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Rally driving in Corsica with Kris Meeke
People will tell you that they love speed. That they love the exhilaration and intensity and heightened state of being. Then they will be presented with a Corsican road. A road no wider than a book shelf, that’s pressed halfway up a cliff face. And then they will slow down. This is where daydreams are bludgeoned by the very real chance of breaching a low wall and barelling into oblivion. Speed in Corsica is for other people. It’s for professional drivers. And, rather alarmingly, me.
I’m about to experience the co-driver’s seat on a Corsican rally stage. A marginally frightening opportunity we’ve been given by Top Gear’s favourite rallyist, Kris Meeke; 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge Champion, two-time James May botherer, and the only man to drive a £150,000 Bentley Continental GT Speed on a proper World Rally Championship stage.
He’s out at the European Rally Championship driving a Peugeot 208 R2 course car. The little Pugs are effectively a £31.6k entry-level rally racer in a box - they’re FIA approved, and come in kit form, though you can give Pug another £16k and they’ll build it for you. And while there’s only a baby 1.6-litre four-pot engine producing a relatively humble 185hp and 140 lb ft of torque, Kris assures us that ‘it’s got a sweet little chassis’.
‘We’ll only get up to around 100mph today. That’s a good speed though - you’ll have time to look around a bit and take in the view. It’s stunning, but those cliffs and boulders are a bit scary’, said as if ‘a bit’ is the maximum amount permitted in rallying. Which I suppose it is. ‘Bit of a fierce place down here’.
The ‘race of 10,000 corners’ has the questionable distinction of highest competitor fatality rate of any WRC round. Attilio Bettega, Henri Toivonen, Sergio Cresto, and Jean-Michel Argenti all lost their lives here, ending the legendary but treacherous Group B era in the process. As Kris says, ‘Corsica can be an unforgiving place.’
Just the map of our 3.5km sliver of a stage looks intimidating, and more like a cardiogram than a road. Kris says: ‘it’s great to drive in Corsica unless it raining. Tends to get a bit slippy. Or if there’s too much of that fine, sandy soil that’s blown across the tarmac from the hills. Makes it slippy too’. Having posted myself through the roll cage, I can’t help but notice a few fresh scallops of powdery earth on the roadside, and a few specks of rain on the windscreen. Oh sh…
…eep. They’re a very real peril during a rally, and also the reason we’re stuck at the bottom of our stage - a shepherd was overwhelmed by his herd and took a breather on the road. Kris says: ‘Animals are suicidal ******** and can do a lot of damage. Makinnen crashed here in 1997 because of a cow. Best to wait and make sure the way’s clear’. Some distant bleeting later, it is. We’re off…
Without any low-down grunt, the first few seconds don’t disappear as quickly as they would in a WRC car, but soon enough we’re tacking along at 60mph. Then faster. Faster still. Now too fast. And a little faster on top. 100mph. Cracked the ton. Doesn’t feel fast on the motorway, resolutely does when you’re on a skin-tight sock of a road and your car sounds like Janet Street Porter shouting vowels into an empty bucket. At full race pace, when the scrubby hedges blur into a green filter over the landscape, the little Peugeot feels utterly alive. The ride is uncanny - it’s perfectly, stunningly yielding, but planted with it.
Then the big corners come. The little R2 brakes infinitely more quickly than I do, Kris throwing me into the five-point harness, testes first (one of the perils of a slightly undersized race suit, apparently). Before there’s time to swear, much less enter into genital feng shui, Kris has given the sequential gearbox a couple of high fives, and the tall hydraulic handbrake a long pint-pull and we’re gliding round the bend.
Not skidding or screeching or juddering - gliding. From the outside rally cars look frenetic and terrifying, but inside it’s an oddly serene experience. Had I not just burst my manparts, I’d say it was almost euphoric. There’s a real fluidity and rhythm to it, like deep powder snowbording. You’re either leaving a corner or entering one. But, as Kris puts it, “it’s a tough rally, and the stakes are high here. Really high. It’s stunning, but it’s not a rally for daydreamers.’
Words: Matthew Jones
Photography: Rowan Horncastle