Words and photos by Emma Woodcock
“I’ll talk to the guys from M-Sport, see where we are.” So reads the last e-mail in the chain between Paul in the RallyDay press office and me. Opportunities like this don’t come up too often so we head down to Castle Combe with our fingers crossed. We’re here on a multi-element wing and a prayer – but wouldn’t you do the same?
It’s half nine before I arrive at the Press Centre. Queueing through the front door, I turn straight to the front desk and ask about the e-mail chain. “Oh yes, Paul mentioned something about the M-Sport guys. Not that I’ve got anything here – you’ll need to head over to them and introduce yourself.” Five minutes later and I’m standing behind a Fiesta R5 Evo. “Ah, you need to speak to Steven. I’ll just give him a call.” The M-Sport team member heads off with her phone and I distractedly snap away at some details.
Simon is an amiable man in a company polo shirt. He arrives with a firm handshake and good news, “We got the emails. You should be going out in the car first. That’ll be around 10 with Elfyn.” With three minutes to go, there’s a stall in proceedings. “The car isn’t quite ready yet and we can’t find Elfyn. How about we make it 10.30?” The next half hour is a challenge. Even the seconds drag, a black hole of time that feels impossible to fill. I flit around the nearby paddocks and awnings, nervously shooting everything in sight to keep my mind steady. Group B monsters hold my attention for a little too long: my phone starts vibrating while I’m deep in conversation with the owner of a Lancia 037. Not 10 seconds later, the Fiesta whistles past my right ear and it’s a race back to the other end of the paddock.
An M-Sport employee produces my safety equipment: a Nomex balaclava, HANS device and a Stilo helmet. The must have taken one look at my ropey trackday lid and decided not to take any chances. Elfyn appears and the crowd instantly doubles in size. Five strong around the car, it’s a battle to cut through them and open the door. Slide both feet in until they touch the footplate, clasp the roof for balance and arch your back over the strutting diagonal pole. Doorbars aren’t a girl’s best friend. Fall down into the seat and suddenly four hands are seating your HANS device and wiring the intercom while you secure all six prongs of the harness. This is a harder job than you’d expect: the HANS holds you straight and perfectly upright from the shoulders up and even the boldest stretch won’t let you see further back than your knees. With a little help, I pull the harness belts tight, then tighter.
YOU SHOULD BE GOING OUT IN THE CAR FIRST. THAT’LL BE AROUND 10 WITH ELFYN . . . THE CAR ISN’T QUITE READY YET AND WE CAN’T FIND ELFYN. HOW ABOUT WE MAKE IT 10.30?
Elfyn presses the starter and the Fiesta fires instantly – no starter whine, no slow catch of each cylinder – to ahard, attunal insistence of a sound. Subarus burble and Mitsubishis throb but the Fiesta simply blares: holding one long, unbroken note as Evans pulls back for first. The crowds clear and we pull out onto the paddock road. A pair of Escorts bimble up ahead as Evans fiddles with his gloves and circuit staff point us round a two-lane queue. We pull up at a jaunty angle in front of an official-looking man in several pieces of high-vis.
The driver’s door swings open and the circuit official clears his throat. Or, at least, I think that’s what happened. It’s very loud in here and I can only move my head five degrees in any given direction. Thanks to the intercom, I can at least be certain of Elfyn’s end of the conversation, “How long? Ten minutes or so and you’ll let me know? Alright, I’ll turn this off then.” With that, the car falls silent. Time passes slowly in a stationary works rally car. Heat builds up from every direction, with the transmission tunnel, bulkhead and even the floor prickling within minutes. Elfyn and I bat around some small talk; Elfyn has never been to the event or even seen Castle Combe before.
The official gives the nod as the intercom bristles into action, “Do we turn left or right onto the track?” There’s no bluffing here, Elfyn really is sight-reading the circuit. The engine barks into life and we roll round into the holding area. The Fiesta is signalled into the RallyDay starting ramps and comes to a stop. Evans jabs at the centre console, selecting stage mode, anti-lag and launch control. Focus now shifts to the two vertical black levers in the middle of the cabin. A short tug back on the taller stick selects first before he reaches over to haul the second stick all the way back. Until Elfyn lets go, the car is held on the hydraulic handbrake – a magic wand that lets the driver lock the rear wheels at will.
Left foot hovering microns above the bite point, right foot rammed all the way to the floor, Evans is a coiled mass of energy. The launch control holds the car at steady 4,000rpm, the bodyshell forced to buck and weave by the excess force. To our left, a screen counts down from five as the exhaust rattles its dissent. Two. One. Zero. The handbrake springs forward and we launch forwards with a force barely credible for the claimed 280bhp. Bam and we’re into second gear, still in the holding area.
