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Rallycross with TG USA host Tanner Foust

  1. A youth in a hoodie fastens my seatbelt for me. He wrenches down pretty hard on the harness straps before placing my feet in the footwell for me. He says something about not kicking some important wires, but it’s all a bit unclear because a) he’s Swedish, b) I’m wearing a helmet, and c) a man called Tanner has just pressed an innocuous little starter button on the centre console of this ‘Ford Fiesta’ and now I can’t hear anything and my vision has gone slightly blurry.

    Words: Ollie Marriage

    Photos: Justin Leighton

    This feature was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. The next five minutes are insane. What I chiefly remember is cursing the youth for not pulling harder on the straps as I’m flung forward under braking, then I recall a savage punch down through some gears, many g-forces, an explosion back up the gears, then more cursing of the kid with seatbelt responsibilities. All to the accompaniment of a noise that sounds like a Marshall amp plugged into a bowl of Rice Krispies. Only much angrier.

  3. We trundle back to base. Somewhat surreally, this is a Huf Haus sitting proudly next to a half-kilometre-wide circle of tarmac deep in the heart of a Belgian wood. “It’s pretty wild, isn’t it? You ready to have a turn?” comes a voice over the on-board intercom. No. Actually what I’m ready to do is climb back in my nice, mellow Audi A6 and head back to Blighty. “Come on, pull yourself together,” I tell myself, “It’s only a Ford Fiesta.”

    But it isn’t. It’s a Rallycross car. Or to be more exact, it’s Tanner Foust’s Rallycross car. And, in three days’ time, he’ll need it to be 100 per cent not-broken so he can compete in the opening round of the European Rallycross Championship.

  4. Some education is required at this juncture. On two levels. If you’re over 35, then the following words should chime with you: World of Sport on ITV, Dickie Davies, Mini, Escort, Brands Hatch. If you’re under 25, then try these: YouTube, Tanner Foust, drifting, Gymkhana, X Games. Caught in the middle and feeling ignorant? Then know this: broadly speaking, although separated by three decades, they amount to the same thing: small, vastly overpowered cars creating noise and smoke while providing a massive, addictive spectacle.

  5. Rallycross never disappeared, it just lost exposure. To a British audience, pure rallying was more exciting, especially back in the Group B days, so its circuit-based cousin lost the bucks, lost the airtime and probably couldn’t care less about it. But why the presence of a US action sports superstar (and TG USA host) in a beer-‘n’-burger-van formula? “My background is in proper rallying, but y’know, rallying in America is like drag racing in the UK - people know it goes on, but they don’t really get it. And persuading Americans to walk into a wood to watch some cars drive past, well, it’s just not going to happen,” Tanner tells me. “But the car companies in America are looking for ways to sell small cars to young buyers, to make ‘em look cool so they’ll have one instead of an SUV. So you have these two areas [it strikes me I’m getting a marketing lesson from a drift legend], and Rallycross ticks the boxes: it’s small cars doing cool stuff, and it can take place using the tarmac-and-dirt infield of a race track.”

  6. Typically enough, the Americans have set up something called Global RallyCross (GRC), the plan being to piggyback rounds with NASCAR races. But GRC is still in its early days, so the best place to learn the craft is Europe. Hence Tanner.

    He’s the only American thing around here, though. The car is built and run by Swedish company Olsbergs MSE, long-time Rallycross experts and the firm who built Ken Block’s Gymkhana Fiesta. It’s run in the most hands-on way possible by Andrèas Eriksson, an ex-Rallycrosser himself, and is staffed by lads who look like they should be hanging out at a skatepark, not able to change a centre differential in 15 minutes flat.

  7. Today is shakedown and testing. I doubt many other Rallycross teams have this luxury, nor access to a perfectly positioned Huf Haus with a double garage containing a lifting ramp over a polished brick floor. So what road-car parts are carried over? “The engine block, that is all,” says Andrèas. He gestures at the two Mountune technicians sat in a glass office just to the side. “They are responsible for the engine and electronics. It’s a 2.0-litre engine, and instead of the 32mm inlet restrictor that WRC cars run with, we’re allowed a 45mm diameter. It means about 550bhp and 600lb ft. And the car’s lighter, too. No co-driver, we only need to run four or five laps at a time, and we’re not allowed fancy electronic differentials like the rally cars are.”

  8. This makes set-up quite tricky. The sprint format means starts are crucial, so the diffs lock early for best straight-line traction. Which makes the car a bit of a handful in the corners, something which is preying on my mind…

    Tanner’s munching on an apple. I’d expected him to be one of those action sports stars, the kind where all you see in the eyes is a reflection of the back of the skull, and a mouth only able to form phrases such as ‘super-gnarly’. Couldn’t have been more wrong. He’s calm, intelligent (degree in molecular biology), didn’t grow up around motorsport and is absurdly friendly. He also looks a teensy bit like Michael J. Fox.

    If he’s nervy about me driving his car, he does a good job of hiding it. “It’s got a short wheelbase and very quick steering, so it changes direction fast, but the engine and gearbox are great… oh, there’s no ABS and the tyres are pretty much slick now, but it’s got so much grip still - we’re pulling nearly 2g through corners. I’m going to come along with you - it’ll be fine. You’ll have fun.”

  9. I fit in. This is one of the first, and most easily overlooked, pitfalls of attempting to drive a racing car. The perforated steering column looks uncannily like the barrel of a machine gun. It’s practically jabbing me in the chest, even though I’m as good as sat in the back seat. There’s a trigger next to it, too, mounted on the gearlever. A Swedish joke, perhaps?

    I spend a few seconds fiddling with my gloves, just trying to acclimatise myself to the bewildering lay-out, when all I really want to do is not stall in front of so many people. I stall. Damn.

    A course has been set up which mostly involves cones, minimising scenery interfaces. It’s also been designed to test the Fiesta’s high-speed mid-corner stability, something that needs work, apparently. Great: a short-wheelbase 550bhp supermini with locked diffs that wants to spit me backwards into some pine trees.

  10. Only it doesn’t - it just wants me to have fun. And you know what? 550bhp in a Fiesta ain’t that scary; you just keep feeding it gears, keep the power on, man up. Of course it’s fast, but you’re way too occupied by the titanic gearbox whine, the borderline terrifying anti-lag crackle and pop, the knowledge you’re leaving flames and smoke in your wake, the surprising body roll and hyperactive chassis to worry about a trifle such as acceleration. Even in a car with a 0-60mph time of exactly two seconds.

  11. It drives just like a remote-control car: nose-up, wheels spinning, always charging. Those near-locked diffs mean it does understeer, but, hey, 550bhp is enough to be able to adjust your trajectory the moment you get back on the throttle. It’s skittish, darty, completely stark-staring mad and bloody brilliant. The rabid toy that should be prescribable to anyone who needs to let off steam. Six of these tearing around a stadium like racing piggies aiming for the trough? I can see the Americans going for that. Rallycross is being reloaded.

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