AYRTON SENNA DRIVES RALLY CARS IN THE FORESTS OF WALES AND SAYS HE HAS NEVER HAD MORE FUN
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.
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