Cockermouth high street, Wednesday afternoon. Not a likely stage for a motorsport spectacular. But while this mundane backdrop serves only to further exaggerate the caricature of a Fiesta that we’ve stuck in the middle of it, the story of this drive can be traced back to January, in Monte Carlo. Because this isn’t just a rally-spec Fiesta.
This is the official Ford M-Sport WRC Fiesta RS that Jari-Matti Latvala skidded through the hallowed passages of the Monte Carlo rally and then took to overall victory in Rally Sweden, just a matter of hours before Cockermouth is treated to the spectacle of me, stalling my way around the one-way system in it.
But it’s not this car’s history that is a cause for concern. It’s the future. Current regulations state that World Rally Championship cars must use the same transmission and motor for four rallies. Only two have taken place, covering 450km of the most extreme competition mileage this side of the Dakar Rally by the time I find myself sitting in the deep bucket seat, surrounded by rollcage.
So although I’ve grown up yearning to follow in the footsteps of all my heroes (step forward Vatanen, Röhrl, Mouton, Blomqvist, Hopkirk et al), reality has taken a weird twist of fate and I now find myself genuinely capable of affecting a World Rally Championship effort. And all I want to do is not affect it, because that would mean I’d have achieved new heights of idiocy or misfortune and blown up something critical, costing Ford a substantial penalty.
But even with this level of potential disaster on the cards, I wasn’t passing up an opportunity to drive a bona-fide rally car. And I was assured that the 300bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre motor and six-speed sequential are made of pretty hardy stuff.
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.
But then the road clears and there are a brief few moments when I actually experience something close to what this car is capable of. Painfully sensitive at 30mph, the car’s controls become almost pre-cognitive at more reasonable rally car speeds. The wheezing and grinding accompaniment morphs into a towering, angry, operatic note. The jerky, sequential shifts suddenly aren’t felt because they’re so rapid, and the steering appears to respond directly to electronic signals from your brain rather than hand movements. Everything just sings. And the car starts to work with you rather than against you.
With a clear view down the road and Miguel the mechanic in the support vehicle now far behind, the ‘stage’ button is an almost unbearable temptation. I know that this will unleash the full engine performance. And now, realising just how shatteringly brilliant this car is, even in neutered ‘road’ mode, I’m even more desperate to know what happens in maximum attack mode. But I don’t hit it. The mechanicals of a rally car are designed to be durable, and while crashing a rally car when you’re the driver on a rally is just something that happens, crashing a rally car when you’re a hack on a jolly is distinctly less cool. And much harder to explain.
What the WRC needs
So I still don’t truly know what a rally car feels like on full song. But, short of life support, I suspect this is as connected as a person can feel to a machine. And I do know that I now have even more respect for this sport. Even those people who dedicate themselves to it admit that world rallying is struggling. Although the entrance of Mini and Volkswagen promises a new injection of cash and competition, motorsport at this level can only survive with good coverage and a strong global fan base. Neither of which is present.
I asked Walter Röhrl in 2009 what he thought could be done to improve the WRC, and he claimed that going to countries such as South Africa and China, where manufacturers can really see a return in road car sales, was vital. Malcolm Wilson echoed this. More crucially, he stated that the WRC needed a Bernie Ecclestone – not something I expected to hear, but it does make sense that rallying needs an overlord to encourage and make the most of sponsorship and media coverage.
Because this is, to my mind, a vastly more dramatic spectator sport than F1. The pinnacle of circuit racing is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of how far you can push man and vehicle, but to do that on a dirt track down a mountain is another level of bravery. Imagine F1 but held on a circuit where anything from a goat to a snowball can be around the next hairpin, and that’s exactly the risk you take with rallying. It’s motorsport for the unhinged.
I also think it is unbelievably crass that, in a world where seemingly everything is broadcast, you’ll find just as much coverage of skidoo racing (quite a good watch, by the way) as the WRC. Let’s get one thing straight. We’re not going to make a return to sepia-toned days of Group B and big moustaches. It just can’t happen, heroic as it was.
More to the point, we have a great era of rallying now. We’ve got the cars, the drivers, the passion and the scenery. It’s just the management that has gone wrong. And if that were the sole cause of the end of the WRC, it would be a very sad day indeed in the history of motorsport.