The most fun you can have in a car


I know that 50 is some age to be having an epiphany in this business, but what the hell – I was always a late developer.

I’m guessing most people reading this have driven around a few tracks in their time, and we all have our favourites. I’d like to say mine is the Nürburgring because that’s the thing to say: it marks you out as a tough guy and a real talent, a serious racing driver. But the truth is that despite all the laps I’ve done there both in and out of competition, my overwhelming emotion at the end is one of relief at man and machine still being in an orthodox number of pieces, which isn’t really enough to earn my affection.

Oddly, I don’t feel that way about either Goodwood or Le Mans, which in reality are probably equally hazardous, and it would a toss up between those two and Spa as my favourite place to drive fast.

Until last week. Last week I went to a motor sport facility where there is not 2.4 miles of track like Goodwood, nor the 8.5 miles offered by Le Mans. It’s a place where even the 12.9 miles of the Nürburgring’s northern loop looks pretty restricted. Here you have over 20 miles at your disposal and you don’t even have to cross the channel to get there.

The place is the Sweet Lamb Rally Complex in mid-Wales.

Rallying. While I always get excited by what I still call the RAC Rally (but which I understand should now be referred to as Wales Rally GB) because it’s the premier event of its kind held on British soil, the sport has never otherwise managed to hold my attention. But then again, I’d no experience of it: you don’t need to be a racing driver to be interested in motor racing, but I’ll bet plenty that you’re more likely to be interested if you’ve at least done a track day and know what it feels like to control a car on the limit of its adhesion. Because then you can look at Lewis in the rain in Texas and know that all he’s doing is what you’ve already done, albeit it at a rather different level and to perhaps a somewhat higher standard. But the principle at least is the same.

Now, I have driven a couple of rally cars before but only in very controlled environments and never for long enough to get any kind of feel for the discipline. By contrast at Sweet Lamb I drove as fast as I safely could for as long as I wanted and was nothing less than stunned by the experience.

From the archive: Tony Jardine explains how to make a start in rallying (2012)

For the purposes of the point I’m trying to make, the cars I was driving are unimportant. What matters is that once I got some kind of understanding of how to drive on the loose, I found myself having more fun than I can recall having on any track outside of actual racing. I love the sheer exuberance of it, and the fact that when you’re in fourth gear with full opposite lock dialled in, that’s not the time to start wondering if you’d rather crash head on or go in backwards, it’s time to keep your foot in and ride out the slide. And the beauty is it all seems so controllable because ultimately there is so little grip even on purpose built gravel tyres, you’re just not cornering that hard.

Of course, driving on the loose is just one of many disciplines in which whatever you’ve learned reveals most how much more there is to learn, but as classrooms go, you’ll find none better than this. I loved also the complete absence of any kind of rigmarole. You drive through a farm gate, get shown around and are then left to get on with it. And while Sweet Lamb will charge different amounts depending on whether you are a private individual, a corporate entity or a WRC team, compared to the cost of circuit hire, it is astonishingly affordable. As, I am sure, are other rallying facilities dotted about the country about which I know shamefully little.

What I do know is that I’m going to spend more time doing this because my day at Sweetlamb made me feel today as I did 30 years ago when I first drove fast around a race track: like whole new horizons of driving pleasure had opened up to me. I don’t know how, where or in what, but it need be neither fast nor expensive, just rear-wheel drive and expendable. An elderly BMW 318i would be perfect. For now at least.

In the meantime, when Wales Rally GB kicks off little more than two weeks from now, I will be able to view it with a perspective I’ve not had before, that of someone who, even at a footling level, has experienced what it is like to drive on those surfaces. It will bring a whole new insight into what is being done in those cockpits and, I have no doubt, a whole new sense of awe for those God-given talents doing it.

All photos courtesy of Sweet Lamb

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