The Ford RS200 arrived too late to the Group B party, but became a rallycross king. Hal Ridge bravely tackles gravel and tarmac
The turbocharged engine nestling beneath the rear clamshell idles with the kind of aggression that’s characteristic only of the most exceptional high-performance machines. And thus the enormity of what I’m about to undertake begins to dawn. The hairs on my arms tingle with anticipation.
It’s 25 years since Group B machinery was banished from FIA-sanctioned International competition, but mention the era to any motor sport fanatic and it will raise a rueful smile. Ford’s most ferocious rally car of all, the RS200
, was created for the fabled Group B era
, when mid-engined spaceframed monsters ruled the sport. Group B cars were prototypes built for purpose and not as ‘halo’ versions of road cars; in order for a car to be homologated and eligible to compete, 200 examples had to be produced. This is how Ford’s rally special came to bear the name now synonymous with a golden era.
The 1.8-litre BDT turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the RS200 was based on Ford’s BDA unit and produced 450bhp. Introduced in 1984, the car was designed to take on works-built Peugeot 205
T16s, MG Metro 6R4s, Lancia Deltas
and Audi Quattros
. But, before it had caught up in development with its more established rivals, the category was outlawed from the rally stages at the end of 1986, following a number of fatalities.
However, that wasn’t the end for Group B machinery. In their rally-retirement, the cars found a new home: rallycross. And if they’d been awe-inspiring in the woods, lavished with even more power and even stickier tyres in 1987, many found themselves in the mixed-surface racing discipline, and thrilled drivers and fans racing wheel-to-wheel on track for the next five years, before they were banned from rallycross too.
It’s for a taste of this illicit experience, in a 2.1-litre rallycross-specification RS200 Evo 2, that I’ve travelled to the picturesque amphitheatre circuit of Lydden Hill in Kent, where the dual-surface sport was created.SEE RELATED: Ford RS200 buying guide and review
In 1966, ITV World of Sport producer Robert Reed witnessed a rainy hillclimb in Yorkshire and enjoyed watching the cars struggling to make it down an unsealed track on their return to the startline. The seed for rallycross was sown: a discipline in which cars would race head-to-head on a mixture of surfaces. Devised to fit between existing Saturday-afternoon televised sports, the first event was held at Lydden Hill on 4 February 1967, with high-profile drivers such as Vic Elford and Roger Clark, and was such a success that another was scheduled within a matter of weeks. By 1973, rallycross had grown into a European Championship.
The sport has been through peaks and troughs during its five decades but is currently one of the fastest-growing forms of motor sport in the world, following the formation of the FIA World Rallycross Championship in 2014. Its previous high point was almost three decades ago, when fans packed circuits around Europe to witness full grids of fire-breathing Group B monsters engage in battle.
In 2017, the sport’s 50th year, household names such as Sébastien Loeb, Petter Solberg, Ken Block and Mattias Ekström have been competing for supremacy, driving for manufacturer-backed teams. With races run over a maximum of six laps, the quick-fire action is perfect for the millennial generation – those not interested in watching the tyre strategy of a Formula 1 race unfold, or the three-day endurance of a World Rally Championship event play out.
On-track action is furious and the four-wheel-drive, 600bhp supercars can out-accelerate a Formula 1 car to 60mph. Yet, unlike in many other disciplines that have changed beyond recognition, today’s rallycross supercars are not a million miles removed from their Group B ancestors. Those Group B cars have not rubbed panels on the gravel and tarmac of rallycross circuits for a long time now, however, not least due to their rarity and value. With only a handful of working examples left in existence, opportunities to get behind the wheel of one of them never arise.
Apart from today, that is. At 6ft 3in, I find adjusting to motor sport athletes’ preferred driving positions a challenge but, at the start of the 1980s, top-level rally drivers were more concerned about having the physical strength to hang onto their wild machines than about meeting the weight limits and fitness levels that drivers aspire to today. And, as a former rugby player, Pat Doran, the owner of this particular RS200, fitted the bill perfectly.
Having removed the detachable steering wheel, I clamber over the door bars and into the driver’s seat of the car in which Doran achieved success at National and International levels. Full of feverish excitement, I’m not afraid to admit that I’m also suffering a large dose of apprehension.
I have no problem with Doran’s driving position, albeit with my arms a little more stretched than I would prefer, but I’m not about to complain.
With the engine pre-warmed, in a gap in proceedings during LD Motorsports’ pre-season testing (where it’s running latest-specification rallycross supercars for customers), I familiarise myself with my surroundings before heading out on track.
