Ayrton Senna has just jumped out of Phil Collins’ Brooklyn Motorsport Ford Sierra RS Cosworth.
Collins has jaggedly ripped through a forest stage, jabbed at the handbrake, hauled the white-and blue wedge around and yumped and slithered his way back. Ayrton Senna has never seen a rally car before, let alone sat in one.
Senna seems agitated, perhaps even confused, as he tugs off his lime-yellow helmet, pushes a hand through his hair. “Too quick for me” he shouts. “He’s a nut-case!” Collins looks up, unflustered in his grey sweater and old, battered corduroy cap. His accent is softly-Hereford, his speech slower and more considered than Senna’s rapid-fire explanation. “It’s a pity it’s so rough out there or I could really scare the little bastard.
Of course, the problem is he’s about to get his revenge.” Ayrton Senna, John Player Special Grand Prix driver, the fastest man in Formula One, was about to try forest rallying for the first time.
And what was it Senna said over dinner last night, when he put down his fork halfway through his plate of beef stroganoff? In that cold tone which adds a dulling emphasis to his steady words, he spelled out what he thought of rallying. “I know nothing about rallying. I’ve seen the pictures in magazines, sometimes watched it on television. And I deliberately haven’t listened to anyone about rally driving. I want to find out for myself.”
In the Sierra, Senna sits behind the big steering wheel. He’s wearing his black JPS driving suit, Adidas shoes, that sharply-coloured Bell helmet: he looks like Ayrton Senna, Grand Prix driver, no surprises. Yet today, he’s halfway up a Welsh mountain, with soggy clouds slapping around the peaks below, a grey sky washing out the daylight. As yet, he doesn’t know quite why he’s here.
But he respects Phil Collins. “The funny thing is you don’t know which way you are going” says Ayrton as he’s strapped in the four-point harness. “It’s so rough the car is going bang!-bang!-bang! And I keep thinking ‘next time we’re not going to do it’. For a first experience my heart kept together.”
“I was gentle with him, really” deadpans Collins. “Now” says Senna, with a grin, getting down to business, “I must learn the gearbox”. Collins runs through a brief pre-flight. “First is there” says Senna, hand on the gearlever, “second, OK, third, fourth and fifth”. “I don’t think we’ll need fifth too much” interrupts Collins, “I only got up to third”. “Third, maximum, OK”: Senna double checks.
“And that” – Collins laughs, pointing at the final slot on the gate – “is for when we’re reversing back out of those trees” Senna doesn’t rise to the joke. “Hmmm, OK. A couple of times the steering wheel jumped out of your hands.” “You let it, sometimes” says Collins. “Let it sort itself out – it got itself into trouble.” “Once I didn’t think you let it”, Senna’s winding Collins up now, “I think it did it itself! Once we hit a big bump in the middle of the corner and the steering wheel just shook and I thought ‘oh Christ’” “It was all totally under control” says Collins. “I just had my eyes shut most of the way.”
A couple of switches are flipped. The Cosworth grunts and stumbles into life. Senna finds first and trundles away. He pushes on the throttle. The turbo four’s note shivers, then harshens. Ayrton Senna is a rally driver.
Alongside Senna, through the intercom, Collins mentions that he needs to use the car next weekend: that’s his way of calming Senna. The first turn is an easy, downhill right. The Sierra goes in wide and late and understeers off embarrassingly slowly. “I thought, yeah, this bloke really listens to everything I’m going to say” grinned Collins afterwards. For Ayrton Senna, however, that tiny mistake was a lesson learned. This Sierra, like all rally cars on loose surfaces, doesn’t react like a racing car. At the end of the run Senna seems intrigued. “Mmm, I almost went off at the first corner. So it is … surprising. Because I really went into the first corner like a normal car. It was stupid. Because you have to push it.” His sentences shorten – is Senna enjoying this? “Before the corner you have to commit.
Now I understand why you have to use opposite lock and use the traction a bit – to keep the car really biting on the ground. If you try to just go round, you don’t go round. You just go straight on.” Ayrton Senna, clamped tight in the Kevlar bucket seat, is no longer a disinterested spectator: there are new challenges to be tackled here. “So Phil gave me a few tips and some ideas and let me know where there is an easy corner or a difficult corner.
