Riding the RS express

Thirty years after it burst onto the scene, Ford’s Sierra RS Cosworth remains one of the most thrilling tin-top racers of all time

It’s July 1988 and I’m at Brands Hatch, waiting impatiently between Druids and Graham Hill Bend for the manic pack of RS500 Cosworths, E30 M3s and assorted Class C and D flotsam and jetsam to come hooning down the hill for the first time.

When they do it’s Andy Rouse and Steve Soper who are duking it out at the head of the field, Rouse’s pale blue and white Kaliber-sponsored Cosworth leading the mean-looking black and day-glo orange Texaco-liveried Eggenberger RS500 apparently attached to the former’s rear bumper. Their battle would prove to be one of the defining highlights of a golden era.  

It’s March 2017 and I’m in the Goodwood assembly area, standing next to a black and day-glo orange RS500 Cosworth. The light is fading and a cold wind whips across the Westhampnett airfield as the 75th Members’ Meeting builds to its crescendo: the Surtees Trophy for big-banger Group 7 Can-Am cars. The plan is for me to have a few precious laps once the racing has ceased, but a red flag in the Weslake Cup race means delays that might shatter my dream of experiencing one of the late Rüdi Eggenberger’s iconic Group A projectiles.

The shrill blast of a marshal’s whistle pierces the silence. He’s pointing at me, gesturing to get my crash helmet on, get in the Cosworth and fire it up. Karsten, the nice man from Ford of Europe’s Classic Collection, is nowhere to be seen. The marshal blows his whistle again, waving with more urgency this time. Apparently, if I take it steady past the crew repairing the earth bank and tyre wall after Fordwater the Clerk of the Course is happy for me to have my laps a bit earlier than originally intended.

While editor Trott dashes off to find Karsten, I climb in, desperate not to let the opportunity slip through my fingers. The RS500 fits me like a glove, which is just as well, for the seat is fixed and we have no bits of foam padding to push me closer to the wheel and pedals. 

This is a proper Touring Car. No fancy carbon fibre, no dazzling multi-coloured shift lights or myriad switches. Just brittle Eighties-spec showroom standard Ford plastics for the dashboard and door cards, the latter with diagonal slices removed to allow room for the door to close against the roll cage. There’s just one instrument set within the red anodised binnacle – an analogue white-on-black tacho – with a basic LCD display to its left. A suitcase-sized Bosch management system occupies most of the passenger footwell.

The car smells just like an old racing car should. That’s to say a blend of stale sweat, fuel and tyre rubber. Sounds nasty, but if you could bottle it I’d buy it. By now Karsten is crouched at the open driver’s door giving me the shortest of pre-flight briefings. Then it’s a case of flicking down the ignition toggle, pressing the small black starter button and waiting for the famous 2.0-litre turbocharged engine to spin into life.

When it does the cockpit pulses with tingles and distant resonances. I give the throttle a firm squeeze and the side-exit exhaust emits that unmistakable spooly blare and cackle as the revs rise and fall. The clutch is weighty, but not too sharp. The gearlever feels heavily sprung in its H-pattern gate, but a dry run up and down the ’box reveals a solid, strong and precise shift. 

Pulling the lever towards me and back, I slot it into dog-leg first, feed in the power and pull away. At low revs the engine feels half-asleep, becalmed in a low compression lull, but as the revs build so does the boost. Aware the slicks are stone-cold I short-shift to second to take the sting out of the spike in power. There’s another lull until the boost builds again and the motor – good for more than 500bhp in sprint race trim – gets on top of the gear, shoving us towards Madgwick with a proper wallop.

It takes three more upshifts for me to know I love this car. It just feels so right, so purposeful, so exciting. I’d give anything to get to know it properly, but these laps are more than most people have ever had in this touring car hero, so you won’t hear me complaining. 

What these few laps do tell me is that the RS500 feels as if it would be a transparent and intuitive car to hustle. One with which you’d form a quick, close bond. One you’d trust and one you’d relish pushing to its limits. A car you could race as hard as the tyres and your talent would allow. 

