Woah!

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Traditional motor racing takes place on a man-made circuit where the winner is the first one amongst the bunched, hustling competitors to cross the line and see the chequered flag. In rallying, by contrast, drivers compete against the clock and the elements over a number of timed stages. There's no wheel-to-wheel dicing and no overtaking. The car with the least time penalties and the fastest time over every section will win the rally. But that's not to say it's not as, or more, exciting than circuit racing - for both spectators and participants.

Carl Stevens took up rally driving nine years ago when a friend hired a car. "The first time we raced we managed to roll the car," he says. "I got hooked on rallying and progressively moved up to bigger championships. I competed in the Skoda Trophy in 1994 (a one-make series) and came third overall before securing a manufacturer-supported drive on the RAC Rally. I bought the championship-winning car from 1994 and came second overall in 1995 Skoda Challenge."

After moving up to compete in the premier series of the British Open Championship, he won the 1300cc class and became the current British champion.

For a real test of his driving skills, Stevens agreed to compete in the Wyedean Forest Rally (a Qualifying Round of The British Trial & Rally Drivers Association Rally Series) accompanied by a novice with no driving experience as navigator... namely me.

There are five different classifications for cars in this rally: up to 1400cc, 1400cc-1600cc, 1600cc-2 litre and 2 litre and above. We were competing in a Skoda Felicia 1600cc (pictured).

This Group N2 car is not too dissimilar from the showroom version. It boasts compulsory rally modifications, including a roll cage, modified suspension and special tyres, but its engine and gearbox are stock standard.

We had eight forest stages to complete as quickly as possible but we were also required to drive on domestic "road sections" between stages.

As we begin the first forest stage, it's my job to warn the driver of every major turn and obstacle ahead. Racing away, I manage to mumble that there is a 90-degree left-hand turn ahead before Stevens skids the back end of the car in the opposite direction, powering down on the throttle and turning the corner with the car facing sideways. I cannot muster any more intelligent words for the next couple of minutes. I imagine that my face is a cross between a grimace and a maniacal grin while the singular thought of "woah" keeps running through my mind.

The adrenaline rush is incredible as we speed through woodland, power through narrow gates and skid through mud. Crowds cheer us along at various stages (those on corners back away nervously as we race through), while the road stages are lined with families waving at the rally cars.

By the final stages, I'm confident enough to give useful instructions and even give the crowds a wave or two. At the end of the day we've finished second in our N2 class (24th out of all Gold Star front-wheel-drive vehicles) and 63rd overall out of 170 competitors.

"Rally drivers have to be versatile," says Stevens. "Racing has become quite dependent on car technology but in rallying you're driving over a variety of surfaces. The skill is to drive quickly in all conditions. It's a once in a lifetime experience."

Carl Stevens is one of the instructors at the Silverstone Rally School (01327 857413). A full-day course costs pounds 220. You're taught how to handbrake turn and how to powerslide the car before driving on a purpose-built rally stage.

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