Heard about Ypres?

“I am giving you your own column,” said a familiar voice on the telephone, “I want you to get out there, get under the skin of some events, see what’s going on.” The Editor had spoken. He whose word must be obeyed. So here we are, at the start of what I hope will be a fruitful journey. My constant companion, as I follow my nose through the world of motor racing, will be Madame Megane, a feisty French redhead, a bit of a looker, and a Dynamique Coupé to boot. I picked her up last month and she’s proving to be a satisfying companion.

So, where to start? It’s been a busy time, the highlight of which was a dip into the world that is the European rally championship, or rather the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. From here on in I refer to this series, for the sake of clarity, as the IRC. There was also the launch of a new circuit at Navarra in north-western Spain where Messrs Alonso, Pedrosa and Lorenzo have sent bull-fighting to the back pages. You can read about that in the news section.

I had not been to Ypres before, always driving past it en route to the Ardennes for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. Now I know what I was missing, thanks to the delightful folk at the Skoda rally team. For the citizens of Ypres, or Wipers as the Tommies called it in the Great War, rally time is party time. The service area fills the town square, the guttural rattle of rally transmissions bouncing off the cobbles as the drivers pause for breath in the shadow of the magnificent Cloth Hall. Every café table is taken, every bistro bursting with chattering fans, while mechanics do in 20 minutes what takes a main dealer most of a day.

Local hero Freddy Loix won the rally for the sixth time, with fellow Skoda driver Jan Kopecký second. The charming and underrated Loix was ecstatic, and rightly so, having emerged from retirement to join Skoda for part of this season. While fancied runners such as reigning champion Kris Meeke and IRC leader Juha Hänninen fell off the asphalt, Monsieur Loix used his talent and his local knowledge to show them how Ypres is won. How is that? According to the Belgian, it’s by getting the many 90-degree corners half-inch perfect and by missing the rocks on the apexes. The town went crazy when he held the trophy aloft. Yes, Belgians know how to party.

A fortnight later Freddy flew me up the Goodwood hill in his Fabia before plunging me into the forest stage at full tilt. Blimey, these guys are on a different planet. Strapped tightly alongside him, it felt like a dusty downhill slalom inside a whirling dustbin. How we missed the trees, I do not know. “How close to flat out was that?” I asked him. “About 70 to 80 per cent,” he grinned. Oh, I see. Heaven only knows what flat out involves. Jumping higher and landing harder, I guess.

Talking of Goodwood, Jenson Button drove Alain Prost’s McLaren MP4/2C, the car in which Le Professeur successfully defended his World Championship in 1986. In the back of this car, if you recall, was a turbocharged TAG-Porsche V6 delivering a mind-bending amount of horsepower. “I’d never driven a racing car with so much power, it’s incredible,” said Jenson after booting the McLaren to the top of the hill. “This was not one of the best days, but the best day of my life. Really.” What? Better than Sunday October 18, 2009 in the bars of São Paulo? Perhaps he was just calming down after guiding a Grand Prix car up a country lane with 1000 horsepower behind his back. A car set up for Prost, remember. Perhaps that was the joy.

This is ‘New Jenson’ speaking, a man who talks and walks as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Every time I saw him at the Festival of Speed he was smiling, looking like a man who has, at last, found what Our Nige used to call his ‘comfort zone’. I know not what Mansell meant, but I sense that New Jenson’s comfort zone involves a longed-for world title and a warm embrace from his new family at Woking.