A BRAVE NEW

David Evans was the first jour­nal­ist to get him­self in­side

Motor Sport News - - Track Test: M-sport’s 2017 Car -

G

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

Evans tried to avert his eyes from all of the new car’s se­crets The car has con­ducted hun­dreds of miles of test­ing al­ready

Lev­els The chas­sis has to work hard to cope with the high 2017 power

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