A few days after my Goodwood drive I call Rouse and Soper – the main protagonists in that battle at Brands Hatch in 1988 – in the hope they’ll share some point-blank insight into what it took to wring the best out of the car. I’m pleased to say that, much like the RS500, they didn’t disappoint…   

Dickie Meaden Can you remember the time you both first drove the car and what your thoughts were compared to the earlier touring cars you might have driven?

Steve Soper Both Andy and I were racing those Merkurs [US-badged Sierras]. They were okay. They were competitive-ish compared to what was around – Rovers, BMW 635s – and then the Cosworth came along and was better all round. It wasn’t night and day, it was just better and quicker on the stopwatch. 

Andy Rouse The Merkur was just a stop-gap really until we got the suspension sorted out and everything. We didn’t expect to do that well with it, but we ended up winning the 1985 touring car championship. That car had a few tweaky bits on the engine. We had about 330bhp and a lot of torque, where the Rover had only about 310. 

When the Ford Cosworth turbo came along the power only went up to about 360, but we then had better bodywork and a better rear spoiler and generally a handier car, with a bigger intercooler and everything. That was the next step, and then we got to the RS500, which was obviously a major step forward. We went to 480 horsepower straight away and ended up with about 520 for sprint racing.

SS I think we were on 495 for long-distance racing. Then there are the variations between a Swiss dyno and an English dyno. I don’t think there was a great deal between them. At Thruxton I would have said both cars were very similar, but at Brands Hatch I felt Andy had a slightly better engine. At Donington I thought they were much the same, but at Brands I thought either Rüdi had put a poor one in or you had a good one. There seemed a bit of difference at Brands.

AR I think that was more to do with our better traction than the engine, to be honest, but we had quite a good engine there.

DM They must have been pretty wild at Thruxton. Thinking about just the feeling I got at Goodwood, which is fairly similar in character to Thruxton, did you have to hang on a bit?

SS I don’t think so.

AR I don’t remember it being particularly scary at Thruxton. Once you got on the power and got it balanced under your right foot, it was quite easy.

SS There might have been a bit of movement and a bit of a wobble through Church over the bump, but it didn’t feel hairy or lethal. All I remember is always waiting before I could get on the throttle. You’re only waiting because of the grip you’ve got through the corner and what’s going on, but I wasn’t aware that it was hairy or anything.

AR One of the interesting circuits was Bathurst; it was pretty awful at Bathurst. We were doing 185mph on the straight every lap. There’s no run-off area there and it’s quite a narrow track. 

SS It was seriously quick at Bathurst, and it felt quick at the end of the straight. When you’d tried to stop it, it did feel a bit ‘Oh s***, it’s going a bit faster than we think’.

AR It picked up speed at Bathurst. You’ve got that blind brow in the straight; we were up to full speed by the time we got to the brow and we had to stay in the middle of the road or we’d end up in the ditch. It was more or less trying to take off.

DM What are the other memorable circuits you raced at? Steve, did you race at the original Brno road course?

SS Yeah, but the old Brno I did in the Merkur, not the Cosworth. The new Brno is a nice track as well. It wasn’t a stupid, man-made circuit. We did the Nürburgring 24 Hours in the car and won it in ’87. It was hairy around there because the thing was airborne quite a bit. I think the hairiest the car ever felt was around the Nordschleife.

DM Did you race one at Fuji?

AR Yeah, we raced at Fuji in the World Touring Car Championship. Again, we were doing 185 on that pit straight which was slightly down hill.

SS They are quick cars. What did you think of it when you drove it, Dickie?

DM I loved it. It was right at the end of the day, a bit chilly, getting dark and it was all a bit of a rush. I had no time to think about it, then it was just an out lap and an in lap. But as soon as I got in it felt comfortable with a nice, precise gearbox. Although it feels quite laggy compared to modern stuff, once you’re on the throttle and the car is boosting, when you actually get to drive it you could sense it would have really drawn you in and felt like a proper racing car, but in that touring car sense, still related to a road car.

SS Bear in mind that 1987 is 30 years ago.
I was surprised how good the car still felt – competitive, easy, nice to drive. I thought it was going to drive like an MoT failure! You get into some of these old cars and your memories distort. If you get into a Rover SD1, which is only two or three years older than the Ford, it feels vintage.

