My son knows me well. Ollie is well aware that me leaving half a pot of Oatopia’s finest porridge special (bananas and peanut butter) is just not normal.
Eyeing the uneaten breakfast quizzically, he grins and starts to laugh.
“You’re nervous aren’t you…”
“Sort of. But not for the reason you’re thinking.”
It’s just turned seven in the morning and the drizzle is fine, persistent and perhaps getting heavier. In just over an hour I’ll be strapped into M-Sport Ford’s Puma Rally1 and fired up the hill alongside Adrien Fourmaux.
The ride doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’ve been up the hill plenty of times, in and out of corners at all sorts of angles; touched the grass here; tapped a bale there. No bother.
Brief aside… the liveliest ride at Goodwood? Unquestionably, Jim Holder (Autocar/What Car? overlord and splendidly top bloke) and I hanging back to follow all the other journalists up the hill to join the Duke for lunch a good few years ago.
We were in the fully liveried Motoring News Peugeot 806 troop carrier. With significant encouragement from the passenger seat, ‘Noddy’ attacked the first couple of corners with similar commitment to that shown by Oliver Solberg a couple of years ago.
Holding the ensuing tank slappers and, somehow, keeping us off the grass and out of the house, we sat down ashen faced and without much of an appetite.
So, no. I wasn’t worried about the ride.
I must admit, the first gag about mixing electricity and water caught me off guard, but still that wasn’t enough to put me off my porridge.
“It’s the overalls,” I told Ollie, in hushed tones.
“What do you mean?”
With my DirtFish kit locked away in Seattle, I was at the mercy of M-Sport Ford team principal Richard Millener.
A hippo trying to get into a Fiat 500 was one of the more usable analogiesDavid Evans trying to climb aboard the Puma Rally1
“We’ve got an old pair of Jarmo [Lehtinen]’s,” Millener told me. “You’ll be fine.”
In handing them over, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of material. They didn’t feel very heavy. And if they weren’t heavy, there wasn’t going to be much of them.
That’s how I found myself in the media center toilets offering a silent prayer that Jarmo Lehtinen learned to love the pies in the his last few months with Ford a few years ago.
One leg in. That’s a start. Both in. And not too bad. Here we go, shoulder… in. Other shoulder… in. Yes! The final piece of the jigsaw, the zip. Done. Just. Like, just.
My shoe laces were undone, but they’d have to stay that way. Bending down to tie them simply wasn’t an option. Breathing in, things looked snug. Breathing out? You know that moment when a parachute inflates to its absolute maximum? You get the picture.
Then, a moment of genius. I’d keep my coat on. The DirtFish rain jacket was essential for branding in the car. Of course it was.
Phew. Considerably happier, I cast any thoughts of going in search of that half-pot of porridge from my mind and set about getting in the car.
Fourmaux looked on, slightly bemused.
He raised his hand and grinned, not letting me finish the question.
“You have to find your own way.”
Leg first. Nope.
I’ll go in head first.
A hippo trying to get into a Fiat 500 was one of the more usable analogies.
“It’s not easy,” admitted Fourmaux.
I agreed. And it’s not easy for a reason. These Rally 1 cars mark a return to tubular chassis with panels patched around the most extreme roll cages in the sport’s history.
The safety cell in these new cars is one of the World Rally Championship’s finest hours. It’s a triumph in providing the safest possible working environment ever for the crew.
But it’s a b****** to get in.
The biggest barrier is the best feature. A solid steel tube runs just ahead of the B-pillar – precisely in line with where my head will sit once in the seat.
In the Puma and strapped in, I’ve genuinely never felt safer in a rally car.
I’ve got to admit, I was slightly surprised at being allowed to look in the car, let alone sit and ride alongside Adrien. Such is the paranoia about the interior being pictured, every window – even the sliders – have been given the full privacy treatment. From the outside, you can see nothing in the car. Nothing.
And yet, here I am.
It’s for this reason that this feature’s not littered with loads of snaps of me advising Adrien on the Nodster’s line in the first right-hander.