The transmission tunnel that rises from the flat floor is frankly huge and, with the seat practically sitting on the base of the tub, it feels like being aboard a single-seater. Unusually, the gearbox in the RS200 is in front of the mid-mounted engine.
Although the utilitarian cockpit is confined, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic, perhaps due to the sparse rollcage in a machine that was designed to hurtle between trees… LCD instruments peep through the top half of the suede steering wheel, topped by an array of shift lights.
This particular car, nicknamed ‘Rosie’, has undergone development since Doran campaigned it in the early ’90s. In 1991 and ’92 he finished on the podium at Lydden in the European Championship, and claimed victory in France in ’92 on his way to second overall in the series. Rosie has recently been rebuilt by the LD Motorsports squad and uses a more modern turbocharger, single-shock Reiger suspension instead of the original double-damper set-up, and modern engine management – the intention being to maintain the car’s character and performance while making it more serviceable and reliable. The infamously agricultural Group B H-pattern gearbox has been replaced too, with a Quaife six-speed sequential unit.
Engineer Joe Durman gives me a need-to-know run-down of what’s what. The black toggle in the centre of the aluminium centre-console is the master switch, surrounded by several potentiometers that control engine revs and boost – not things I will need to concern myself with.
Familiarisation over, six-point harness tightened, Durman starts the engine, coaxed into life with a little caressing of the throttle by my right foot. The idle could be described as lumpy at best and, with the engine and massive turbocharger just inches behind my head, I feel every slight increase in revs through my entire body, via the car’s tub, and there’s a gasping noise of air being inhaled through the various intakes on the roof and sides of the car.
Clutch depressed, a firm pull of the sequential gearlever selects first, which engages with the kind of mechanical clunk that reminds me, as if I need it, that I’m aboard a fever-filled competition car.
Keen not to slip the clutch and do it any damage, I release the left pedal, apply a little throttle and… stall. Restart, try again.
‘You have to give it plenty of revs. Don’t be afraid to slip the clutch,’ says Durman. ‘It’s very on-off, so just slip it to get moving.’
With a bit of balancing between my left and right feet I’m trundling onto the pre-grid area at Lydden, now feeling more than ever that this is going to be like learning to drive all over again.
The rumbling engine is accompanied by the kind of transmission whine you’d expect from an A-series Mini, rather than a turbocharged monster, and it rises in pitch
as I steadily accelerate.
Fittingly, as I drive onto the circuit that held a round of the World Championship for the final time this year, before the event moves to Silverstone in 2018, a late afternoon spring light bathes Lydden Hill in a nostalgic orange glow.
I pull onto the start-straight, applying modest throttle before squeezing it a little harder and pulling the gearlever into second. There’s a flat-shift system enabled by modern Cosworth engine management and I let go of the lever to ensure I don’t continually activate the gear-cut as a number ‘2’ appears on the dash. That will be the last time I allow myself the time to look away from the road ahead.
The car accelerates quickly, coming on boost as I press a little harder, and I’m immediately confronted by red flashing lights, suggesting the car wants another gear, which I give it. Hope the brakes are effective.
Hovering on and off the throttle, I change down on the tarmac before heading onto the first unsealed section of the Lydden Hill lap, Chessen’s Drift. I hug the inside of the corner, pull third and keep the car as straight as possible through the long sweeping exit down the Dover Slope, which curves to the right, the car skipping over the loose surface and demanding several corrections to the steering, even at low speed.
With the team’s test running, there is a smooth, clean line on the gravel sections, meaning that the car isn’t assaulted by loose gravel to its underbelly as is often the case in rallycross, but also making me conscious that I shouldn’t deviate off-line onto the more slippery areas.
Remaining in third through the tarmac left-hander of the Devil’s Elbow, I push the throttle harder as I head up the hill. At 4500rpm the 750bhp E2 engine with 800Nm (590lb ft) of torque comes on boost to such a degree that I almost jump, but can’t, as I’m pushed violently back into the seat, lost for words and breath. I immediately shift to fourth and the car just continues to accelerate. I come off the throttle, seemingly miles before the braking point for the right-hand hairpin, and change down to second.
This is fast. Seriously fast. And I’ve got nowhere near the 9250rpm at which peak power is produced. Fortunately the brakes, while not servo-assisted and with a hard pedal, have a confidence-inspiring bite, even when cold. Phew.
Back down the hill and using no more than two-thirds throttle, I’m swiftly moved to pull two gears, before backing off ahead of one of the most challenging corners in World Rallycross – the blind entry into a surface change at Paddock Bend. To say I’m tentative would be an understatement, though I continue back through the infamous car-breaking chicane onto the start straight and into my second lap.
