Mikko Hirvonen is wearing the wrong shoes. Instead of dainty racing boots, today levering the pedals of his 300bhp Citroen DS3 WRC car is the responsibility of an old pair of Adidas trainers - the kind you would wear down the pub, but be reluctant to play football in.
I point this out. “Ah yes! I kept reminding myself when I left the hotel, ‘I must remember my racing boots’, but I forgot!” He grins. Mikko grins a lot.
He grins when our snapper asks him to hit the jump two thirds of the way round Goodwood’s makeshift gravel stage especially hard. He denies it is even a jump; being Finnish, the moderate crest is a forgettable blip in the dirt. Being English, half an hour later, I silently count the seconds we hang in the dusty afternoon air. My turn to grin.
Mikko has only been round the stage once or twice in the morning and, on the start line, says he can’t completely recall the way. “It might be a little bumpy”, he kids. Aside from the jump (and it definitely is a jump) it is not bumpy; but it is monumentally, brain-splittingly fast.
I know the course is so short and twisty that the DS3 barely has room to stretch its legs, but Mikko - in typical style - attacks it with the kind of ferocity that makes him such a keen favourite with the fans, and me glad that my straps are done up thigh-crushingly tight.
Cocooned within the raging ball of dust, I have to force myself to look away from the hypnotic effect of trees firing by like frames in a projector. Raised on ancient videos of Walter Rohrl’s dancing feet, I’d half expected to see Mikko’s grubby Adidas trainers in frantic action, but of course there is no longer any need for them to move about much when subtly modulating the throttle and brake; instead, the furious theatre now is all in the blur of his hands, as he simultaneously shifts, steers and works the shoulder-high handbrake.
Had only one activity been made my responsibility during our time together, I would have failed to complete it satisfactorily. Sharing a racing car with professional circuit drivers is almost always a lesson in how simple they make silly speeds look, but here, on the gravel and between the trees, the quality of the DS3’s acceleration is so other-worldly, and its relationship with the surface so fractious, that even Mikko doesn’t make it look easy. It looks like hard work.
Yet, incredibly, seductively, there is no fraught edge to the performance at all. You wouldn’t know it. The Finn is intensely busy and focused, but his voice, when it comes over the radio to warn me of the jump which definitely isn’t jump, might as well be telling me that he likes my trainers too.
Considering the sensory blitz and potential perilousness of filling Mikko’s co-drivers’ seat, the experience should at least be mildly alarming; but it just isn’t. His naturalness and preposterous talent make it a massive pleasure from start to finish, and I’m disappointed when we break the tape and stop for our time.
It’s taken Citroen’s number one (when you-know-who doesn’t show up) 2m52s to get us round. Everyone else I’d seen had been over the three-minute mark. Not bad, I suggest. “With doughnuts,” he replies.
Of course. There were three of them midway, weren’t there. Ridiculous. I chuckle. He grins.