Learning. It’s much more difficult than you expect to do it properly. You have to have a lot of knowledge of the technical things – and a lot of confidence. And without the knowledge you cannot have the confidence. “It’s very difficult. It makes you give even more credit I to rally drivers. Who do it the way that they do. Like they go the first time in a forest and they do it. So, I tell you, it’s not for me. No. Just for today. Just for fun and that’s it.” Collins has been listening. “But the first stage of anybody’s rallying is a non-stop fright. But as you get the confidence to know what the car will do and the way that it will grip, and a normal rally would be on a bit better, less rutted, less bumpy track and that would make it easier.”
“And you have to put a lot of effort in here” – Senna grips his forearm – “to really keep it together, like when you hit some bumps in the middle of the corner. The steering wheel is fighting, and suddenly the steering wheel starts to go away. So I realise that, halfway through, and I start to put a lot of pressure here – and if you don’t do that for sure you lose it at the corner. Suddenly the steering wheel will go away from you.” Senna wants another run with Collins alongside. Then he will try the other cars, moving from small to large, simple to complex. There’s Harry Hockly’s CCC Vauxhall Nova Sport, tiny and tight and neat: in fact, this is Hockly’s number two car, based 20 miles down. the road at his Newtown, Powys headquarters. After the 1300cc, front-drive Nova, Senna will try Callum Guy’s Volkswagen Junior Rally Team Golf GTi, a glorious hunk of David Sutton Motorsport-prepared Group A hardware, polished and preened by two fastidious mechanics. Next will come Allan Edwards’ fearsome home-built four-wheel drive Ford Escort, powered by 3.4 litres of four-earn Ford-Cosworth GA V6. Edwards, from Kington, Herefordshire – close to Phil Collins’ Pontrilas base – will sit in his car and coach Senna. To close with, Senna will move from 4wd Escort to 4wd MG Metro 6R4 in bog-standard 250bhp Clubman specification. As a man who has never been to Wales before “where are we?” he asked at one point.
“Tell me how far we are from Oulton Park and then I will have some idea” – never seen a forest rally stage before, Senna has an especially daunting task today. But so far he’s making light work of it. He and Collins are back after run two, discussing his progress against the background drone of an engine cooling fan swishing like a helicopter rotor. “I told you, I have too weak a heart for big emotions!” says Senna. “That was good!” “The boy’s getting the feel for it now” confirms Collins. “It’s just about the time for him to get into somebody else’s car.
That was very good.” “Phil gave me a lot of help, a lot of small things. But it’s still very, very hard to judge. I don’t have enough capability to judge exactly what I am doing, and what I should be doing. Sometimes I feel that I’m going to lose it – and then sometimes there’s a big margin. And then you overdo one place because you don’t pay enough attention, the steering goes a bit light and then.” Collins has been thinking. “The other big difference that I noticed, initially, was that Ayrton is picking tarmac lines. He’s going in wide – and this is the first thing that he has to get out of his mind. He must go in tighter because it’s so loose on the outside. That’s a common mistake, but now we’ve got him to come in early, he’s gaining confidence. The boy’s getting very good.” Mechanic Martin Roberts helps Senna into the Nova.
Harry Hockly’s seat is bolted to the floor, close up against the wheel. Senna fits, just. There’s no intercom, so Senna pays close attention to Roberts’ briefing. Flick the fuel-pumps on, press the start button. And what is Senna saying? “I would like to try all the cars, and then can I try my two favourites again at the end?” Ayrton Senna is getting into rallying. As the Nova pulls off, Phil Collins is talking about Ayrton Senna. “Well, you can see the talent of the guy within two-and-a-half miles. He made a right balls of the first corner, but you could feel the embarrassment coming down the intercom. Straight away he said ‘I’m so sorry’ and he realised it’s no good driving this car slowly, you’ve got to get to grips with it. And he started throwing it a bit. “By the time we did the second run the guy was driving with a lot of confidence. Apart from having the hand brake button pushed in on the hand brake” – the Sierra has a fly-off hand brake fitted – “and I could feel the full frustration bit of ‘what-is-this?’ I had to explain three times ‘don’t forget the hand brake button’. And I got him to be much smoother with the throttle. He was tending to be on or off. Because the concept with any tarmac event is that you are either on the throttle or on the brakes – there’s no halfway. With this job, you’re controlling the car on the throttle.”
The Nova has returned and Ayrton is putting the car in perspective. It has a limited-slip differential fitted to tie down the front end. “You’re always fighting. Even when you are on the straight. The steering wheel is twitching and the back of the car is moving around. Is not so powerful. So in some ways is easier to drive. Is slower reaction to the throttle than the Sierra. The Sierra is nervous – when you touch it, it goes away. So here is easier. “But you have a much better front here than in the Sierra. Here, you can position the front end where you want, and the rear is the loose bit. The Sierra is a more equal car – and if you don’t use the power you start understeering. This is a much more positive-front car.” Roberts explains that Hockly left-foot-brakes: “You keep the power on and brake with the left foot.” Senna looks bemused, and slides his left foot tentatively over the centre pedal. Something else has worried him.
The violent assault the underside of the car gets from the loose shale surface. “But, I tell you, for somebody that hasn’t done this before it’s a bad feeling. Like you are destroying the car, you understand? When you drive you just hear bang!-bott!-crash! To start with, until you get used to the idea that it’s OK, the car is built to take this, you are thinking ‘oh my God – it’s going to break and I’m going to screw this and that’” Senna walks over to the Golf. Roberts takes stock. “He’s one gear too high, and, with this car, because he hasn’t quite got it committed, the car is drifting over to the outside where you don’t want to be. But, coming back, was getting better and better. But, as he says, the pedals are so close together to suit Harry and the brake pedal is so hard for Harry – there’s no feel to it and Ayrton can’t get used to that. And his feet were getting mixed up.” Roberts grins. “Good for a first time, though.” Each time Senna gets in a new car, his driving looks more natural, less forced. His corner lines have gone from racetrack to rally-stage, his throttle foot is now used to balance the car, dig for grip. There’s less rev-drop as the 170bhp Golf scurries through the stage, Senna’s entry to the yump is more confident. The noise is harder, more consistent, hanging on in for longer. He’s started to go for it. “Good fun! With the power steering the Golf is easier for you.” Ayrton Senna has just broken sweat. “You have more control.
The steeririg never tried to go away from me. A bit more power than the Nova, not as much as the Cosworth – it’s more in the middle. “A bit. understeering when you turn, which is the opposite of the Nova. You have more confidence in here. It’s more even. It’s a bit softer on the bumps than the others. Maybe it’s not going to be very fast, but it’s easier to drive, more comfortable, so you feel more confident. Can I have another go?” A good car to learn in, then: and, at 26, Ayrton Senna would be eligible for a place in the Volkswagen Junior Rally Team were it to expand its horizons and take in Brazil as well as. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. . . . He’s delayed on his return run. There is an explanation. “I went over a big rock and the car flew in the air. So, on the way back we stopped and moved the rock.” Senna sees the concern on the Volkswagen people’s faces. “Ahh” he laughs, “why, did you think I crashed?” There’s more to come in the Golf. “It’s an easy one. For a beginner like me it’s easier to get more confidence. Now, after a few runs, it begins to look like it does not have enough power. But that’s normal. Like in Formula One when you don’t test for a couple of weeks, when you jump in the car it’s big power. After half an hour everything is easy. For a beginner, though, this car is easier than’ the other two.” Allan Edwards is going to show Ayrton his wonderful Escort 4wd. Edwards looks like a farmer in his old Barbour jacket. “We’re on tarmac suspension, having just come back from Epynt” he explains: Ayrton knows nothing of the Epynt ranges. He’s being snapped into the co-driver’s seat – and Phil Price, designer ,of Edwards’ neat four-wheel drive system, just mentions casually that the car has 460bhp. “Four-hundred-and-sixty?” Senna looks perturbed.
