Escort rally car fires the passions of Ford's WRC star
They belong to different generations of Ford's rallying heritage. One is a former drivers' world champion from the days when rallies covered several thousand kilometres and 36 hours behind the wheel without sleep was commonplace. The other is one of today's young stars of the sport, chasing his first world title in an era when rallies are more of a sprint than a marathon and are fought out under a constant media spotlight.
But although there is 37 years separating them, the glint in their eyes and the animated chatter about items as diverse as synchromesh gearboxes, rack and pinion steering and BDA engines displayed a shared love of a Ford car that, if not yet antique, certainly classifies as historic.
Mikko Hirvonen, current leader of the FIA World Rally Championship for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, and Bjorn Waldegård, world champion for the Blue Oval in 1979, had just climbed from behind the wheel of a Ford Escort RS1800 rally car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, England (July 11 -13, 2008). Both were gently perspiring in the warmth of the British summer as they swapped tales of the enjoyment they had just derived from their time in one of the sport's legendary cars.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Escort, a car that became an icon across Europe on both the public roads and rallying's special stages. And this was the model in which the 64-year-old Swede became the sport's first-ever drivers' world champion.
While Waldegård has never lost the buzz gained from taking the wheel of what he describes as 'the most fun rally car to drive', this was a great opportunity for 27-year-old Hirvonen to experience a works-specification Escort RS1800 - and he was extremely impressed.
"I would sell my house for one of those. I've always been a big Ford Escort fan and I just love the sound of a BDA engine. When I started in rallycross I drove an Escort but this is the first time I've driven one with a BDA engine and it's amazing. I could stay in there and have fun all day," said Hirvonen, whose more usual mount in the WRC is a four-wheel drive, 300bhp Focus RS World Rally Car.
In comparison this Escort was rear-wheel drive and the BDA produced around 250bhp. It was this model that first inspired Hirvonen's passion for rallying. "When I was growing up I used to watch videos of Ari Vatanen who won the WRC with this type of Escort in 1981. He was one of my Escort heroes and I remember the amazement of the whole thing. My first memory was watching a video of Ari in Finland that year on the Humalamaki stage, driving through there with all the big jumps. Those guys were big legends, the real gladiators of rallying. I would have loved to have been there and driven it myself in those days. I can now understand what they did," he said.
Waldegård offered the briefest of advice to his compatriot before Hirvonen was let loose on the gravel special stage. After a couple of steady (well, steady by his standards) learning laps, Hirvonen was quickly displaying the Escort's full repertoire of power slides through the flowing corners and handbrake turns into the tighter hairpin bends.
With rallying's technical regulations today so different from those of the 1970s, comparison between rally cars from different generations serves only to highlight how much the sport has changed.
"The Escort was so easy to drive, but to drive it fast you have to understand how it works," explained Hirvonen. "It's fun to be able to go sideways so much. It's rear-wheel drive and the wheels are spinning all the time so the power feels amazing. The Escort is harder to drive physically than the Focus because you feel all the bumps and stones coming through the steering, so you have to be a bit more focused and hold the steering wheel harder. In contrast, the Focus has power steering.
"Because there is so much power it's possible to control the car with the throttle when it goes sideways. With a rear-wheel drive car getting sideways helps it turn, but I don't do that with the Focus. Keeping the car as straight as possible is the secret to driving fast in today's rally cars. Four-wheel drive cars will always be faster but they aren't as enjoyable as sliding around in a two-wheel drive car.
"The suspension is surprisingly good. There were some big bumps and I didn't have to worry about them. It's strong and the feeling with the brakes is better than I thought," Hirvonen enthused.
Waldegård enjoyed being reunited with the model that brought him a world title. "I can easily get up early to drive an Escort!" he joked. "I could see from Mikko's face that he loved driving it too. He showed me I was lucky that he wasn't in this business when I was driving!
"It's a car I remember so well and of the all the rally cars I've driven, the most fun car of them all was the Escort Mk2. It may be the most forgiving car I've ever driven in my career. You can enter a corner far too fast and somehow the car just sorts out the problem for you. That fantastic engine had about 250bhp and there was power all the time.
Waldegård was one of Ford's 'gladiators' who helped make the Escort one of the most-loved rally cars of all time. The likes of Hannu Mikkola, Timo Makinen, Roger Clark and Vatanen helped the Swede notch up a long list of wins in the world's classic rallies during the 1970s and early 1980s.
"I was lucky because after I left Lancia in 1976 I had an invitation to drive an Escort at Ford's rally base at Boreham. I didn't know how good it would be but it made me champion in 1979 and I had some great years with the car. I stopped in 1992 as a professional driver. I still compete in historic rallies or drive at special events and I'm always happy when I have an Escort in which to do that," said Waldegård.
As the two men sat and compared notes after their turn behind the wheel, the conversation turned to the massive changes the sport has undergone since the Escort was born.
"It must have been difficult when Bjorn was competing," mused Hirvonen. "You had to drive for five days with little sleep, because they were driving days and nights, and events had 70 stages or more. It would have been harder physically than it is now because rallies are shorter. But you have to be on the limit more now. They were on the limit as well, but now we're talking about tenths of a second. I would be happier to drive a five- day rally in a Mk2 Escort than in a World Rally Car. It would be stressful to drive a WRC for that length of time.
With that it was time to head for home, the three-hour flight to Helsinki leaving Hirvonen with plenty of time to ponder just how he was going to break the news to his partner that they were selling their home in Jyvaskyla to buy a 30-year-old Escort rally car....