There is nothing – and when I say ‘nothing’, I mean not a single, solitary thing on earth – that can prepare you for what it feels like to be a passenger in a World Rally Car when it’s being driven flat out, by a proper WRC driver, through a proper WRC-style forest stage.
The most shocking thing of all, however, about this most shocking of experiences is just how smooth the whole thing feels, how graceful it seems, almost to a point were the car feels as though it is gliding across the ground rather than merely driving upon it.
And then, of course, there’s the small matter of the sheer speed you’re carrying as trees, earth banks and sometimes huge rocks flash past your right ear, seemingly no more than a few inches away at some points.
That, too, is quite hard to get your head around to begin with, even when the driver in question happens to be Kris Meeke and the car you’re being flung about in is Citroën’s DS3 WRC.
I’d gone to France initially to drive, rather than be terrified by, the DS3 WRC. But when I arrived at our destination, a high-end test facility just outside Clermont-Ferrand were they fire canapés at you as you walk through the door, the plan changed a bit. And the plan, it seemed, now involved me being driven by Meeke first, just so he could show me what to do, before I would then get my go.
Which sounded fine. I mean, what could go wrong? What harm would it do to be shown the ropes by the young Northern Irish maestro before climbing into the big chair and having a rip myself?
In theory, none. In reality, lots – because sitting next to Meeke in the DS3 WRC would, as it turned out, completely and utterly frazzle my mind. Which is not the ideal way you want to be feeling before you climb into someone else’s 300bhp works rally car, in front of an increasingly large crowd of people, and try not to make a complete chump of yourself.
But anyway, after the death ride with Meeke, I wandered into the forest for a quiet word with myself and tried to calm down a bit. And then 10 minutes later I came back, still oscillating violently inside, and went through a pre-drive brief with the car’s chief engineer, whom I think was called Sébastien, but by then the nerves had well and truly taken hold, so I’m not actually sure.
He explained how the differentials work and how the boost button completely changes the performance characteristics of the car. He also said he would only be pressing this after I’d done a couple of laps to get acclimatised, “because it makes the car feel totally different – much, much faster”.
For the first three laps, he added, he would give me advice via the intercom about how to drive, where to drive, what to do and what not to do. And then for the last two laps I’d be on my own.
Five minutes later – just long enough for some of it to sink in and for my throat to become all dry and croaky again – we got the call and we were off. Allez, allez, let’s go.
Even the seat in the DS3 WRC is a work of art. Its sides are almost impossibly high, your bum is clamped quite perfectly in position by its dramatic sculpting and you sit really, really low in the car. When they release the air jacks and the car hits the ground, I almost can’t see over the steering wheel.
My co-pilot has already started the engine – a turbocharged 1.6-litre four that chugs away to itself and goes wap, wap when I prod the throttle. The response, even without the boost mode engaged, is massive and instant, the torque flow obviously immense.
But arguably more important than the engine itself is all the other stuff in a DS3 WRC: the diffs front, rear and middle, the superfast six-speed sequential gearbox (courtesy of Sadev) and the suspension, specifically the dampers, which are about as trick as they get and are the reason why the DS3 WRC is able to glide so beautifully across such harsh and heavy ground. And that’s the aspect of this car that I am most keen to experience first hand.
So I dip the clutch (heavy but not ludicrously so), pull back on the stubby, column-mounted gearlever, feel the tell-tale thunk as the gear engages and gradually increase the revs while the knee muscles in my left leg start to spasm slightly as I let out the clutch pedal.
And then we’re away, rumbling towards the stage, stones chattering in the wheel arches as the DS3’s heavy-duty rough-stage tyres pick up and spit out anything they can get their teeth into.
It’s incredibly noisy in here, not to mention hot, but the ride quality is spookily smooth and the steering is incredibly light and direct. The lack of physical effort required to drive this car, albeit gently for the time being, is not what I’d expected at all. Everything is easy, light, precise and direct, from the throttle pedal to the gearchange to the brakes.
Driving this car slowly is a piece of cake, I realise, whereas for some reason I’d expected the exact opposite.
Driving it fast, however, is something else. When I’d sat next to Meeke earlier, what had struck me was the peculiar absence of frenzied movement on his part. He hardly seemed to turn the steering wheel at all, despite the fact that we were travelling sideways pretty much the whole time, often on the other side of three figures. His economy of effort was mesmerising.
But as I trundle on to the stage and my co-driver suggests that I should “go, go, go, allez, allez”, I slowly begin to realise that driving the DS3 WRC at anything approaching a decent lick is actually all about precision. It feels fast in a straight line, yes, but not ridiculously so.
A Porsche 911 Turbo would not have much trouble keeping up with it on pure acceleration. But getting the most out of a WRC car has almost nothing to do with what happens on the straight bits.
Because what matters most, of course, is what happens in the corners, and what’s most crucial of all is getting the car heading on the correct trajectory before each corner so that you can then aim it towards, through and out of that corner without losing momentum. And to do that, you need to set the car up sometimes tens of metres before each corner, often with the car heading in the absolute opposite direction.
And ultimately that’s what rally driving is all about, and the really spooky thing about the DS3 WRC is that it very nearly does all of it for you. Even with a modicum of commitment it floats, it turns and it grips, almost as if it is guided by some higher being.
Get it completely wrong and it understeers, but get it vaguely right and its nose will somehow pin itself to the centre of just about any corner apex. Once there, you give it a bootful of throttle, the diffs do their thing, the tail comes around – but not to the point where you need to apply anything more than a hair of opposite lock – and you fire out of the corner in a near-perfect, electronically enhanced four-wheel drift.
It feels quite beautiful, to be honest, until my co-driver reaches down and presses the button marked ‘boost’, at which point it feels as if another 300bhp has been unleashed and the images in the windscreen go into fast forward. Even so, the DS3 still feels very much as if it’s on your side.
The throttle response goes up several notches and the corresponding reaction from everything in the car becomes more intense, more vivid, more instant. But it still glides and grips and goes pretty much where you want it to. You just need to allow a little bit more space in which to slow down, which is something else the DS3 WRC does rather well.
After my two laps of flying solo, my co-driver gives me a thumbs up, says some nice things over the intercom and gestures for us to head back towards the pit area that has been our base for the day.
And as I trundle back, boost button disengaged but heart and head still fizzing with adrenalin, I think back to that passenger ride with Meeke. Holy smoke, we were travelling fast, and, yes, his commitment in places had seemed absolutely insane. But on the other hand, a modern WRC machine does appear to be able to do an awful lot of the hard work for you. That, in the end, was the biggest surprise of all for me that day.
The real key, of course, is putting a top driver such as Meeke in a top car, like the DS3 WRC. Only then does the real magic start to happen. I still can’t believe we went as fast as we did, through those trees, over those jumps. But at the same time, at least I now understand, just a little tiny bit, how and why it might be possible to do what they do in the WRC.
Because although the sport itself may be less popular than it once was in its Group B heyday, the cars and their drivers are better – and just faster – than ever nowadays. And if you don’t believe it, go see for yourself this weekend in Wales. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
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