Marcus Gronholm doesn't look much like a rally driver. He's too tall, too gangly and he's munching a cookie. There are none of the minders or hangers-on, or any of the faux idolatry associated with a modern Formula One driver. There's just a guy at a table. Were it not for the coat of many colors doubling as a Ford race suit, Gronholm would be anonymous.
Yet this lanky Finnish farmer is a double world rally champion. He won the Acropolis Rally in Greece just weeks ago and, together with Sebastien Loeb and Petter Solberg, is at the vanguard of his generation. Nobody, but nobody, is quicker than Gronholm on a loose surface and, in just a few minutes, I'll be climbing into the co-driver's seat of his 2006 Ford Focus RS World Rally Car.
We're in Cumbria, the beautiful county in the northwest of England that plays host to M-Sport, the organization responsible for Ford's world rally team. Team boss and ex-rally ace Malcolm Wilson has an agreement with the local authorities that allows limited use of the nearby forest. Today, we've been given access to 3.5 miles of an English gravel stage. This is rallying in the raw, just like the good old days.
Before I'm allowed out in the WRC proper, I'm to be taken down the stage in a Group N Ford Fiesta by Roman Kresta, who was a Ford works driver only last year. Based on Ford of Europe's humble supermini, the Fiesta stars in its own one-make series for budding rally drivers. Its 2.0-liter engine delivers 163bhp and 149lb-ft of torque and powers the front wheels through a five-speed dog 'box. The main emphasis is on simplicity and parity - if you're off the pace in the Fiesta, then you've only yourself to blame.
Kresta's results last year were modest (his best finish was fifth). but he's a former Czech rally champion and, by any conventional reckoning, horribly talented. I'm bolted into the Fiesta's passenger seat and Kresta clambers onboard. He starts with an apology. The intercom is behaving like a recalcitrant child and while he can hear me, I can't hear him. The strapline from the old Alien movie springs to mind: "In space, no one can hear you scream."
There's a crackle of exhaust noise and we're off. The course is rough. Very rough. Ford has been testing both cars here for a couple of days and giant ruts have been carved in the track. Kresta reckons it's more like the mountainous terrain of the Acropolis Rally than typical British conditions.
I try to relax and watch the man rather than the terrain, but this is not proving easy. The course takes us out through the forest before it traverses a hill. To my left is craggy hillside, to my right is a not insignificant drop. My brain tells me to relax: the guy's a professional on a public relations exercise, so he's not about to roll Ford's new baby. And yet the lack of correlation between the terrain, the car, and its velocity, generates a surge of adrenaline. Pinned helplessly to the passenger seat, I have no control over my destiny.