Best seat in the house

2011 Mini John Cooper Works WRC

Where else can you get to sit alongside a world class driver and experience such thrills?

You don’t need a better illustration of the fortunes of the two flagship motorsport championships than this: one has a prime slot on the BBC while the other has been consigned to the dark recesses of the satellite TV wilderness.

No prizes for guessing which is which – you won’t find world rallying on the Beeb. There’s no denying that Formula One’s following is huge, but recent years have also seen dissatisfaction amongst fans.

Overtaking and the general spectacle has been lacking, witness recent attempts to reignite interest with performance boost buttons and moveable wings. Before all this, even refueling was an artificial prop to inject life into a yawn-inducing sport.

The same can’t be said of rallying, however. Okay, so I’m a little bit biased, but there has always been big skids, even bigger jumps and the tension that comes from two blokes in a car against the clock on roads with the potential to dislodge fillings in an instant. What’s not to like?

Of course, much of the fun of motorsport is getting up close to the action, something that’s increasingly difficult to do with F1 and its obstructive catch fencing and acres of run off areas.

Rallying is quite the opposite; there’s more consideration for safety issues now than a few decades ago, but you’re still within eye and earshot of the action. And besides, having to dodge the mud and dust is part of the fun.

You can go a step further by experiencing the action first hand from the co-driver’s seat. Sure, a few F1 teams have dabbled with two-seat cars for rich (and medically fit) fans and corporate clients, but that appears to have fallen out of fashion.

Not so in rallying. Rally shows, like the recent one at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire, can offer people the opportunity to sit alongside a top driver in a wide variety of cars old and new. It’s only when suited, booted and strapped in do you fully appreciate the talent required to complete a competitive stage at 110 per cent, let alone a demonstration run at a whisker over a mile long.

So thank you Mini for letting me sit alongside Dani Sordo – nice chap, full of enthusiasm – and experience exactly how quick the new Mini rally car is. Straight from the previous week’s dusty Sardinian stages where the Spaniard scored a debut sixth place, the car wasn’t ideally suited to grippy Tarmac. Dani didn’t appear to mind, though, throwing the Mini around with ease.

Like all pro drivers he makes it look easy, yet he was trying hard on every run – when times were being recorded ‘just for fun’ it wasn’t a surprise. The fact you can sit alongside a driver, see him working and experience the same things he does is pretty special.

It also helps to create a better understanding of the sport. We’ve all seen the onboard pictures from F1 cars and the driver looking like he’s going to the shops. Believe me it’s nothing of the sort, but without the ability to see first hand you’re less appreciative. I thought rally drivers worked hard but didn’t realise quite how much – it’s more physical than F1 and the margin for error is much, much less.

Whether you’re lucky enough to score a passenger ride or not, it’s worth checking out world rallying. With new manufacturers entering the sport – Mini and, later, Volkswagen – the championship isn’t short of excitement. If enough interest is registered a slot on ‘proper’ telly isn’t impossible. My brief insider’s view has certainly boosted my enthusiasm.

By Iain Dooley

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