Silverstone Rally School
In January 2004 I spent a day with the Silverstone Rally School learning and practising some of the basic skills required for off-road driving. Although I did not come away an expert, I now understand how some of the manoeuvres should be done and have progressed some way towards being able to perform them.
The day began with a short presentation from our lead instructor about the cars we were to drive and the basics of two key rally driving skills: the power slide and the hand-brake turn. The School has a number of elderly Ford Escort Mk IIs each equipped with a powerful two litre engine, high ratio steering, hydraulic hand-brake, full harness and internal roll cage. The cars were surprisingly lively and performed well in their native environment - mud! Steering with only 2.1 turns from lock to lock was hard work, but neccessary for single-handed control while wrestling with the gears and hand-brake. The latter had no release button, essential, as I quickly learned, to fast application and release.
After accompanying my instructor for a demonstration and some basic advice, I was invited to try power sliding around two cones on a very muddy surface. My performance followed the classic pattern: timid caution, growing awareness, a level of achievement and finally over-confidence. Steering with the throttle is exhilarating when you get it right, but a moment's loss of concentration spells disaster. I guess with practice it becomes automatic like most other driving skills, but training my aging brain to react without thinking could be a long process!
Next we tried hand-brake turns: steering into a corner and then braking the rear wheels with the hand-brake to make them slide sideways to speed up the turn. This time I had the edge, as I had mastered this art in my Morris Minor forty years ago on a wet university car park. If anything it was easier in the Escort, because you did not have to press the release button to apply or release the hand-brake. So I skipped the first three stages and progressed directly to over-confidence! Once again the timing of each action - brake, steer in, engage clutch, hand-brake on, hand-brake off, release clutch, throttle - is crucial. It is very satisfying when you get it right, but only practice can ensure that you do it every time. When the trail is lined with trees this becomes rather important.
Following a debrief and some heavy sarcasm from our instructors, we repaired to a local pub for an alcohol free lunch. Then back for the serious business of the day: putting it all together on the test stage. The School's rally circuit was quite short, but required all the manoeuvres we had learned in the morning plus a few additional surprises. After two practice sessions and some more tips from our long-suffering instructors, we faced the ultimate challenge - a timed run.
As the amazing winter sun dropped below the trees we reluctantly abandoned our muddy mounts for the clubhouse, some much needed refreshment, more light-hearted banter, certificates of achievement and a prize for the fastest driver. It was enormous fun and a great experience for the enthusiast. But next time I watch a rally on the box I might just appreciate the fine skills involved in controlling a powerful car on a loose surface.