A BRAVE NEW
David Evans was the first journalist to get himself inside
eoffrey the Bastard is a modern day Lady Godiva. There’s lots to see, but I’m not looking. Not allowed. Don’t look. Can’t look. When Coventry turned its back on the naked Lady on horseback, one man had a quick look.
Peeping Tom was born and, legend has it, was blinded as soon as his eyes saw what they shouldn’t be seeing.
Malcolm Wilson has promised me history will repeat itself should my eyes wander to areas of the car where they’re not welcome. It’s not easy. There’s newness and intrigue everywhere.
M-sport has extended such privilege to me to be the first journalist in the world to ride a 2017-specification World Rally Car, I’m more than happy to play the game. Not that I could really spill any beans. The all-important bits were kept well and truly under cover all the time I was in the car.
Fine by me. It was the ride I was interested in. Now, Geoffrey. It’s not just Red Bull that names its cars, sliding inside the blue camouflaged Ford Fiesta RS WRC, the first thing you notice is the nameplate on the transmission tunnel. “Geoffrey?” I ask Matthew Wilson. Matthew remains one of the most unstintingly polite people I have ever had the pleasure to work with, which explains the slightly bashful grin following a momentary pause.
“Geoffrey, David, is affectionately known as ‘Geoffrey the Bastard,’” he says, “the parentage… he’s a mule.” He certainly is. On the face of it, this is a 2016 car. But the beguiling livery’s not for show. There are differences among the scoops and intakes – but the biggest change is the exhaust exit point: it pokes out of the middle of the bumper. And just looks as mean as you like. I’ve always had a thing about centrally mounted, single-pipe exhausts. It’s a Peugeot 205 T16 E2 thing.
The note from the rear of the car’s not quite as markedly different as on some of the other 2017 incarnations – certainly it’s nothing like the kind of departure we’ve been hearing from Toyota’s Yaris WRC since the middle of the summer.
There are changes inside, but these are the bits I’m not seeing. The one I can’t help notice is the wheel, which looks much more button-laden than the one Mads Ostberg and Eric Camilli were busy with in Corsica earlier this month.
The reason for this is simple, the new car’s packed with fancy new tech. Those switches can be connected to adjust most things… windscreen wiper speed, the horn. Or they can control a centre differential map.
And that’s what this latest test is all about. So far, Geoffrey’s passed day after day of endurance running on the dirt and survived a Safari-spec shot at Fontjoncouse, the roughest of rough in France’s south-west corner.
But today, it’s about dialing down some meaningful mapping from the centre diff: engine and aero aside, the biggest change to the new-for-next year cars.
“We’ve had a strategy running in the background in the early tests,” says Wilson, “but to all intents and purposes, the centre diff has been locked until now. What we’re after today is a good base map. We’ve going to be doing a seven-kilometre (4.34-mile) loop and we’ve got three maps to try. Are you OK with three laps?” OK doesn’t come close. “Because we’re just working on the mapping, there’s no need to launch the car off the line,” explains Matthew. “So if you’re ready, we’ll get on with it.”
I’m ready. With a twist of a dial, the map’s selected, first gear pulled and the clutch eased out.
I have to admit, the absence of launch control makes the first second or two of my first 2017 experience massively underwhelming.
By second three, the restrictor’s gulping an extra three-mil of air (up from 33mm to 36mm for next season) and feeding it to a bigger blower.
The immediate shove is, always superimpressive (even more so on gravel), but not discernibly different from a current 2016 World Rally Car. The change comes once the thing’s singing. Don’t forget, next year’s engines will deliver a little bit more torque, but it’s top-end power that brings the real revelation.
Up the hill and the stage is into some medium-speed, third and fourth-gear corners and it’s here that you really feel the change. The response and resultant pull is immediate and seemingly incessant.
With a shift light blinking in fifth, we’re into top.
“Feel that?” says Wilson, “still pulling really hard even when we’re in sixth…”
The speed of a modern day World Rally Car is always hugely impressive, but this is something else. I was determined to retain as much objectivity as possible, determined to try to really examine the difference. It simply wasn’t possible. So I started laughing. “It’s something else, isn’t it?” smiles Wilson.
He’s just flicked the handbrake with pinpoint precision around a hairpin right, which has set us towards a blind crest. Matt knows this place perfectly, which is why I’m in no way concerned at the absence of any kind of a lift as the nose heads skyward.
A second or so later, we’re over the top, still gathering speed and now scudding downhill. A compression and braking into a square left awaits. But not before sixth gear and just about everything Geoffrey’s got to give.
“We’re pretty close to the top speed down here,” says Wilson.
And that’s seriously moving, like seriously moving. Trees are flashing past the window at close to 130mph.
I try to brace myself for the compression, but nothing happens. I hear Cumbria connect with the car’s underside, but Reiger’s finest dampen any drama out of the deal.
The next lap is done on a different map, with the centre diff playing a much more active part in proceedings. The difference – even from the co-driver’s seat – is noticeable, particularly in those medium speed corners and under braking from high speed. The car feels squat, set, stable and ferociously efficient.
That’s not all the centre diff, though. There’s been plenty of work elsewhere in this new car.
Matthew, more than anybody, has seen and can appreciate the difference that change has made.
“November or December last year,” he says, “we’d seen the regulations and we knew what was coming. We took a 2016 car and pretty much bolted on the biggest restrictor, just to see what the car would feel like and, more importantly, what the car could cope with.
“In all honesty, it didn’t feel great. OK, we had no issues with anything breaking, but it really felt like there was too much power for the chassis to deal with. That was fine, we knew what we had coming and driving that car at the end of last year gave us some idea for gear ratios. It gave us the chance to dip a toe in the water, not to mention plenty of ideas for what we would do with the clean sheet of paper.”
The boys in the Dovenby design office made very good use of that blank sheet of paper.
“Next year’s going to be so special,” says Matthew. “The first time I drove this [mule] car, I could feel it. And it’s just kept getting better and more impressive. The more time I spent in it, the more you start to look for more speed, more stability, more everything really. At the start, I felt there was a little bit of understeer, just a fraction, so we changed the roll bar at the back and raised the ride height five-mil. Straight away, the car was better. But today we’ve worked on the centre diff and it’s improving even more. The chassis is fantastic.”
Geoffrey has undergone some fairly intensive surgery as M-sport work to replicate the dimensions of what will be the ultimate 2017 World Rally Car next season. Essentially, everything behind the driver and co-driver is new; the whole rear of the car has been reworked.
The second prototype Fiesta, which was due to start testing in Spain this week, will be far closer to the homologation chassis – and that’s when Ford and M-sport will really move through the gears as they close on Casino Square in January.
“I’m so excited about next season,” says Malcolm Wilson. “It’s always the same when we’re working on a new car, the sense of anticipation, the