What I learned sliding through gravel at 160km/h [with Video]
Behind the clouds of dust and dirt, what’s really going on inside a world rally championship car during the heat of the race? Jane Speechley was lucky enough to get a glimpse.
AS COMEDIAN ROB SITCH said in one of the famous Sh!tscared stunt sketches by The Late Show/Working Dog crew – ‘I don’t have the brown underpants on for nothing.’
To be fair, I was more excited than nervous when the Hyundai Motorsports team first invite me to ride along through a stage of the World Rally Championship course in Coffs Harbour, with their star New Zealander driver Hayden Paddon. My rally-loving friends assure me it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and an opportunity not to be missed.
Then the Hyundai team kindly shared this video of Triple World Superbike Champion Troy Bayliss bleeping his way through a ride with Hyundai’s Chris Atkinson. After that, it’s fair to say I was feeling a little uneasy.
You’re seeing the video for the first time here on Practical Motoring, and I for one am impressed by how relaxed I look. Especially that ‘holy cow!’ are the strongest words to come out of my mouth (Mum would be proud).
The bad news, dear readers, is that most of us won’t have the opportunity to ride along with a world championship rally driver. So I asked Hayden to talk us through the techniques he used, as he negotiated the iconic and challenging Wedding Bells forest track.
It takes a good five minutes to get strapped into the vehicle. First is the racing suit and balaclava – all fire-proofed to international standards (drivers wear fireproof underwear as well, but gladly, this isn’t offered to me). Then the helmet, which along with the rest of my body, is firmly anchored to the seat.
The navigator’s seat in the Hyundai i20 is a little higher than the team would like, but it still significantly lower than the driver’s seat, so the driver has the widest and clearest possible field of vision. It’s also why you can see me straining to see over the dashboard in the video.
First of all, and as we start up, it’s clear Hayden is relaxed and ready to have some fun. He’s joined by a number of his partners and sponsors, and while the final round of the championship didn’t go exactly to plan, yesterday’s disappointment already seems a world away. He’s obviously enjoying the chance to let his hair down, now the pressure is off.
‘Let’s have some fun!’ he says, as we rumble up to the starting line.
I listen as Hayden runs through his launch sequence, flicking a series of buttons and switches on the steering wheel: ‘So we’ve got the launch on, gearbox, ALS [anti-lag system], first gear …’. As he finishes with ‘full throttle’, the engine reaches its highest pitch and Paddon counts himself in with four, three, two, one … go.
While gears are changed using paddles, the gear stick remains on the floor so it can be used if anything else fails. It’s somewhat disconcerting to watch it move independently as Paddon shifts up rapidly through the sequence.
Our drive starts with a long left, towards the end of which Hayden touches the brake, turning the car sideways before re-applying the throttle. He advises me that the aim is to never need to apply the throttle and brake at the same time, for a smoother ride.
‘So this is smooth?’ I shout over the pitch and squeal of the engine, the sound of gravel going flying and all the mechanical parts of the car working together. I guess it’s all relative; though Hayden’s voice does sound about as strained as it might be if he was lifting groceries out of the boot, rather than sailing 1,200kg and $650K worth of machine through about 40 metres of air.
Less than 30 seconds in and we’re approaching the first of several jumps. Hayden is kind enough to give me a warning, but in fact, with 30+cm of clearance on the car’s suspension, the bump isn’t that bone-rattling at all.
Hayden comments about ‘keeping it flat’ as we soar off the crest of the hill, and this is critical. I ask him whether he knows, going into a jump, if he’s got it right or not. Certainly, it’s easy to find plenty of images and videos where jumps haven’t gone quite to plan, and the car gets a nose full of dirt as a result.
Hayden tells me that, ideally, the driver will aim to keep the body as flat as possible, or ‘get the nose up’ as he says. Most regular drivers will know that when you brake, the shift in mass means the front of the car drops down; therefore, you don’t brake in the lead-up to a jump. Staying on the throttle is the best way to ensure a comfortable, safe, damage-free, and – perhaps most importantly – fast landing.
After a couple of ‘soft brake’ twists (through which we still reach sixth gear, it must be said), it’s time for a sharper turn and a chance to really test the Hyundai with some heavy braking.
And boy, do those brakes work. In fact, most of the guest riders on the day comment in awe of just how remarkable it is, that a car moving that fast on gravel can stop so quickly. I’m very tightly harnessed in to the seat, but still, my weight is thrown forward.
Coming out of the sharper turn, Hayden drops down to first gear, applies a bit of handbrake to swing the backside of the car around, and is straight back onto the throttle to approach the next little jump. Interestingly, part of the rally driver’s basic arsenal for driving on lose surfaces is to throw the car sideways, so the side walls of the tyres contribute to the braking force. This isn’t a technique for smooth roads though, so don’t try it at home.
As we clear that leap, we’re up to the fastest section of the track, and the in-car video tells me we hit about 160kmph in this mind boggling, pedal-to-the-floor-in-sixth-gear sprint down the straight.
I remark on how much Hayden is working the steering wheel all the time, and he confirms all the effort is to keep it as straight as possible. ‘You go into corners sideways, but come out straight’, he says, to allow for maximum and immediate acceleration.
This reminds me of the best driving advice I was ever given; to always keep your wheels pointing in the direction you want to go. Sounds simple, but in an emergency braking situation, a swerve or a slide, it’s much easier said than done.
Adding to the constant physical effort is the fact that most rally drivers – Paddon included – use left-foot braking. It’s something of a foreign concept to the average driver, and arguably doesn’t work as well with a road car’s softer brake set-up. But with a sequential gearbox in the modern rally car, no clutch is needed, and most drivers find it easier to maintain the car’s balance and stability using both feet on the pedals.
Left-foot braking is one of the techniques that remains from classic rallying, but with the modern rally driver so very well supported by very advanced technology, many other tricks – such as the famed ‘Scandinavian flick’ or pendulum turn for tighter corners – are rarely necessary. Because our drive is just for laughs, and as Hayden says, he ‘loves going fast and loves going sideways’, he’s trying manoeuvres that – while fun –would lose precious milliseconds in the race, and therefore aren’t often used.
Overall, Paddon’s control of the car is impressive (and reassuring!). He explains the fine balance between shifting the weight of the vehicle, settling and unsettling it as needed, to get it where you want it to go.
This is really to secret to very fast and effective rally driving. It’s something all racing drivers understand and something every day drivers should learn; how the weight of their car changes in various moves, and how this affects their performance and outcomes.
If you’re interested in seeing these techniques in action, the 2017 World Rally Championships kicks off in Monte Carlo in January and will be back in Coffs Harbour in November.
Are you a fan of rally sport? Is there anything else you’ve ever wondered about the driving techniques they use?