Riding with the future of rallying


17 Sep 2019

Credit: Subaru Motorsports USA

Writing about cars for a living has its plus points – I get to experience many things that most petrolheads and motorsport fans can only dream of, but it’s very much an observational job though. I tell stories, I don’t get my hands dirty, and I don’t go all that fast… usually.

I’ve been lucky enough over the years to ride shotgun in a few rather special machines, including the all-conquering Andretti Autosport Volkswagen Beetle rallycross car with Tanner Foust at the wheel, and Steve Biagioni’s V8-powered Nissan 200SX S13 drift car. Experiences like this are fun, sure, but they serve a useful purpose, giving a unique understanding of just what a driver and car are doing when they’re on track – liken it to a football pundit who once played in the Premier League. I haven’t raced, but I’ve come close.

At the Goodwood Festival of Speed earlier this year Subaru Motorsports USA gave me the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a rally co-driver by throwing me into its US championship-leading WRX STI with nonother than Oliver Solberg, one of rallying’s top young talents, at the wheel. Now, I’m a fan of rallying. I appreciate that rally drivers are immensely talented, but the closest I’ve come to understanding that for real is by crashing into several trees on my way to setting the 19th fastest stage time on Dirt Rally 2.0.

Credit: Matt Stryker/Subaru Motorsports USA

Solberg, son of 2003 World Rally and 2014-15 World Rallycross champion Petter is partiall campaigning in the American Rally Association series this year driving a Vermont Sports Car-prepared WRX STI, dubbed the VT19r, which is adorned in that famous blue, yellow, and gold livery that everyone from my generation grew up obsessing over. Comparing its performance to the cars we see on stages in Europe, the VT19r is somewhere between a fully-blown WRC car, and a second-tier R5 car.

The engine is of course a 2.0-litre four-pot boxer unit, delivering around 330 bhp through a SADEV six-speed sequential ‘box. There’s a full FIA-spec roll cage and fuel cell, barely any creature comforts (although you do get a heated front windscreen), and a smattering of carbon fibre, just in case the bare dashboard, exposed wires, five-point harness, tight-fitting seat, and AC/DC-level soundtrack weren’t enough to remind you that you were in a serious bit of kit.

Despite being a largely demonstrative event, Goodwood’s rally stage is no gimmick. Winding through the forests on the Goodwood estate the course, designed by the great Hannu Mikkola (who turned up just before I got in the car), features a range of corners, surfaces, and the odd jump over its 1.7-miles. To the unsuspecting viewer, an onboard video from the stage could easily pass for a stage on the world championship’s Wales Rally GB. It’s even regarded as a genuine rally stage by motorsport governing body Motorsport UK, and I had to get a full rally co-driver licence for six months just to be allowed to sit in the car (so if any readers need a co-driver who’s no good with directions between now and New Year’s Eve, I’m your man).

Credit: Matt Stryker/Subaru Motorsports USA

The course begins with a high-speed tarmac run lined with hay bales inches off the car before you head into the forest. The change as you head into the greenery feels like someone’s hit a light switch – the environment switches from bright sun to dark tree cover, creating an almost-indoor feel.

It’s in that forest where you really start to get an appreciation for just how good these drivers are. Plus Solberg is only 17 – he’s good right now, as a kid, so think about just how good he’ll be in a few years. As we tore through the forest I was looking dead ahead at the tree we’re about to hit.But before I’d even processed that thought he’s had a little tickle of the handbrake, the car has snapped in a completely different direction and the tree is a million miles away in the rear-view mirror.

Similar to the somewhat comparable rallycross cars I’ve experienced, the impressive acceleration wasn’t the biggest takeaway from the ride, but rather the braking. Stopping a car on silky smooth flat tarmac is one thing, but bringing a 1,315 kg machine to a halt on a loose surface while going downhill is mind-boggling. And a little painful, but at least I knew the belts were done up properly.

Credit: Lars Gange/Subaru Motorsports USA

In fact, speaking of those mixed surfaces, thanks to the car’s specially developed suspension, the transition from sealed to loose surface was almost seamless. It’s almost as if the car was a hovercraft, but one that the driver could actually control.

Thankfully Solberg had done countless runs of this course over the weekend, so I wasn’t needed to read out pacenotes – good job too, because as you’ll see from the onboard video below, I was too busy getting face-ache from grinning too much. Although he was wrestling a 330 bhp monster through some rich guy’s garden, Solberg was completely unflustered, calmly telling me which corners were slippy, where the big jump was, and where he’d lost time, all while barely even blinking.

Rally drivers have always seemed superhuman in my eyes, and not just for their ability to wake up at 4AM to go to ‘work’ in sometimes sub-zero temperatures. Now I don’t think they are, I know they are.

Check out the full onboard video of my ride with Oliver Solberg below: