Rally drivers have a credo. It goes: "If you are looking out of the front window, you are not going fast enough. If you are driving looking where you are going out of the side window, you are about right. And if you are looking out of the back window, you have gone too fast...
I am clearly not going fast enough. Looking out of the side window at this embryonic stage in my rally career would end in instant metal-crunching mayhem. My eyes are boring two holes in the windscreen, they are focused so hard on the wet bar of soap that is the forest track ahead.
Like the devil at the entrance to Hades, walls of pine trees try to lure me from the safety of the logging road and into their crushing embrace. The trees are in cahoots with the road surface. It has a wicked sense of humour, tempting me to make a hairy-chested power slide then ejecting me and my rally car, nightclub bouncer-style, towards the fearsome forest.
Intuition says brake. My instructor, the former Brit-ish rally champion David Higgins, says not. "Power, power," he commands. Bypassing my brain and balls, his instructions connect directly to my right foot, and the old Ford Escort grabs the gravel by the throat and wins the battle. "Well done," Higgins says.
Every corner completed on four wheels is a bonus for Higgins. The first three students he taught all rolled the car. Another was so scared he lifted off the throttle mid-corner (effect-ively throwing the car at the trees), and another was so gripped by fear he let go of the steering wheel.
"It [instructing] is more scary than driving right on the edge trying to win a rally," says Higgins, a contemporary of Britain's two world champions, Colin McRae and Richard Burns. Higgins's own chances of a world title are diminishing, so his focus is now partly on finding the next generation of world champions. His family runs the Forest Experience Rally School near Carno in Mid-Wales.
"We had one 13-year-old through here recently who was phenomenal," he says as we pull up in a clearing high in the Cambrian Mountains in Powys. Fog fills the valleys below but up here we are in rally heaven, where mud and ruts and gravel are a religion. "Mind you, I started in a rally car aged seven," he adds.
My nine-year-old son, Jack, is watching my lesson from the outside of a sharp hairpin. I am tempted to stop, hand helmet and gloves to him and set him on the slippery road to stardom. Except I am having too much fun.
"The Playstation generation are the future," Higgins says. "But playing Colin McRae Rally and driving a rally car is not exactly the same."
So I am discovering. On a video game there is no rat-a-tat-tat of stones pelting your bottom through the seat. Nor the jarring of a steering wheel rotating wildly in your hands. And certainly not the sensation of re-enacting elements of The Italian Job on a dirt road in the middle of an earthquake. But, most signif- icantly, there is no fear.
"Fear is important," says Higgins. "It's like nerves on the stage or in exams. Controlled, they help you perform better."
You don't need to try driving a rally car to get a kick from the sport. After the sanitised world of Formula One, where spectators are kept hundreds of feet away from the action, rallying is the last remaining motorsport where the fan gets as big an adrenalin rush as the driver. Even the car you drive to watch a rally probably looks a bit like the ones competing.
Hurtling sideways, wheels spinning frenetically, bumpers kissing tree bark, a driver such as Mat-thew Wilson - tipped to be Britain's next Colin McRae - can slip his Ford Focus through a gap not much wider than a garage door.
"I love going out in the forests to watch rallying; the sound, the buzz, the atmosphere, is electric," says Wilson, a 19-year-old whose pedigree is Crufts quality. His dad, Malcolm, is a former British rally champion, and Matthew was taught to drive by one of the world's greats, the 1981 world champion, Ari Vatanen, in a car identical to the one in which I have been learning.
"The dedication of the fans is amazing," he says. Amazingly masochistic, more like. Days before my visit to Carno, I am out spectating with Wilson's team on the event every young driver wants to enter: the Wales Rally GB (formerly the RAC Rally, and Britain's only round of the World Championship).
It is nine o'clock, and dawn is still breaking. It is so cold the chorus of birds have upped sticks and headed to Africa for their winter hols. It is so damp my bones ache. Life as a "bobble hatter" - insider terminology for the sartorially-challenged rally fans - on a Welsh mountain awaiting the charge of rally cars seems a questionable pleasure.
"You should have been here overnight," says the bloke standing next to me. I am not sure if that is a suggestion or challenge. "It was great. Big party. Late to my tent and up again an hour or two ago for a mug of coffee and a bacon sarnie. Life doesn't get much better."
His eulogy is interrupted by the thunderous arrival, stage right, of a £500,000 Focus spitting flames. It is the rally leader and double world champion Marcus Gronholm. He is from Finland, where the weather means rallying is not just a sport but also the daily commute for many. Little wonder Finns win the world championship more often than any other nationality.
We are midway through Epynt, one of the most challenging stages of the Wales Rally GB. Gronholm is charging in excess of 110mph. Seconds later, as we stand at the entry to a tight right-hander, he brakes so hard that the Ford's brakes glow red before it swings like a pendulum through the corner, helped on its way by a handbrake turn.
All this happens at just an arm's length away. You do not just watch a rally, you feel it. The thunder of the 300 horsepower engines makes your chest cavity vibrate like a drum. Stand too close and the gravel peppers you, but stand too far away and you cannot peer inside the cockpit and see the masters at work, dancing on the pedals and performing a rock drummer's solo with the steering wheel. I try and picture this when I am behind the wheel a few days later. Sadly without the same effect.
Drivers need fans. If they roll their cars (and they do, regularly), there are not always marshals on hand to right the car. The spectators are the AA of the forests. "I've put many a driver back in the rally," one fan tells me."Not just here but all over the world."
Because the most die-hard British spectators don't wait for their home event; they follow their heroes on a world tour with 14 venues, from Argentina to New Zealand. Now, just as Formula One fans are ushered to Monaco or Monza, British tour operators are running rally holidays. And it's not all about watching either: rallytravel.com offer a holiday to the Swedish Rally that also allows a taste of rally driving on ice.
"You should try that," suggests Higgins after my lesson is over. We have escaped the clutches of the pine trees, but more by luck than judgement. "Driving on ice is amazing, and there is much less to hit than in the Welsh forests..."
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HOW TO GET THERE:
Packages to 2007 World Rally Championship events are offered by rallytravel. com. Six nights' self-catering to include Rally Sweden (9-11 February) starts from £156 per person, including behind-the-scenes access to the teams; for an extra £140 you can experience rally driving on ice yourself.
Jeremy Hart stayed at the St. David's Hotel and Spa (thestdavidshotel.com) in Cardiff. Half-day courses at Forest Experience Rally School (forestrally.com) from £180. For more on other holidays in Wales: visitwales.comReuse content