- About Us
The tarmac is getting lighter as it dries in the warm morning sun and there’s a quiet air of tranquility hanging over the rugged emerald valley as it stretches into the distance. It’s a beautiful scene and while I’m sitting there quietly contemplating the view that a question gently trundles into my head: ‘A Ford Fiesta R5 rally car or a Ferrari 458?’ The choice really is as simple and straightforward as that. A Fiesta R5 rally car and a 458 both cost the same to buy and both are road-legal so, given the choice, which would you take for a drive up a hill climb? A disembodied voice crackles over the radio and I turn on the master switch to bring the Fiesta to life. I suppose I’m about to find out.
I’ve always loved the idea of driving a proper rally car on a proper piece of road. This happens regularly over the course of a rally, on the competitive stages of a tarmac rally or during the linking ‘transport sections’ between stages on a gravel event. But that’s never just for fun. There’s always a competitive edge or a time restraint. What I want to know is how much fun you can have driving a full-blown rally car at fast road pace. And just in case you’re under any illusions, ‘fast road pace’ is very different and much more cautious compared to how you’d drive in a stage with pace notes and the knowledge that no cars are coming the other way… The R5 formula is billed as a half-price WRC car and replaced the S2000 that competed in WRC2 as well as the APRC. We are familiar with the Skoda Fabia S2000 and Fabia R5 that took MRF to the APRC championship for the past six years on the trot. However Citroën, Peugeot, Hyundai and now Volkswagen have their hats in the R5 ring and with VW’s focus having shifted to customer sport from the WRC they are set to begin Polo R5 deliveries in a few months. M-Sport though was the first to show a finished R5 product five years ago.
The first time I saw the Ford Fiesta R5 was this morning, up on axle stands in the huge M-Sport workshop in Cumbria, UK, where the Qatar-liveried WRC cars were being prepped for transport to Sardinia in the afternoon and Ken Block’s car (complete with massive radiator in the boot) was getting a bit of TLC. There were also five R5 cars in various stages of build. Devoid of final aero packages (the most distinguishing feature), I would have assumed that they were WRC cars, such is the similarity. Both carry five-speed sequential gearboxes and Reiger dampers, both are four-wheel drive and both weigh 1200kg.
But the M-Sport-developed engine is entirely different and under R5 regulations it has to run a 32mm restrictor, as opposed to 33mm in the WRC car. The Fiesta R5 is in fact 90 per cent new and there are crucial differences to help keep costs down. The R5 car has to use many more off-the-shelf parts, so whereas the WRC machine carries ballast to bring it up to the minimum weight, the R5 is naturally much closer to the limit. Perhaps the easiest way to contrast the two is by their alternators: the WRC car’s is a jewel-like creation that costs about Rs 2,50,000 and can be lifted in one hand. The Ford Fiesta R5 car’s alternator is from a Volvo, has to be lifted with both hands and costs Rs 30,000. A raft of similar differences means the R5 costs somewhere in the region of Rs 1.6 crore (less than half a WRC car) but is only 1sec per kilometre slower through a stage and is much easier to service.
Sharing the driving (and sent as an envoy of M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson to make sure I don’t do anything stupid) is Elfyn Evans: under thirty years old, WRC Academy champion, son of the legendary Gwyndaf and now a fully fledged WRC driver. He’s a splendidly modest chap. After we’ve both clambered past the big cross-members of the roll-cage (me into the low-slung right-hand co-driver’s seat for the first few miles), grappled with the six-point harnesses and plugged ourselves into our respective headphones, Evans takes me through a need-to-know checklist.
The starting ritual for the Fiesta is surprisingly simple. There’s a small panel of buttons on the floor in front of the tall handbrake and gearlever. In the top-right corner of said panel is a small toggle master switch – flick it down and the car comes to life with buzzes, whirrs and multi-coloured lights as current surges through its arteries. Then depress the small, narrow clutch pedal and push a button marked ‘start’ in green lettering. There’s a magnetic temptation to give the throttle a blip as the starter turns over for a supercar-rivalling length of time, but I’m assured that the four cylinders will spark into life without any help. Sure enough, they catch a second later with a blare that instantly fills the empty white cockpit with noise.
We trundle through the drizzly streets and although I feel like a child without a booster seat, I can nonetheless see the bowed heads of pedestrians look up as the Ford Fiesta R5 noisily crawls past. It might retain some resemblance to the regular European Fiesta, but hunkered down to the tarmac and with its fantastic matt grey and red livery accentuating its utilitarian arch extensions, it’s every bit as wild and attention-grabbing as a Huayra or Aventador. It’s even got dinky carbon door mirrors. Once the first couple of miles south are out of the way, Elfyn pulls over in a quiet lane and we swap places. In some ways rally cars are not difficult to drive; for example, you tend to find that everything is designed to fall easily to hand. On the driver’s side, the view out is not low and intimidating like in a Radical or Atom, but there are two things that make it seem every bit as scary as any car you care to think of. The first is the noise: it is incredibly loud, and with no sound deadening, normal inputs to the pedals and gears seem magnified tenfold. Every squeeze, prod or dab elicits a palpable change, with a corresponding clatter, chunter, chuff or whine. Placing yourself at the centre of such an aural maelstrom is nerve-wracking.