DM That was the surprise, I guess, although obviously it’s an analogue car with no ABS or traction control and a manual gearbox, but actually the car did feel quite precise in a modern way. 

SS I found out afterwards that the car you drove at the weekend has been in Ford’s heritage museum for 29 years and does some demonstrations, but it’s had nothing done to it in that time apart from a set of tyres. So all the calipers, all the slave cylinders, everything is the same. The brakes are the same, the pads are the same. They’ve changed the oil, and that’s it. Which is a bit frightening! 

AR The fuel line will be a bit crusty under the bonnet, I should think!

DM Andy, when did you last drive one? Was it in period, or have you had any return to driving it?

AR I haven’t driven one in anger since, that’s for sure. I haven’t driven one for a long time. I think I can still remember how to drive it. When you watch a video on YouTube it all comes back.

SS It’s funny, I got into this car and it had a display on it and it was showing me water pressure, oil temperature or fuel pressure or something I didn’t want to know. I wanted to know how hot it was in the assembly area. I went straight for the knob to get the water temperature up and I got the knob first time and I turned it two clicks and it came up. I was amazed my brain could remember that. I didn’t even have to think about it, I just went click-click and the water temperature was up on the display. Funny, how you remember certain things but not other things.

DM Were the cars pretty robust? 

SS Our cars didn’t break down with the things that you’d imagine. You’d either have an accident or something silly would go wrong. They were pretty robust. 

AR They were reliable once we’d got all the little problems sorted out. If you ran it with lots of horsepower, the thing you had to worry about was the head gasket, really, which Dick Johnson found out a few times. But apart from that, it was quite a strong car.

SS We were never told to drive at about 80 or 90 per cent. We were just told to go out and win. We were told not to scratch it or over-rev it, but you could do anything else.

AR I did the Spa 24 Hours with Win
Percy. The thing that worried us was the fuel dilution into the oil over the period of the race. So we devised a way of changing the oil in the pit stop, just as fast as we could refuel the
car and change the wheels. We made a connection on the front for quick connection, sucked the oil out with a pump that was already in the sump and then heated up the
oil to go back in. We had a pressurised container that was pumped up and we plugged that on the front and it shot the right amount of oil into the engine. We didn’t even have to pull the dipstick out!

DM I think that’s the beauty of Group A regulations. The cars seem very versatile in that they go from a national-level sprint race through to semi-endurance races right the way through to 24 hours.

SS That was the clever bit. Whether you were in Japan, Europe, the BTCC or Italy, the regulations were the same. There was far more scope for everybody to buy and sell cars. You must have sold a lot of Sierras, Andy?

AR Yeah we did. In three or four years we built about 30 cars and more than 100 engines.

SS In my opinion that was the way to go, with united regulations.

AR It gave you a bit of freedom as well to customise your car to suit you, a good set of rules. The homologation specials were the weakness. The Sierra Cosworth and BMW M3 were racing specials and not every manufacturer was prepared to do that. That’s why we moved on to Super Touring.

DM I think that’s why everyone just loves the Group A era. 

SS I’m sure Andy and I are biased because we’re from that time, but they were proper touring cars that had a lot of horsepower and not a lot of grip, so all the racing was good and spectacular. And there were lots of good cars and drivers.

AR I think the great thing about the RS500 was that it was a fast car that looked and sounded fast.

If you stood on the outside of the track and watched one go by, it made an impression on you because it sounded powerful and it looked a bit wild, which modern cars don’t.

DM Did you have to develop a specialised set of skills to be a touring car driver, because you had to be sympathetic?

SS No, I don’t agree with anything like that. Andy could get into any car and be competitive and I think I’m the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Ford Mexico on s****y horrible little tyres, or if it’s a Group A Sierra Cosworth or
Rover or a sports car. I don’t feel we had to think about or put a big effort into driving a Sierra Cosworth. 

AR I think you needed more skills for Super Touring, or different skills anyway, because you had to be a front-wheel-drive specialist. I found it really difficult to step over from an RS500 into a front- drive Toyota.

SS You still won races.

AR I did, but front-wheel drive didn’t inspire me in the same way. 

