A Welsh Chorus
I asked for this. So, here I am. On a Welsh hillside in mid-November in relentless rain, because I dared to suggest that modern World Rally Cars are not exciting to watch.
That would have been alright had I not made this suggestion to Malcolm Wilson, whose M-Sport empire presides over the Ford world rally teams.
Well, I admit I was wrong. OK, it would have been nice to find this out somewhere warmer, but you open your mouth days before Rally GB and this is what you get. Wet feet, shivering extremities, and a ridiculous yearning for a mug of tea and a blanket.
Modern WRC cars are exciting. There, I’ve said it.
Madame Megane’s torquey turbodiesel has swept us up and over the mountains and now I am looking down into a valley where a Ford Focus is zapping along a muddy track at an impossible rate of knots. Perhaps most impressive is just how neatly these guys drive, how sharply they change direction with apparently no effect on the forward motion of the car. When I last saw rally cars they were constantly sideways, scrabbling for grip and looking like something must have broken. Now they point it, squirt it and they’re gone. It all sounds like speedway with a shooting party in the background, the noise bouncing off the sides of the valleys.
The commitment is breathtaking, the leaders visibly faster than those behind. At home you turn on a light to see your way in the dark though you know every step. These guys are flat out into blind corners, over crests. OK, they do recce the stages, but as Wilson explained it is the change in surface that’s hard to predict. “They’re on gravel set-up but there can be Tarmac, compacted mud, surfaces always changing. That’s tricky.” I saw what he said. The likes of Loeb, Latvala and Solberg are longer on the power shorter on the brakes. A tiny mistake can mean disaster.
Returning to Cardiff I was zapped, under braking for a roundabout at Merthyr Tydfil, by a Focus camouflaged as a mud pie. Quick flick left right, left and it was gone, bang, bang into the darkness. The clock is the enemy. To be late for service is not an option.
I’d been invited to shelter in the ‘oasis’, a watering hole provided by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. But this was Wales. What we needed was an ark. Next door Mick, the M-Sport chef, fed hungry mechanics before the evening service. What came out of the back of a truck was extraordinary. Roast lamb with mash and veg, pasta if you preferred, and apple crumble made by Di Hopkins, or Mum as she is known. No wonder this is such a happy team.
Having feasted, the mechanics waited for the cars to return, along 100 miles of public roads, from Hafren and Sweet Lamb. Latvala would need a new rear left corner, destroyed by a puncture. No problem. Lying in muddy puddles, they changed a clutch in three minutes, a gearbox in 15, and in half an hour a virtually new Focus was ready to return to baffle. Their labours were a joy to behold.
The fans in Cardiff, and there were many, were treated to a ‘live’ Q&A with Kimi Raikkonen. Those unfamiliar with Formula 1 were surprised by the brevity of the answers. Asked about the conditions, he said it was very slippery, and admitted that he was lifting where perhaps he didn’t need to. The Finn has been on a mountain of a learning curve.
On Sunday Loeb kept an inspired Peffer Solberg’s privately-run Citroen at bay despite the Norwegian’s adoring fans cheering him every metre of the way. Third was Latvala in the Ford, giving him runner-up slot in the championship. Loeb may have wondered what Solberg could’ve done in a factory car. Down in Wales, there was never any doubt about the championship. Meanwhile, in the ‘oasis’, the Fl title went to the wire under the Abu Dhabi lights.
A bedraggled banner proclaimed the joys of a visit to Wales. ‘Drop by, do stuff, leave happy’, it said. I did. All three, in fact.