Matt Butler: Idris Elba's rallying call that might even make us lay off the new year chocolates

View from the sofa: Idris Elba: King of Speed, BBC 2

It is hard to make, let alone keep, activity-based resolutions for the new year. It’s cold. It’s dark most of the time. You’re incapacitated by indulgence. And as far as televisual inspiration goes, aside from the gluttonous amount of football or the masochistic exercise that is the Ashes, there is nothing doing.

The former Olympic rower James Cracknell’s attempt to rekindle his bromance with Ben Fogle by bickering their way across a desert with camels in tow doesn’t count. Neither does the darts.

But just as you are about to give up and have another handful of comfort chocolates, up pops a gem that captures the essence of sport: Idris Elba: King of Speed. It was a show where the actor who is currently playing Nelson Mandela in cinemas reveals himself to be a massive petrol head. And one where he delighted in the idea that motor sport’s roots lie largely in illegality.

It avoided the feel of being a vanity project (take note, Fogle and Cracknell) by  actually teaching us things. Like the fact that the origins of Nascar, the wildly successful American racing formula, lay in whiskey bootlegging. Or that drifting, the art of sliding a car round a corner at high speed without spinning out, is a sport recognised by the international motor sport federation.

The first episode was spent with Elba looking into the roots of speed in the US. He spoke to ex-bootleggers, street racers and legitimate drag-race drivers and got to thrash about in a 1934 Ford V8 – the hooch deliverer’s choice of ride. It was entertaining stuff.

In the following evening’s episode Elba gave himself the goal of experiencing what he termed the pinnacle of motor sport: rallying. He wanted to drive a fiendishly difficult course in Finland and he spent the first 45 minutes of the show gearing up for that task, by throwing a hideously overpowered Mini Metro around a track, learning to corner at speed in a Japanese supercar and getting the gist of throttle control on a motocross bike.

Then he spent a weekend with Ari Vatanen, a Finnish former world rallying champion and bona fide legend of the sport. Vatanen, whose son Max is also a rally driver, was a no-nonsense mentor. After Elba rolled his machine – with Max in the co-driver’s seat – Ari gave him a pep talk: “You didn’t get to play Mandela overnight, so you won’t be a rally driver after one day.”

Vatanen Snr’s pithy nuggets of philosophy, added to lavish shots over the Finnish countrysidse and evocative piano music made for great television. And it was a fitting climax that a clearly relieved Elba stepped out of the car to give his take on why Finland has produced more rally champions per head than any other country: “They have no fear. They don’t look at rally driving as risking your life, they look at it as maximising it.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Ari, who summed up his life thus: “I have tried to maximise each corner in my life, braking very late – in real corners and symbolically. It means I make a lot of mistakes but I live a very intense and meaningful life.”

Words to make you want to get out and do something. Which, at this time of year, is a massive achievement.

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