SS I started in front-wheel drive with Minis, Metros and Fiestas and won in all of those. It doesn’t matter what I drove, I treated them all exactly the same. It’s only when it all starts going wrong and you’re having an accident that you have to engage a different mode.

But in and out of a corner, I drive a Mini or a Fiesta exactly the same. The braking points might be a bit different, but as soon as I’ve got it turned in, I want to be getting on the throttle. That’s never changed whether it’s a Sierra Cosworth or a Mini. Fortunately it seems to come naturally. 

AR Yeah, getting the finer points sorted out is the trickier bit. The Mexico looks like a pretty easy car to drive, but there was a real technique involved in making it go fast. 

SS It’s how quickly you adapt and how hard it is for you to adapt. The people who have to go round and round and round to understand it aren’t as natural. Remember when Formula 1 drivers also used to drive touring cars? Ronnie Peterson, Niki Lauda or Jim Clark could get in anything and drive it. 

AR They did it on the same day, too. 

SS I certainly don’t compare myself with Jim Clark, but I don’t have to think very hard about whatever I get into. 

DM You’re both clearly very fond of the Cosworth as part of your careers.

SS It was very competitive and the teams were friendly. If someone was in trouble, people would help each other. It was just a good time to be racing.

AR One of the high points in the BTCC was the British Grand Prix support race in about ’88. There were 19 RS500s on the grid! That shows you what a great car it was and how versatile it was, in that so many different people could run it and race it.

SS Back then they always put that race on last because it would keep the crowd there after the Grand Prix. If you’re like me, 20 laps before the end of a Grand Prix I’m in my car to miss the traffic, whereas back then everyone would stay to the bitter end because they knew the saloon car race was the last race of the day.

AR And it was going to be the best race!

SS One quick story, I don’t know if Andy has heard this. Our car ran a Bosch Motronic management system and, for my first few races in the Cosworth, every time we turned up Klaus Ludwig would outqualify me, which was a real irritation because in all the testing and in all the races I was normally as quick if not quicker.

Then we turned up at Silverstone and I was convinced that I’d have pole there but he did it again.. A little bit later on, everyone was having dinner and I walked into the pits and he was the only one there and he was in the boot of his car. I walked up behind him and he jumped through his skin.

I said ‘What are you doing?’ and he replied, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but go and disconnect your battery. Just disconnect it for two or three seconds and basically the Bosch Motronic would briefly lose its memory and on about the second or third lap would overboost before it had reset itself properly! We weren’t allowed adjustable boost or anything. From that moment on Klaus never outqualified me…

AR There was a subtle difference between our cars, Steve, which was in the rear suspension. You probably don’t know this, but your cars used to have the spring on the damper behind the axle, which was the way Ford had designed it and that’s what Eggenberger used. But we used to run the rear end of the car with the spring in the original position, between the wishbone and the chassis, not on the damper, so it was forward of the axle. The effect of that was your car had anti-squat on the rear and our car had squat.

SS So you had more traction?

AR Some people thought we had more power, but we actually had more traction, which made the difference at the end of the straight. We did that from the start. We tried it Eggenberger’s way at first, but found from testing that our way was better, so we used to make special wishbones. I don’t know whether Rüdi ever knew that.

SS I think he knew, but you could never tell him anything. 

AR He had to do what Ford said, didn’t he?

SS He was fairly arrogant. It was his way or the highway. Even when we got chucked out of Bathurst, he could have dropped the wheel-arches by 5cm – they’re only glued on – but he just wouldn’t drop them. He said the car had been passed in every other country, why should he drop them for the Australians? That was his way, and six months later they chucked us out after winning Bathurst.

DM Andy, could you have adjustable boost?

AR Yeah we had adjustable boost. You wouldn’t know where it was, but… 

SS Was it allowed back then? 

AR Sort of, yeah.

DM Would you be able to adjust that during the race, or would it just be for qualifying?

AR I think it was done via the heater blower knob or something. 

SS How long could you run it turned up? A couple of laps?

AR We’d turn it up for the whole of qualifying, but not in the race – well, maybe a lap or two if required. It didn’t make a massive difference; it was 15-20bhp at most, I suppose. But we had so much power anyway that we couldn’t use it all.