Carrying more speed into Chessen’s for the second time, I select fourth after the apex with a lift of the throttle and a stab on the clutch to kill the wheel spin and allow the gears to engage, the car more skittish than before, requiring several corrections with the steering wheel.
Full throttle in third gear out of Devil’s Elbow means I’m again pushed hard into the back of the seat. Despite two more shifts, I’ve climbed the hill again in the blink of an eye, with the turbo and air intake whooshing intimidatingly behind my head, just the other side of the bulkhead. The noise also whistles through the varying panel gaps. This isn’t a concours machine; it was built for purpose. Appearance, although evocative and iconic, is secondary.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sample a modern rallycross supercar, which delivers a near-indescribable sensation of thrust, so much more than your average roadgoing supercar, but the RS200 is something else altogether. The power delivery is simply brutal, literally all or nothing, such is the lag of the unrestricted turbo.
Picking up the pace and becoming increasingly confident I’m not heading for a catastrophic ‘off’, I push harder, get onto the throttle before the apexes and, at the exit of Devil’s Elbow on my third tour, the four-wheel-drive Quaife system causes the car to drift across the tarmac, requiring a quarter-turn of opposite lock. I brake later into Chessen’s, on the gravel this time, shifting down into third and getting onto the throttle earlier, the rear stepping out slightly when the left-rear slick tyre hits the deeper gravel.
With the car hopping around more than on previous laps on the loose-surface exit, I confidently select fourth and then fifth, and grab the steering wheel again with my left hand, the wheel moving from left to right as the four-wheel drive system scrabbles for traction.
After another lap I return to the paddock, palms sweating, heart pounding, short of breath and lost for words. Before my next run, Pat’s son, Liam, a successful and accomplished Supercar racer, takes a series of laps in the car.
One of the first professional rallycross drivers of the modern era, who has won multiple European Championship events, Doran Jr’s first year in a Supercar was at the wheel of this very RS200 in 2008. Both his confidence in rotating the car on entry into a corner, and his 100% commitment on the throttle and brakes, totally shade my attempts. Yet he remains modest.
‘I’ve refined my driving over the years, but this car taught me more in one year than all the other years put together, because it’s such a handful,’ says Doran Jr. ‘You’ve got to be able to take every single challenge as it comes, especially with the surface changes. Driving round Lydden and through the Chicane in this RS200 is possibly the scariest thing I’ve done in a car, ever.
‘It’s as fast as a current World RX Supercar in terms of grip and power, but will not necessarily beat their lap times because, out of a corner, it just goes the way it wants to go. It’s like wrestling a monster. It’s awesome fun and an eye-opener for anyone that gets to sit in it, let alone drive it. If you want to put a smile on your face, there’s simply nothing crazier or more fun than this car.’
My second session is without drama. Having seen more of what the car is capable of, I push a little harder, feeling more confident on the brakes with my left foot and letting the car drift to the edge of the circuit on tarmac corner exits.
One of the most striking things is the amount of mechanical grip the car offers, aided by the soft, slick rallycross tyres. With the weight distribution biased towards the rear in the 1000kg machine, the front end is extremely positive. The steering isn’t as heavy as I had been expecting and I feel very connected to the front wheels. As much as I push into the fastest tarmac-only corner on the circuit, Devil’s Elbow, the front doesn’t push on. I’ve not had the pleasure of driving a fully aero-reliant car, but I can only imagine that it’s a similar feeling to piloting the RS200, without having the majority of its weight in the front, which would normally force understeer.
Still, I treat the final sector of the lap – including the huge-commitment Paddock Bend and Chicane – with utmost care. The tyre wall to the right of Paddock is ominously close and, where Doran has Rosie’s nose pointing towards the inside, I keep the car straighter as it bounces over uneven ground, the exhaust shooting flames and popping and banging on the overrun every time I lift off the throttle.
Before I got into the RS200, Liam Doran had jovially given me a synopsis of what driving it would be like, and he wasn’t wrong. As he predicted, it’s absolutely like nothing I have ever had the pleasure of driving before.
The increase in modern technology in today’s machinery might mean that cars are faster, and easier to extract every last hundredth of a second from, but in comparison to the Group B rallycross era the present day feels rather watered-down.
If today’s racing drivers are considered athletes, those who wrestled with these machines in period should be considered warriors. Respect is due.
Words: Hal Ridge // Photography: Jayson Fong