Time to hit the road

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"Rally driving has been described as the closest you can get to being a hooligan on the road," says Carl Stevens (right), who took it up 10 years ago when a friend hired a rally car. "Yet it couldn't be more different to normal driving, and that is one of the things that attracts me to it," he reveals.

Certainly, the authorities would frown upon handbrake turns and deliberately skidding and sliding a car, but in rally driving, these manoeuvres are required skills.

"Racing on Tarmac against other cars rewards drivers who learn about a circuit until they know every corner and at which speed to approach it," says Stevens.

There are two main classes in rally driving: "Production", or "N", class; and "Modified", or "A", class. The former category contains cars of a showroom class whose performance is comparable to domestic road vehicles.

Top cars in this class can reach speeds of up to 120mph, with 0-60mph acceleration in around five seconds; while "Modified" cars (with additional engine and gearbox technology) have even greater power and acceleration.

When you consider that around four rallies take place every weekend in the UK, you begin to appreciate the popularity of this particular brand of motorsport. In addition to the scores of mechanics and support staff, a rally is an event that often sees a whole town turn out to watch competitors race through woodland courses and along domestic roads.

Rally drivers do not compete directly against one another, but everyone races against the clock. Competitors have to complete a series of stages, some along off-road trails and others across domestic highways (where drivers must observe conventional codes of driving).

Each car sets off around a minute before or after a competitor, so that if you see another car during an off-road stage, one of you is going too slowly or has crashed. The primary challenge is Mother Nature: uneven road surfaces, dirt, mud, rocks, gravel, ditches, fallen branches and - her trump card - rain.

"In comparison to other kinds of racing, I think that rally driving requires a little more skill," says Stevens. "You need to be able to read the road ahead of you and to react very quickly to changing conditions on the surface of the track.

"You have a co-driver who calls out the `tulips' [detailed directions that tell the driver when or what kind of turn/gate is approaching], so there's also a strong element of navigation to rally driving."

Since rolling his car in his first rally 10 years ago, Stevens has become highly successful. In addition to coming third overall in the 1994 Skoda Trophy and second in 1995, he also won the 1,300cc class in the 1997 British Championships.

When he's not racing, he teaches rally driving to enthusiasts at Silverstone Rally School.

"We basically try to make it a special day, as the people who come to the Rally School don't get the chance to do this kind of thing all the time."

Pupils are taught basic rally-driving skills, which include learning to slide the car using the handbrake.

"When you drive a car on the road, you steer it around a corner. On a loose, off-road surface, as soon as you turn the steering wheel you are losing grip. If you rely on the steering in your car to get through a corner in a rally, then your chances of success are about 1 in 10. Instead, you have to get the car going in a sideways motion, using its weight and momentum to slide through the gate."

This process of making the car go sideways and slinging the back end through with power is called "oversteering", and is just one of the skills that pupils are taught. The course is open to anyone over the age of 18 who wants to learn how to control a car that seems out of control.

"Most of my pupils are men, but I have to admit that females usually make better pupils because they're more open-minded," says Stevens. "There's still that macho image about driving for many guys. When you try to teach a certain technique, many of them think that they can do it better. Women don't seem to have that one-upmanship, so they seem to learn faster."

Perhaps next century we'll be seeing women as the primary driving force behind Britain's enviable track record in motorsport.

For more information, contact the RAC Motor Sports Association Ltd (01753 681736)

Alister Morgan

THREE PLACES TO LEARN RALLY DRIVING

Silverstone Park, Northamptonshire (01327 857413)

Courses costs pounds 225 per day (Tue, Thur, Sat) and include tuition in powerslides, handbreak turns, a coached drive through a purpose-built off-road track, and a full-speed ride (as a passenger) with an instructor.

Silverstone Rally School Ltd

Brands Hatch Racing School

Brands Hatch, Fawkham, Longfield, Kent (0990 125250)

Ranging from pounds 90 to pounds 285, courses last between 2hr and 3hr, and include detailed briefings, tuition in rally-driving techniques, and lessons in a powerful Ford Sierra Cosworth.

Bill Gwynne Rally School

Turweston Aerodrome, Westbury, Brackley, Northamptonshire (01280 705570)

Costing pounds 225 for a full day, pounds 125 for half a day, courses feature two demo laps on a loose-surface rally course. Full days include two sessions (each session comprises six laps) before and after lunch.

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