With the rain still doing its thing, we exit the holding area. We’re in pretty good company: Ari Vatanen’s over there, driving the Ford Escort RS1800 he and David Richards (the car’s new owner…) used to win the 1981 world championship. Next to him is Jimmy McRae in one of the 1995 Group A Subaru Imprezas son Colin drove in 1995. He’s followed by Prodrive technical director David Lapworth aboard a Richard Burns Safari car. Towering above all of us is Sébastien Loeb in Prodrive’s BRX Dakar car.
But immediately ahead of us is Alex Albon and his AlphaTauri-liveried Ferrari 488. The former Formula 1 racer gingerly exits the hairpin right to head down the hill.
Fourmaux hangs back long enough to flick the Puma through the corner on the handbrake. Then, we wait. And wait. And wait. He’s giving Albon some room before launching us in a practice start. From there, we’re into a series of left-right slides, surfing the wave of forced induction torque to torch heat into the Pirelli Cinturatos beneath us.
Blink done and we’re full bore under the bridge. Good. Lord. We’re shifting nowDavid Evans
The cheers from beneath the umbrellas are audible as the crowds gathered remember why rally cars really are so much more exciting than racers. And we haven’t even got going yet.
Down to the bottom and Albon’s busy with a three-pointer, while Adrien uses the handbrake for a more rapid 180-degree realignment.
Again, we wait. And wait again. With the marshals looking like they might take flight courtesy of such energetic arm waving, it’s another launch and more heat in the tyres.
“It’s dirty,” Fourmaux declares. “The rubber on the road, it’s dirty. It’s old rubber from these cars – it’s very slippery.”
With that he goes quiet as the Burns Safari winner trundles past us.
“Beautiful car,” he said. “This is my first time here – it’s incredible to see all of these cars. Fantastic.”
Albon eventually persuades the 488 off the line and we’re next up.
“Over there is slippery,” he said. “We go over here.”
Waiting for a bemused marshal to step aside, Adrien lines the Puma up virtually touching the straw bales on the left hand side.
“We get better grip off the line,” he said.
Always thinking. Always clever.
Green and go. We’re gone.
Pulling on the stick shift, the car’s through the gears and bursting out from beneath the trees in no time. The first right hander is taken without even nibbling at the Duke’s lovely lawn. No cut there. Into the next right and I have to be honest, I had a long blink here. I simply couldn’t calculate the physics which were going to keep us out of Richmond’s front room.
Blink done and we’re full bore under the bridge.
Good. Lord. We’re shifting now.
And you know this because there’s a big jet of cool air from the roof vents as we climb towards 100mph.
I think about warning him about the left-hander at Pheasantry, but think better of it. If we have a moment – which we don’t – it would be out of this sequence and on towards Molecomb. He keeps it pinned, then brakes, turns into the right and long, long left that is the Flint Wall. The car doesn’t budge and follows the perfect arc with more gears on the exit.
Lights to flag in 40-odd seconds.
The raw speed of a Rally1 née World Rally Car never fails to impress, but the rain has demonstrated two things: the lack of active transmission will definitely demand more of the driver (Fourmaux certainly delivered in this area); this Puma has the poise and pace of its big cat namesake.
And the power? The full 500. Did we get there?
“Yes!” said Fourmaux. “We came through the right-left over the brow… in the middle of that we got full boost!”
That moment I mentioned that we didn’t have. Right there.
That puts Fourmaux and this motor into perfect perspective. In seriously slippery conditions and with the car already fairly well committed, he dealt with the delivery of an extra 100bhp without even the hint of a lift.
“If you lift, you lose it,” he said. “The boost is gone, so you can’t lift.”
Looking out of the window at the still pouring rain, he reconsiders.
“Maybe today I should lift,” he said. “This is not the place to crash this car! Especially not today…”
Today is two days after the Puma’s first public appearance at the Festival of Speed, but today is also the day Jim Farley – Ford Motor Company CEO – has landed into West Sussex to see the fruits of the latest trans-Atlantic M-Sport-Ford alliance.
He has nothing to fear. Like every M-Sport car, this one has been beautifully born and I feel enormously privileged to have been among the first to feel the force of the WRC’s very first electric hybrid Rally1 car.
Now, time to get out of these overalls and see if there’s any of that porridge left…