I’m still coming to terms with what happened at the weekend. Fortune smiled upon me and I was handed a last-minute invite to go for a passenger ride with Spain’s Dani Sordo in the WRC Mini Countryman at the Rally Show at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire. And as a result my mind has undergone a slight recalibration of what it’s possible to do with a car.
For those of you that haven’t had a passenger ride in a WRC car, it goes something like this. First, you sign a piece of paper blaming no one but yourself if everything goes wrong.
Next, you get kitted out in a set of overalls, balaclava and open-face helmet that will almost certainly make you look like a bit of a numpty.
After that, you’re strapped into a very expensive looking bucket seat, fixed to the hot, stripped-out, white-painted-metal interior of what was once a nice, friendly family car.
You’re tied in so tight that you won’t be able to move anything but your arms and feet, and sat so low that you’ll have to strain to see over the bonnet to the road ahead (co-drivers don’t need to see out; they are, in effect, a sort of cross between ballast and extremely accurate talking sat-nav).
Then, one of the team will plug your miked-up helmet into the car’s comms system so you can introduce yourself to your host for the next two minutes or so. In this case it was the aforementioned Mr Sordo, already in the car having just completed a run along Cornbury’s 1.2-mile all-Tarmac stage with another guest victim.
Rightly or wrongly, at this point, I felt no fear, but could barely contain my excitement and struggled to think of anything meaningful to say. Dani, in contrast, appeared almost catatonically relaxed.
So what’s the stage like, I wondered. “It’s okay,” said Dani, “but very short. You just start to enjoy yourself and then it’s over.”
There was then what sounded like a mechanically ruinous bang as Dani engaged first gear, and we moved forward to the stage’s start line.
Then all hell broke loose. Dani appeared to operate both the throttle and brakes as on-off switches, while punching up and down through the gears so quickly it was impossible to keep track of which one we were in. Acceleration came in furious, staccato bursts; braking had me straining against the six-point harness so hard that I’ve still got an injury to show for it.
But it was the relentless precision and accuracy with which Dani went about his business that blew me away.
At one point we were flat-out in third (or was it fourth?) approaching what looked like a solid wall of straw bales. Then, in a quarter of the time it will take you to read the rest of this sentence, a stamp on the brake, down two gears and a right-left-right on the wheel and we were through a chicane so tight I would have had to turn sideways to walk through it.
And all of a sudden it was over, like falling in a dream and suddenly waking up in bed wondering what just happened. Me, breathless and speechless, Dani looking like he’d just got back from Tesco.
The Countryman was, of course, jaw-droppingly impressive, doubly, perhaps trebly so given that only a few days before I’d driven to Wales in our soft and cuddly Countryman longtermer. The WRC Mini was, in complete contrast, angry, raw and loud.
If all you’re used to road cars, even supposedly quick ones, then the WRC Mini will redefine what fast feels like. It is a feat of some note to turn a car as unintimidating as a Mini Countryman into something so potentially terrifying. But what impressed me above all else was the talent of the man in the driver’s seat. Relatively speaking, this was a walk in the park for Dani, a no-pressure trundle with nothing to be gained or lost, but the slightly unnerving nonchalant aggression with which he attacked the stage left me speechless.
Incredible for me, but for Mini, just another cog in the gearbox of automotive marketing.
Given the team’s performance at its first outing in Sardinia, the Countryman’s foray into the WRC could prove to be a work of promotional genius.
And if nothing else, as a promotional tool for the WRC, my passenger ride has done at least one small bit of good. I’ve not had, until now, much more than a passing interest in the sport. Now I want more. When’s the next round? Argentina, at the end of May. Can’t wait. The World Rally Championship has got a new fan.