Elfyn brakes, hurls the steering a quarter turn left, clanks back to first gear and hauls the handbrake. These actions happened at once or, at the very least, so close together my brain can’t unscramble them. We’re aiming at the pit wall, still hard on the gas, 90 degrees from where we started as the tail lists hard to the left. Elfyn’s left hand is motionless, holding the steering
wheel steady at a quarter turn of right lock. It never wavers while his feet and right hand dance over the other controls. We’re donuting the same perfect loop time and again in front of an excited crowd. For the first few revolutions, the view flips from pitwall to pitman to crowd and back. Within seconds, it’s just various shades of smoke. Elfyn pulls out of the melee and performs another launch control start out of the pitlane. We’re onto the track.
ELFYN PRESSES THE STARTER AND THE FIESTA FIRES INSTANTLY – NO STARTER WHINE, NO SLOW CATCH OF EACH CYLINDER – TO A HARD, ATTUNAL INSISTENCE OF A SOUND THE FIESTA SIMPLY BLARES: HOLDING ONE LONG, UNBROKEN NOTE AS EVANS PULLS BACK FOR FIRST
Bang. Second. Bang. Third. Bang. Fourth. With each gear the engine swells, nasal and hard-edged, shaking the car to the red line before falling back with a guttural spit as the next gear falls into place. At close to 100mph, the Fiesta skims the edge of tarmac and takes attitude as we approach the first chicane. With the smallest twitches of the wheel, Elfyn yaws the car until it’s at 45 degrees to the road. We spear through the chicane in a straight line, right pedal pinned down.
The Fiesta is almost on top of the next corner when Elfyn turns in, hard and decisive. Circuit racers view Quarry as one of the toughest corners in UK motorsport but it doesn’t seem to phase our driver. He hauls back on the handbrake once to loosen the rear then again to grow the angle.
Half a turn the other way and he’s holding the Ford in an arching drift at 60 degrees to the road. Two-thirds through the corner, a crowd stretches high above in a natural ampitheatre. Still sliding, Elfyn tacks the wheel back to the right, bat, bat, bat down the box into first and arcs seamlessly into four perfect donuts. Over the screaming tyres and stuttering exhaust, I can just hear the crowd roar their approval.
The Ford shoots out of the fog and barrels towards another chicane, tighter than the first. Evans downshifts and lightly tips us left, then right, then further to the left to turn in. The rear begins to arc round before swinging back the other way as we pass the second barrier. In the corner of my vision a pair of lithe racing boots make balance adjustments you can’t even feel, so crisply do they feed into the whole. The car seems to ride on air: floating en pointe under Elfyn’s spell. A single deft correction to the steering and we push away up the next straight.
There are two sides to every story; let’s look from the other side through the next chicane. Without warning, Elfyn rams deep into the brakes and forces me forward in the seat. Thighs cut against the groin straps, shoulders crash against the rigid HANS device as I strain against the forces with aching legs. The car feels ready to roll as Evans starts to turn and the rear end skitters. Ribs crash to the right, the left, the right again. A shock barks forward through my spine as we collide into third. The weighty red and white blocks of the chicane are looming. The blockade grows so large that it fills the passenger window as we start to shimmer. From the passenger seat, you can make out every smear of rubber and divot of dirt on the battle scarred obstacle.
Whatever speed you think we’re doing, double it. Through the chicane, the digital speedo never falls below motorway speeds. A faster, clearer section of track opens up ahead of the Fiesta. The rev counter glows red and we clack into fifth. The sequential gearbox may have a lever – pull to go up a gear, push to go down – but the gearshifts are clutchless once the car is rolling. On the way up the box, software momentarily cuts the ignition to allow full throttle shifts and the result is brutal. The gears change in one fifth of a blink of the eye, sending a sharp crack through the base of your spine as they engage but never dimming the acceleration.
Fifth gear sees the co-driver’s speedometer reel up to 130 and Elfyn hugs the inside of the corner tight. The track is bumpy here – the cabin dipping and rising as one with the road – but the chassis stays true to its line. I try to glance at the driver in action but my head crashes against the helmet restraint. From my limited vantage point, I see a right foot fully extended while the left nibbles now and then at the brake. The steering is steady; through the worst compression an unphased Evans lifts a hand to scratch his nose.
