I’ve had a go at various things over the years from 12 car rallies to saloon car racing, but now I’m fortunate enough to be rallying again in the car I’ve always coveted most, a Group 4 Mk2 Escort.
In January, co-driver Dave Jones and I tackled the MGJ Brands Hatch Winter Stages, a one day, single venue, tarmac event. Single venue events are more affordable than two or three day rallies and unlike gravel, sealed surface doesn’t subject a car’s body shell to premature death by extreme shot blasting.
When the day dawned, I’d barely finished a refurb on the Mk2 that took most of last year and a lot of hard graft. Part of that included raising the power of the 2.0-litre JRE Vauxhall C20XE engine from 261bhp to engine builder JRE’s ‘ultimate spec’ of 291bhp.
Why a Vauxhall engine in a Classic Ford? The ‘Red Top’ is a favourite with Escort rally drivers these days due to its power, strength and reliability, and like the original Ford BDA, the cylinder head was designed by Cosworth. It’s a beast of a thing, revving to 9,000rpm with a spine tingling, howling, soundtrack and ballistic response.
The other departure from standard in the name of outright performance, is the gearbox. Attached to the Red Top is a Drenth six-speed sequential motorsport ‘box, hugely strong with millisecond-quick, full-power, ‘flat’ shifting.
Stopping power is down to the AP racing brakes with four-pot calipers on the front which seem to stop the Mk2 from any speed without ever fading. The whole package tips the scales at around 900kg, so by road car standards, performance and agility are absolutely off the scale.
We had a good shakedown run at Brands in some patchy, icy and wet conditions, the first event for a while and one I was glad to finish without too much mechanical drama. We slithered to 23rd overall from a field of 68 which included some 2.5-litre, 330bhp Escorts, as well as WRC, turbo and four-wheel-drive cars in the higher classes.
Frustratingly, we narrowly missed out on a top 20 finish after getting stuck on the final stage behind a stalled car for 40 seconds. But that, as they say, is rallying.
The next job is to test some 15-inch wheels (up from 13), the advantage being bigger contact patches and more grip and I also need to plug the laptop in and tinker with gearbox calibration to smooth the flat-shifting a little more.
I still have to decide what the next event will be but hopefully there’ll be time to squeeze in a test session and experiment with suspension settings in search of the elusive ‘perfect setup’.
After all, that’s part of the fun too.