Silverstone Rally School

In January 2004 I spent a day with the Silverstone Rally School learning and practising some of the basic skills required for off-road driving.  Although I did not come away an expert, I now understand how some of the manoeuvres should be done and have progressed some way towards being able to perform them.

Instructor's briefing Two of the Escort Mk IIs

The day began with a short presentation from our lead instructor about the cars we were to drive and the basics of two key rally driving skills: the power slide and the hand-brake turn.  The School has a number of elderly Ford Escort Mk IIs each equipped with a powerful two litre engine, high ratio steering, hydraulic hand-brake, full harness and internal roll cage.  The cars were surprisingly lively and performed well in their native environment - mud!  Steering with only 2.1 turns from lock to lock was hard work, but neccessary for single-handed control while wrestling with the gears and hand-brake.  The latter had no release button, essential, as I quickly learned, to fast application and release.

A clean start Power sliding

After accompanying my instructor for a demonstration and some basic advice, I was invited to try power sliding around two cones on a very muddy surface.  My performance followed the classic pattern: timid caution, growing awareness, a level of achievement and finally over-confidence.  Steering with the throttle is exhilarating when you get it right, but a moment's loss of concentration spells disaster.  I guess with practice it becomes automatic like most other driving skills, but training my aging brain to react without thinking could be a long process!

Brake, turn, clutch in ... Hand-brake on, release, clutch out

Next we tried hand-brake turns: steering into a corner and then braking the rear wheels with the hand-brake to make them slide sideways to speed up the turn.  This time I had the edge, as I had mastered this art in my Morris Minor forty years ago on a wet university car park.  If anything it was easier in the Escort, because you did not have to press the release button to apply or release the hand-brake.  So I skipped the first three stages and progressed directly to over-confidence!  Once again the timing of each action - brake, steer in, engage clutch, hand-brake on, hand-brake off, release clutch, throttle - is crucial.  It is very satisfying when you get it right, but only practice can ensure that you do it every time.  When the trail is lined with trees this becomes rather important.

Part of the circuit Instructor's revenge

Following a debrief and some heavy sarcasm from our instructors, we repaired to a local pub for an alcohol free lunch.  Then back for the serious business of the day: putting it all together on the test stage.  The School's rally circuit was quite short, but required all the manoeuvres we had learned in the morning plus a few additional surprises.  After two practice sessions and some more tips from our long-suffering instructors, we faced the ultimate challenge - a timed run.

As the amazing winter sun dropped below the trees we reluctantly abandoned our muddy mounts for the clubhouse, some much needed refreshment, more light-hearted banter, certificates of achievement and a prize for the fastest driver.  It was enormous fun and a great experience for the enthusiast.  But next time I watch a rally on the box I might just appreciate the fine skills involved in controlling a powerful car on a loose surface.