson, driving force behind M-Sport – the outfit that runs Ford’s WRC campaign. Wilson tells me under no circumstances should I hit the ‘stage’ button, introduces me to Miguel (a technician who will be present at all times and will stop me from hitting the ‘stage’ button) and watches us roll out of his base on to public roads.
It’s an extensive and erratic assault on the senses, driving a rally car. We’re not off the driveway before I realise that comparing this with a standard Fiesta is like contemplating open-heart surgery and antiseptic cream in the same thought. They’re both medical miracles, but at opposite ends of the scale.
Even at below 30mph it judders, whines, crackles and thumps along the road. The cacophonous soundtrack only seems to enhance the neurotically sensitive steering and throttle. You can persuade it along with some fluidity at normal road speeds with practice, but only with the sort of cajoling and nervous concentration you imagine bomb disposal teams specialise in.
What I can’t stop thinking about, apart from how the hell I’m going to get away from the traffic lights without either stalling or piling into the back of the car in front (a gentle getaway is not what these cars are set up for), is that this a road-legal car. The tax disc sits wrapped around the roll bar, proclaiming that this Fiesta cost £165 to tax. Really? I can only imagine the Post Office lady got bored with the bloke trying to explain what sort of Fiesta it was and just filed it under ‘1.6 Ecoboost’. With mods.
In fact, it’s not just road legal. If you drop M-Sport a line, they’ll happily make you a WRC-spec Fiesta just as soon as your cheque for £450,000 has cleared. Bespoke competition vehicle it may be, but technically you can buy this and run it every day should you be wealthy and mad enough.Cruising nervously down the high street in the Fiesta, it’s tricky to remember the basic principle that spawned rallying. M-Sport admits the WRC Fiesta is tenuously linked to the road car by an engine block and a badge, but this is a sport that began with road cars being raced along public roads. It’s just morphed into something rather more specialised.
Finding out just how far removed from that basic principle the world’s top-end rally cars have come is one of the most interesting aspects of this trip for me, and it takes all of a few hundred yards to ascertain that it is about as far as it is possible to get.Hearing the two mechanical diffs that sit on the front and rear axles as part of the permanent four-wheel drive system clunking and grinding away as I manoeuvre into a space in Sainsbury’s car park (anything for a photo shoot), engine note spiking erratically with every toe twitch, is a surreal, almost trippy moment – a dream after some hardcore cheese. It’s topped by an old chap who parks his Civic next to the Fiesta WRC and gives it not even the barest glance as he squeezes past. Or maybe the best bit is when a local woman demands an itinerary of our day so she can ring her family, most of whom work for M-Sport, and tell them to come and watch. No pressure, then.
In reality, it is the poor visibility and the neurotic driver controls that make the Fiesta next to unusable on the roads around Cockermouth. This Fiesta couldn’t be more out of its natural habitat. It’s a penguin out of water – something you know to be epically brilliant in its favoured environment, but comically ill-suited anywhere else.
So, finally, we head to some back roads, and everything makes sense. I won’t bore you with tales of how I suddenly know exactly how Stig Blomqvist felt as he feathered the Quattro down the Col de Turini in 1984. I don’t. I am on a Cumbrian back road and have, by this point, been driven almost hysterical by the blood-freezing paranoia that has had my pulse beating fast somewhere up behind my eyeballs.