The next two corners are the most remarkable of all. The sensation of speed has dimmed a little and I can focus a little more on the driving technique and the car’s reactions. It’s a long right-left chicane with plenty of space on the exit, part of the circuit itself instead of one of the artificial pif-pafs added for the event. Evans grabs the brakes, compressing the front of the car, and turns just as he tails off the pedal. We start moving across the track to the first apex, the car flirting with the upper edges of grip. There’s the briefest of pauses before he rolls back into the power and the car strains then surrenders to touches of understeer. As soon as it appears, the push is transformed to a four-wheel drift.
With a few sharp lunges from the left foot and a forceful turn of the wheel, we enter the left-hander. The accelerator clacks to the floor and the rear erupts in smoke. Helped by a little more left foot and completely committed, the car floats to a 45 degree angle. There’s an eery hush as we move across the track, broken only by a rumble as we breach the circuit boundary and slide over the run-off zone. The car begins to point itself straight as the tarmac runs out and we clatter back onto the track. Elfyn never shifts from his original opposite lock correction, only moving the steering wheel as the car finally pulls itself to attention.
WITH A FEW SHARP LUNGES FROM THE LEFT FOOT AND A FORCEFUL TURN OF THE WHEEL, WE ENTER THE LEFT-HANDER. THE ACCELERATOR CLACKS TO THE FLOOR AND THE REAR ERUPTS IN SMOKE. HELPED BY A LITTLE MORE LEFT FOOT AND COMPLETELY COMMITTED, THE CAR FLOATS TO A 45 DEGREE ANGLE
He carries the same form into lap two. Tyre smoke, deafening noise, donuts. Accelerating through chicanes with millimetric precision, drifting through turns with languid abandon. Steady steering, fleet footwork and long pulls on the handbrake. The driver has a level of talent I’ve never seen before – a level of skill neither me nor anyone I know could hope to reach. Truly, Elfyn is one of the aliens. As we draw up in the pitlane, Evans breaks the silence. “What did you think of that?” Drawing on years of writing experience, I answer in the only way my mind can muster. “Fu…”
As the final step on the road to the World Rally Championship, the Fiesta R5 is outfitted with some pretty serious equipment. M-Sport start with a Fiesta ST road car engine before developing it in-house, fitting a Life Racing ECU and the FIA-mandated 32mm turbo air intake restrictor.
The result is 280bhp and 313lb/ft. Sade provide the transmission – a five speed sequential gearbox running to competition front and rear diffs – while AP Racing takes charge of the brakes. Beyond that awesome hydraulic handbrake, there are forged four piston calipers all round. They grip 300x28mm discs in gravel trim and 355×32 items on tarmac.
The wheels and tyres also vary with setup: it’s 7×15 inch wheels with two medium compound choices and one super-soft compound for gravel. On asphalt events the wheels grow to 18×8, wrapped in a choice of three dry options – soft, medium and hard – and one wet-weather tyre.
Suspension is by Macpherson, struts all round with machined aluminium uprights, strengthened suspension links, three-way adjustable external reservoir dampers and front and rear anti-roll bars.
The rollcage is custom M-Sport equipment, as are the aerodynamic appendages. The interior is outfitted with a pair of FIA specification seats six-point harnesses, an LED driver’s display and a membrane switch panel covering everything from day-to-day functions – lights, wipers etc. – to launch control. Like all rally cars, the R5 also rocks a set of numberplate If you’re feeling tempted, M-Sport will build you a car from £250,000.
In the realm of works rally cars, it takes quite something to stand out. Our car does. The Fiesta which flung us around Wiltshire is Car Zero of the R5 programme. In plain English, our Ford was the original test car: the first R5 finished and the vehicle used for most of the research and development programme. The car first broke cover in black-and-white camouflage when it acted as course car for the 2013 Malcolm Wilson Rally. After thousands of miles in testing, many with Elfyn behind the wheel, and a handful of national rallies, the car was retired to the PR department.
Though the publicity people keep the car busy, Car Zero still finds its way into competition from time to time. In 2015, the car was used to test and develop a two-litre specification for the R5 before being shipped over the Atlantic for evaluation by Ken Block’s Hoonigan Division. Fitted with a two-litre Ecoboost engine, a Garrett turbocharger and 34mm restrictor, this model doesn’t meet FIA regulations but can be used in other events. After events in the US and the Isle of Man, the car was converted back to the 1.6-litre R5 Evo spec it enjoys today. Days before we went to press the car was in action again. Competing on the Grisedale Stages, it won two stages before finishing the day in a ditch.