“Even on a road this tight and twisty, I constantly seem to be pulling up and punching down the gears.”
The second point of fretting focus is the clutch. Its difficulty is linked to the noise in a way, because you’re inclined to think you’re giving the engine more revs than you actually are as you try to pull away, which makes you stall. On top of that, the revs will obviously die as soon as the clutch reaches any sort of biting point, so you need to gently increase the throttle as it does so or you’ll stall that way. I’d sneakily checked what the digital rev counter was reading when Elfyn rolled away earlier, and so I get away first time. In fact, although there’s the occasional bit of kangaroo petrol in the tank, I don’t stall for the first couple of hours. Villages, three-point turns, inching past caravans – it all goes without a hitch until we stop on a hill. A 20 per cent hill. I give it too few revs and… clunk. Silence. Even Elfyn stalled it once, so I don’t feel too bad. But after the second attempt, my heart rate has definitely increased… and after the fourth try the first bead of sweat appears on my brow as I fear that I might be stuck on the ramp for good. Eventually I realise the only way to get going is simply to give it far too many revs, drop the clutch, catch the ensuing small slide towards a rock face as all four wheels spin up, and then keep going, the valley behind us echoing to the news that we’re on the move again.
“Drop the clutch, catch the ensuing small slide towards a rock face as all four wheels spin up”
The clutch is largely irrelevant once you’re up and running, of course, and flat-shifting is one of the joys of a proper sequential ’box. The action of the lever is slightly lighter and longer than I was expecting, but it feels beautifully mechanical when the gear goes home. As the pace increases and I start using more and more revs, I realise just how short the ratios are in the five-speed ’box. Even on a tight and twisty hill climb where just second would do in most cars I constantly seem to be pulling up and punching down the gears. Elfyn later informs me that it’s currently geared for just 175kmph in top. No wonder I’m busier than a bear at a buffet. What exacerbates the sprint gearing is the way the engine delivers its estimated 280bhp (only about 30bhp less than a WRC car). In non-stage mode with the anti-lag turned off, you can see how narrow the true power band really is, the acceleration exploding above 3500rpm in a torque-rich thump that’s over in a heartbeat unless you pull back for another gear. They wouldn’t tell me how much torque it produces, but each punch feels like a concentrated dose of McLaren 12C on full boost.
“I was given two strict instructions before I drove the car: don’t crash it and, more importantly, don’t lose a tyre.”
And it gets even more bewildering when it comes to steering. At low speeds (i.e. while you’re attempting to get used to it) there is barely any feel, just breathtaking precision and huge amounts of grip. A lot of its tenacity comes from the latest-spec Michelin rubber that its 18in wheels are wearing. The tyres have also inspired some of my apprehension. I was given two strict instructions before I drove the car: don’t crash it and, more importantly, don’t lose a tyre. There are various lumps of angry rock strewn along the verges and if I happen to clip one and rip a corner off the Ford Fiesta R5, I will have to get out and chase down the errant wheel as if my life depended on it. The tyre’s compound is so secret that M-Sport has committed to a contract saying it will cough up 1 million euros if it loses one. Wonder if MRF will have a similar contract for their car.
“Regular M-Sport driver Elfyn Evans is on cusp of WRC stardom.”
Corner, crest, up one-two-three gears, brake, down one-two, turn in, watch the sheep, up one, brake, down one, watch the standing water, traffic coming the other way, pull in here, left foot on the clutch as you stop… and breathe. The scary thing is that although I’m travelling more rapidly down this bit of road than pretty much anything else could, I’m still short of the Ford Fiesta R5’s ultimate pace, and I know I am because the car isn’t completely happy. Unless it’s being wrung out and flung into a corner as hard as it can go, it doesn’t truly reward. Yet to commit to this sort of pace is a truly brutal experience and one that should be left for a special stage.
“The car isn’t completely happy unless it’s being wrung out and flung into a corner”
It might sound as if I didn’t enjoy driving a rally car, which isn’t true in the slightest. You can (thankfully) enjoy the theatre and excitement of a 458 or GT3 without wringing the last drop of performance from it, and so it is with a rally car on the road. But you do begin to realise just how many compromises even the most extreme road cars make to ensure their performance is accessible. M-Sport has apparently considered producing a small run of Ford Fiesta R5 road cars, à la Group B. It really should. I think a road-going Ford Fiesta R5 could change how we think about performance cars. Certainly give a few people a headache about how to spend Rs 1.6 crore (plus tax). Perhaps if you lengthened the gearing a fraction, brought the ride height up a bit, put some less aggressive tyres on it, and added Gaurav Gill stickers on the side windows… I want one already.