“It’s all I want to drive, from now, forever”
The six hours from 5am on August 15, 2019. I’d like to tell you about them, although my reasoning is hardly honorable. You see, I chiefly want to tell myself about them, so when I get older and more decrepit, I can search for this story online and simply remember.
Because I can’t believe how lucky I was. Every day since, I have picked up my phone and watched two clips: one showing Hyundai’s World Rally Championship car doing a full stage launch, the other of it pinned and pivoting through a pair of corners. And I’m driving. And I have to pinch myself. Normally, every story we do involves compromise: It rarely pans out exactly how we want and almost never exceeds our expectations, because we set them so high. But on this occasion...
It started back in March with a phone call to Hyundai WRC. Would the team be up for sending a WRC car to us in Portimão? Yes, it would. There’s a catch: Although it’s a track test, we want it in full gravel trim, because it’s just funnier. Race teams don’t usually understand funnier, only faster, but Hyundai has a sense of humor. “No problem,” came the reply. Oh, and can we have it with all the trimmings—awning, jacks, mechanics, and so on? “Of course—do you want a driver, too?” Uh, we’d rather not.
A month later and I’m on Google Maps. I’ve been to Portimão dozens of times for various events. I love the track and the surrounding roads, but I want to get my bearings and—hang on, what’s that just to the west of the circuit? That looks suspiciously like a bunch of dirt tracks and off-road routes. I call Portimão in a state of excitement. Are they? They are. Can we? We can. What about noise? What about noise?
Stars align, and carry on aligning. To a rally team used to spannering under massive pressure, a 5am start is positively relaxing. Team Top Gear, all perky and bushy-tailed and buoyant with expectation, load kit into the Ford Ranger Raptor. At this stage, the Raptor isn’t making much of an impression beyond the fact that it’s a useful bit of kit. In the pre-dawn dimness, its first role is to mount a berm and cast extra light onto the i20 lurking in its inflatable awning, so the mechanics can get to work.
Hauling and lighting aren’t the Raptor’s sole reason for being, of course. In America, the F-150 Raptor is derived from off-road racing. I’ve driven one—it’s enormous, pillowy, and ponderous. What we have in our market is the Ranger Raptor, powered by diesel, but still riding on generous Fox racing shocks. It doesn’t quite have the same “drive me off the nearest cliff, dude!” mentality, but it’s got a 10-speed auto and you can send all 210hp and 500Nm to the rear wheels alone. It’ll arrive there roughly two seconds after you ask for it. Promptness and precision are not its watchwords.
But there’s more to performance fun than track driving alone. Now, I’m not saying you need to go and buy a WRC car, because one suspension unit probably costs the same as the entire Raptor, but I am saying that once away from a circuit, there’s also more than one way to skin a fun off-roader. The Raptor is an extreme-sports Defender: It does all the climbing, bumping, and twisting, but prefers to leap into every challenge with a whoop and some unnecessary speed.
So, while the Hyundai has its tires attached (gravel hard compound, €1,400 or roughly P78,900 a set), I remove the Ford from its berm and point it at the dark hills. It would be better with a V8 and some noisy pipes—the diesel soundtrack is too plodding and wheezy to inject adrenaline. But the chassis is doing the job. It surges through compressions at speed with just a hint of wheel splay, and romps up rocky, water-eroded trails with might and intention. The extra 150mm track width over a standard Ranger means the Raptor feels much less topply, the BF Goodrich tires only scrabbling when I give it everything uphill in rear-drive. I soon realize that coming out here with the mindset of wanting to get it stuck is: a) going to prove quite difficult; and, b) would leave me a long way from a WRC car I’m desperate to drive.
Rally cars have the best driving positions of all: You sit high enough to see out properly and you can touch the steering wheel with your elbows, but you’ll never get a chest/wheel interface because a five-point harness locks you back tight into a seat that’s the best you’ve ever sat in. Rally teams understand how important driver comfort is to the operation of the machine. Roll the knuckles of your right hand off the steering rim and, congratulations, you’ve just downshifted. A small reach and pull of the same half-frisbee gets you an upshift. The handbrake is a three-inch reach to the right, and you never need to move your heels to push a pedal.
What this means is that you drive the most flamboyant car here with the tiniest of inputs. I’m skating over tuition, the push-this, don’t-touch-that, the stalling and returns to pits, because I don’t want to be reminded that I had to walk before I could run, had to drive in anything other than max attack mode. But when I do...
Driving Nirvana. This is me, in a nutshell. It’s just perfection. The most agile yet friendly, responsive yet smooth, rowdy yet calm, fast yet flattering car I’ve ever driven. It’s all about weight transfer and how you control it. Take a hairpin: I did, many times. It’s a left-hander. So as you brake, jink right, feel the rear end turn you away from the corner, ease the brake up so the angle doesn’t get too big, then turn left. A quarter turn of lock will be more than enough to have the rear end arcing. At this stage, you’ll have 90 degrees of the turning done, with the back end still swinging. Now’s a good time to pin the throttle and straighten the steering. No, you’re not even at the apex yet, but trust the momentum and engineering and you’ll be fine. I swear the thing knows where the exit is better than I do.
No active differentials here, no four-wheel steering, no active damping, yet the i20 WRC seems semi-autonomous, like my blunt inputs are being sharpened, translated, and corrected on their way to the wheels. It’s genius, shows the sheer scope and ability of mechanical craftsmanship when money is no object. It blows my mind. How can I be viewing a corner from my side window almost until the point it slips beneath the glass, and still be confident of getting the nose on the apex? How is it possible that my tiny inputs have such an effect on the car’s trajectory, yet rocks, ruts, and berms don’t deflect it at all? How can an experience this intense be so effortlessly delivered, so high in confidence, so low in jeopardy? It seems impervious to outside forces. If it weren’t for the dust, I’d swear I was gliding over the surface.
So there I am, cocooned in comfort, whistling as I work, while outside, all is noise, dirt, and mayhem. My colleagues later tell me that the frantic crackles and pops of the anti-lag system are the only way they can tell where I am. Inside, gravel machine-guns the arches, and although dust softens dawn’s golden rays, I still have to do the full Vatanen Climb Dance as I slide toward the light.
When they finally get me to stop, it’s only to say how cool it looks tearing around, how cool it looks now that the box arches, vents, graphics, aerials, and wings are covered in dust. For a few laps, we get Raptor and i20 out there together, chasing each others’ dust, looking utterly different but oddly companionable, but then our time is up—we need to hand the baton on to the next test. I choose to do this by taking the WRC car on track. It does 192kph flat in sixth down the main straight (while making more noise than much faster cars in the process), and takes every one of Portimão’s corners the same way it did the hairpin: with a flick of the wrist, a balletic swing, and a four-wheel slide all the way through, handing out an object lesson in fun to every steely-eyed track car in the pitlane. It’s all I want to drive, from now, forever.
Memo to me, for future times: This really happened. And it was ace.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.