Motoring: A star of stage and scream

Ever wondered what it must be like to go rallying? To feel the grit between your teeth at the wheel of a... Ford Ka?
FROM TOMORROW until Tuesday, forests, moors and the grounds of stately homes will echo to the blare and scrabble of the world's top rally cars as they rocket through the Rally of Great Britain. Whoever wins will possess almost other-worldly skills. How else do you describe the ability to hurtle along a narrow, loose-surfaced track, trees just feet away, far faster than most people drive on a motorway, and still get round the corners?

For mortals like most of us, people who panic as soon as a wheel slithers out of one-to-one road contact, it's an activity beyond comprehension. But it needn't be. Yes, you have to be a bit special to match Colin McRae, but I have discovered that it's possible to do a stage rally and still be alive at the end.

Not for me, though, a fire-spitting Mitsubishi Lancer Evo or Subaru Impreza Turbo. I went rallying in a Ford Ka, plucked from the Ford Racing Rally Ka Championship and entered in North Yorkshire's Trackrod Rally. Beside me was a top navigator, behind me a top team. All I had to do was drive, so I could relay to you what rallying is really like from behind the steering wheel. But first, I had to learn how to do it.

It's Friday afternoon, the day before the Trackrod. I'm at Chris Birkbeck Rallysport's rally school, to learn about loose surfaces and hone my handbrake turns. My rally Ka is ready, with its roll-cage, its stripped-out interior furnished with body-hugging seats, its reinforced and multi-adjustable suspension, its chunky-tread tyres and its 90bhp engine. That doesn't sound much, but it's still half as much again as the standard Ka, with an exhaust note to match.

Tutor Darren Wilcox and I are slithering round a series of loops set out among an old slagheap, and we're communicating through an intercom because there's so much noise. He likes my car control, which I expect would be nearly as terrific as being told by someone of another gender that I'm good in bed. More work is needed on my cornering lines, though. This theme will recur.

Now, about my navigator. Clive Jenkins navigates for three different rally drivers in three rally series, including last year's Ka Championship winner, Andrea Hall, in whose Escort they won the Formula Two class in this year's British Championship. Clive knows the stages we're driving today. Clive can call out the bends and hazards as they approach. I have to believe him.

It's Saturday. We're at the start of the first stage, a hilly, narrow tarmac track in Scarborough called Oliver's Mount. We have to go round it twice. Super-grippy race tyres have replaced the aggressive chunkies, and my task is simple. Go as fast as I possibly can. I am nervous - more so when I see how the Fiat Uno in front is failing to get a grip on the slippery up-ramp that starts the stage.

One minute later, it's our turn. The count goes down, my heart-rate goes up, we slither, we're off. We flash past a 30mph limit sign at well over twice that speed. Clive shouts at me to keep my foot right down even though I can't see beyond the crests and dips and curves, squeezing past the hapless Uno on its second lap. Then the hairpin, braking late, pitching the Ka into the corner to slide it round for the bend's exit.

Now it's a blur: right-left-right-brake-accelerate-trust-in-Clive.

Going hard back up the hill, I find second gear instead of fourth. The engine revs skyrocket, but there's no oily bang to end our rally already, so I mess up the hairpin instead. Still, I have overtaken another car on my very first stage. How did I do? "Not bad," Clive concedes, "but you were only using about 70 per cent of the available road." Those lines, you see.

And so to the forests. The first is called Staindale, 6.65 miles long, and there's a crucial difference between school and wide world. Yesterday, I knew where the bends were. Today, I'm doing them blind.

With tyres scrabbling and stones flying, the Ka is getting a hefty proportion of its power on to the ground and we're moving, fast. The revving of the engine and chattering of under-car debris make a cacophony that's merely a background to our acoustically insulated, intercommed world. It's remarkably like driving a Sega Rally video game except for one big difference: I can feel, with startling clarity, exactly what's going on.

What's going on is that the Ka's rally-optimised chassis balance causes the tail to flick outwards as soon as I decelerate, provided I've initiated the process with the super-sharp steering. This is how we get round seemingly gripless corners, steering into the slither if the tail gets too far out of line, and accelerating hard to pull the Ka straight. It's fantastic fun, but the secret is to keep it neat and the rear wheel out of the ditch. At one point that wheel is over the edge: "Keep it in, keep it in," insists Clive, referring to my accelerator foot. We finish the first forest stage. I'm elated, and surprised.

The next, Langdale, is 19.68 miles long and takes in some moorland. It's a long way to keep the concentration going, to focus, focus, focus. I'm thinking in shapes and feelings rather than words, but at times the focus is fuzzing with the out-of-bodiness of it all. That's why I make a hash of a hairpin's handbrake turn.

A faster car comes up behind, a powerful old rear-wheel-drive Escort. I let it past, and then I can't see for the dust. We're as fast in the corners with our light, nimble Ka, but haven't a hope on the straights. By the stage's end, my hands are blistered and I'm soaked in sweat.

Then it's another road section, and the final 2.83-mile forest stage, Harwood Dale, straight except for a devilish kink in the middle. Braking hard down the loose hill from 70mph or more, the Ka starts to weave and I wonder if, this time, I've pushed a novice's luck too far. Fortunately, it's weaving in the right direction as we enter the kink, but we're going too fast for the hairpin straight after. So it's up the bank, down again, more time lost.

Back at Oliver's Mount, we're faster than last time but I miss that gearchange again. And so to the finish in York, where I can scarcely believe that we've come 42nd in the Clubman's class out of 68 starters (and 47 finishers). The Ka is undamaged apart from a stone-dent on the bonnet, and we've even beaten a Mitsubishi Evo. Was Clive scared? "A few times. You were turning too late, and I was concerned about your lines. But you kept it on the road."

So you see, it's simple. Like any performer, all a rally driver has to do is learn his or her lines. Talent helps, though. That's why Colin McRae is a rally driver, and I'm not.