Modern rally driving

Alistair Weaver learns what modern rally driving is about with Finnish maestro Marcus Gronholm
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Indy Lifestyle Online

arcus Gronholm steps quietly into his office. He tugs at his racing harness, slips a helmet over his ears and takes a peek at his co-driver ... me.

For the next three-and-a-half miles, I'm to be given an insight into the extraordinary talent of the Finnish farmer who has twice been crowned World Rally Champion. Together, we'll be tackling a special rally stage driving the Ford Focus in which he recently won the Acropolis Rally.

There is a crackle on the intercom. "Are you OK?" he asks, in a thick, Finnish accent. And I am, sort of. The co-driver's seat is set low in the chassis to optimise the centre of gravity. I'm 6ft 4in tall, but only by peeping over the top of the dashboard can I see where we're going.

I don't envy Timo Rautiainen, Gronholm's normal co-driver. To sit in this seat at 130mph on a forest track while reading instructions, must require incredible concentration and balls the size of watermelons.

I snatch a moment to drink in my surroundings. The cabin is neat and businesslike. A bespoke control module is situated on the transmission tunnel, within reach of driver and co-driver. It controls all the car's electronic functions, from the indicators to the ultra-complex centre differential. There are also a couple of buttons in my footwell, including the horn.

"We disconnected it," says a friendly mechanic. "People tend to kick it when they're not used to the car."

Marketing boffins will claim that the rally car shares its genealogy with the Focus ST road car, but only a handful of parts, such as the door handle, are shared. The ST employs a 225bhp, 2.5-litre turbo engine, whereas the rally car employs a 2.0-litre turbo that's limited to 300bhp. In a straight line, it's not particularly rapid - a Porsche 911 has more power - but it's the nature of the power-delivery that's the key to a rally car's success. No road car is so responsive.

Gronholm has adopted a familiar, rally-driver pose: arms bent, hands at a-quarter-to-three, eyes staring dead ahead. He gives the throttle a determined prod and we're away. The stage, close to the Ford's team's Cumbrian headquarters, winds its way through a forest before traversing a hillside. Giant ruts carved into the gravel are ready to punish the careless. It is, reckons Gronholm, more like Greece than England.

There are no pace notes for me to read, so I try to concentrate on his technique. He looks astonishingly relaxed and there's an economy of movement. To change gear, for example, he simply flicks a paddle-switch on the steering wheel. The Focus's hydraulic system then chooses the next ratio in only 50 milliseconds (0.05sec). The steering is more direct than a road car's, so his inputs are modest and measured.

With comparatively little power, conservation of momentum is everything. The spectacular, sideways driving styles of yesteryear don't suit the modern machines. "If you slide you lose time and you might miss the next corner," he says. "The technique is a bit like slalom skiing - click ... click ... click. That's the feeling."

On such rough terrain, you'd expect a physical pounding, but the Focus feels astonishingly smooth. Not since I drove Mitsubishi's Dakar Rally-winning Pajero Evolution have I experienced such extraordinary comfort from something so focused. We crest a brow and jump for what feels like 15ft, but the landing is a soft glide.

Rally drivers use a left-foot braking technique to help them control the car in a corner, and Gronholm's feet are dancing on the pedals. "I play with the brake and throttle all the time - parp, parp, parp," he says. "I'm not conscious of it; it's something I do naturally."

Natural is an appropriate word to describe Marcus Gronholm. I'd expected this experience to feel frightening, but it doesn't. Not even slightly. I'm in the company of a man who's so on top of his game that my only reaction is to sit back and admire. So what if we're flashing past trees at 100mph? - I have total confidence in my driver.

Gronholm hits the brake and we cruise gracefully back into the service area. We clamber out and I ask him the question I've wanted to ask all day. Last year, the British co-driver, Michael "Beef" Park, was tragically killed in the Wales Rally GB. Gronholm is a 38-year-old father-of-three; isn't driving through a forest at 100mph crazy?

"Sometimes it comes into my mind what happened to Beef. What happened was terrible. We were in the same team and we were good friends. It was bad, really bad. Sometimes I think this is a crazy sport, but I enjoy it. It's still the most fun you can have with your trousers on."

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