“Are you sure you want me to sit here? Eh? My God. Four-hundred-and-sixty?” He looks at Allan and grabs his wrist. “You swear that we are going to go slow?” “Slow” confirms Allan with an innocent smile. This is frighten-the-Grand-Prix-driver-time. Edwards rockets off in a blast of race-car noise, the V6 barking off the hillside, the right foot,hard into the torque curve. He is not driving slowly. The Escort draws up. Senna pulls off his helmet. His face is red, his hair plastered down. “Bloody hell. That’s very powerful, eh? My God. It’s really” Senna searches for a superlative. “It’s very, very powerful. He stays more in the air than on the ground!” Then comes the checklist. “I tell you, it feels like it has a lot of grip. It’s funny. When the car is on the ground it has a lot of bite. And you are able to use even more of the power than in the Sierra. Because when he was sideways around the bends and going wide, he would go on the power and the front would come back.
Impressive. But he said he was going to take it easy. I wouldn’t go with him if he said, right, now we try ” The two men swap seats. This will be the test for Senna. Big power and all-wheel grip demand commitment. If he has been pussyfooting he will have to stop now or be found out. Push has turned to shove. The run is quick and very aggressive. Ayrton and Allan talk in the cockpit when the engine is cut. Edwards: “On tight bends if you drift off and get the power back in you come straight back on.” Senna: “I realise.” Edwards: “That was excellent, though. A few days in a car like this on better forestry, and you would be equalling the National Championship leaders in no time. No two ways about it. He’s sweating, look Senna: “Good. Hard. My arms are stretched out, and it is very powerful and with the front wheels driving you have to hold it. And once we went wrong and I was frightened to hold it and he gave me a hand and we got it back.” Edwards: “I grabbed the wheel! But keep the power in. The thing will climb back onto the road like a tractor if you keep the power in.” There is a Metro 6R4 to be tried – but you get the impression the Ayrton Senna will tame the Escort again before the day is out. Edwards enjoyed riding with Ayrton. “I was amazed to see a driver adapt so quickly to forestry driving. I’m not the best of passengers at any time and I was very reluctant to go back in there: I don’t mind when it’s somebody else’s car, but in my own car I don’t like it. But he’s been up there a few times which I haven’t, and he knows the terrain and where the bumps are. “He impressed me. He’s here to learn. In a matter of hours he would be a national class forest driver and I would say after a week in a car he would be taking on the World class drivers. Because he’s got the experience and he knows what it’s all about.” The white Metro flies: there’s an instant rhythm there, a conciseness to the lines and the attack. “At the start it was different because it is softer than the other cars, especially the Escort which I drove last. So it was a bit loose to start with. Being soft it moved around too much for me. “It took me halfway through the stage to understand the drivability of the car. On the way back I start to try harder.
Allan’s Escort changes direction much better, it puts you more where you want to be. It’s just too stiff, like he said. And the Metro is powerful- but I drove the Escort just before and that is so powerful, I didn’t feel it so much. The Escort is huge power.” After another Metro-run, Senna is shuffling through his thoughts. There is a line of small blisters across his palms. Why didn’t he bring his driving gloves. “Because I thought it would be like road cars.” he shakes his head. “The thing is, in a racing car, you know exactly each corner, because you do that, I don’t know, one hundred times a day in testing. You know precisely how bumpy it is, where you make the line, and you have to be that precise. You know the run-off area, and you have more. . . more feeling of all the things. Here, it’s much more natural. Because you have to improvise all the time. You have to have a lot of judgement. There is no room for error. Otherwise you go off the road. . “In the racing car you have the kerb. If you slide a little bit in the middle of the corner, you go over the kerb or over the grass as the last thing. Here, no. You don’t have the choice.” Can Senna compare the satisfaction of the perfect Formula One lap and the perfect charge through a forest’ stage? His answer is a surprise. “It’s difficult because here there is much more excitement, I think. It’s much more exciting here than in a Formula One car. Because here you don’t have the top, top speed, but you have a tremendous acceleration. In the Escort, unbelievable acceleration – and it’s rough. “It’s a much more instant emotion than it is in a Formula One car. In a Formula One car you go-go-gogo-go! and then you come down. Here you go to a peak and come down, go to a peak and come down. It’s a different approach.” There are more runs. In the Escort and the Sierra. Senna’s last try in the Cosworth is wonderful. He takes the final left-hander in three jolts of oversteer, running the car up the shale piled on the track edge to straighten his exit. The engine note doesn’t waver, the hands pummeling the steering wheel. He looked like a rally driver: a brave rally driver. Martin Roberts, Harry Hockly’s mechanic, is watching high on the outside of he bend. Roberts looks pleased.
