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.