“He’s found his commitment, hasn’t he? That one was really impressive. And I thought he was supposed to be a prima donna.” “The only problem is I don’t want to stop. I want to carry on” says Senna, out of the car, helmet off, pondering the day.”He’s a good boy”. glows Collins. “There’s a big difference now. He’s a lot smoother now. Bloody good. He drove it very well, no question about it. He’s really got the feel of it – he can feel the car. You can sense that he knows what the car is going to do after, say, the jump. He’s got the feel for it – you can keep an entry for him on the RAC”
“It was good” says Senna, shaking hands. “Thank you all very much. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would – and I always bear in mind that you needed the cars next ‘week!” Time to go. The cars move down the stage, the service vans pack up and head off. In a cafe at the entrance to the stage, over soup and a cream-cake, Ayrton Senna attempts to rationalise rallying. He looks happy, relaxed, a thousand miles away from the niggles of Formula One. A day out. “It was something very different. You have to be very rough with the car and I never did that before. You just tend not to do it. You see and you back off.” Would he, for example, like to drive a Sierra Cosworth on the Lombard-RAC Rally? He pauses, looks out of the window at a pine-covered hillside. “I wouldn’t do it. No. Because the dangers are there as you don’t have the experience and you don’t have the knowledge. The dangers are too big. To make a mistake and crash. I don’t think it’s worth taking the risk.” What about the challenge of forest rallying at night on the RAC? A shrug. “Heh-heh. No way.” . Would he like to try rallying when he retires from Formula One? Another pause, a’ thoughtful look. “I don’t think so. Because it is in the learning process where you take the biggest risks.
“To go rallying the risk is far, far too high. And I have taken enough risks in Formula One to be where I am. But maybe to drive in an open place, you have a track where if you make a mistake you just go off then, yes, try more. Try harder to find the limit. I would probably enjoy that. But just for myself, just to try, like we did today. To learn more.” So what will Ayrton Senna remember of today? “I think, overall, it has been much more exciting than I expected. Much more’ involving. It has involved me much more than I thought. I didn’t feel the time going by. It went so fast because I was finding out, and learning more and going harder and harder. Having some moments ‘… it was very exciting. Feeling the car in the air and then bottoming. Something I have never experienced before in a road car. In a road car you go easy, eh?” Ayrton Senna’s thumbnail definition of pressure is when the car is perfect and he, for whatever reason, doesn’t get the best out of it: that is pressure. In Formula One it is going too early on his final set of qualifying tyres in the JPS Lotus 98T and ruining his shot at pole. Today, although low-key, produced a different kind of tension. “Those people there, with the cars, they were curious to see what was going to happen. As much as I was. I felt that everybody was curious to see where I was going to go off the road, and, you know, what was going to happen. That was the fun. Because it was so unknown: Everything was so new there was a big question mark on what was going to be the progression . of things. That feeling was the excitement. Ninety-nine percent of those people thought I was going to stick it in the trees.” And there’s more. “Apart from ttie races that I did, testing or anything, this was probably the best day I ever had in England.” Or even in Wales. “Believe me I or not. Outside of the races that I did. For fun, this was the best day.
That’s why I say I didn’t expect it to be so interesting. “There is so much to say. Plenty of excitement to think about. The next step would be to try” – he fumbles for the phrase – “two or three of these works cars, in a place which is a bit wider, less bumpy, so you can go faster, and use more of the potential of the car. More speed. So you can go faster. ” Senna leans back on his chair and grins. Phil Collins and his crew walk in. “We’re off now, Ayrton. Been super to meet you, good luck in the Grands Prix.” “No, thank you for all your help – it was a great experience for me. Thank you again.” The two men shake hands. Just as he walks off, Collins turns around. “Oh, and Ayrton, I’ll be on the ‘phone next week about my test drive in your JPS, OK?” Ayrton Senna smiles. “OK, Phil, no problem. We just have to fit a passenger seat, that’s all.”
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