Published: 00:00, 12 December 2017
Driving experiences offering adrenaline-seekers the chance to try a rally car have been around for decades but, as reporter Dan Wright discovered, few live as long in the memory as the latest offering at Brands Hatch.
When Brands Hatch bosses replaced ageing Peugeot 206s with a fleet of Toyotas in 2015, they knew the decision would do their RallyMaster experience the world of good.
The venerable front-wheel-drive French machines had been trusty workhorses for years – surviving a pounding from a host of inexperienced punters – but the time for change had come.
Works-prepared Toyota GT86s were drafted in as the new weapon of choice, offering eager enthusiasts the chance to handle a tail-happy, rear-wheel-drive rally car.
“The Peugeots were really good cars, but the Toyotas offer a different experience now,” says instructor Andy Elcomb.
“People want to be going sideways and, although we still have the Peugeots for passenger hot laps, the Toyotas are really good.
“They can go sideways easily and that is what the experience is all about.”
RallyMaster gives anyone with a licence the chance to drive the thoroughbred sports car, which comes complete with 198bhp and a six-speed gearbox.
Its front-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive configuration makes the Toyota easy to drift with varying levels of success, helped by its light weight and low centre of gravity.
The tight and twisty confines of the technical Brands stages mean drivers cannot get out of third gear, but that takes nothing away from my experience, which is punctuated by plenty of power slides and the odd – but never any less frustrating – grassy moment.
“You are over-driving and trying too hard too soon,” Andy, who has been coaching since 1999, says after my first run.
“If you were doing a proper rally over a full day, you would be tired very quickly and that wouldn’t help your performance.
“Drivers have to let the car do the work, otherwise they will all be exhausted very quickly.”
"It is serious fun..." - Andy Elcomb
The RallyMaster experience offers a pair of 20-minute sessions across two different stages, as well as a high-speed passenger lap alongside the instructor.
“You have good reactions, but you are using them too much and it means you are steering too much,” Andy, who encourages frequent use of the handbrake, explains.
“You have driven off the Tarmac three times, and, if you were in a real rally, that would have been off a cliff or Welsh mountain.
“They are nice, friendly stages here with good, flowing corners, but you just need to be smoother.”
The undulating and spectator-friendly stages are hard work, offering almost no time to relax between corners before the next challenging sweep arrives.
A gravel-covered start line on the first course makes it hard to get away without wheel spin, but does produce a satisfying sound as the stones rattle against the underneath of the car like machine gun fire.
Every driver's last attempt at each stage is timed, giving competitors a chance to see how they compare with others taking part in the same experience.
“You did a 51.44sec on the first stage, which is a good time and you got massively better,” Andy says.
“You were trying too hard to start with but you learn from your mistakes and people have to learn the hard way.
“Because it wasn’t mega slippery, you could have driven the normal racing line to get a quicker time, but using the handbrake is what rally driving is all about and that is a key part of the experience.
“It is serious fun.”
Andy’s childlike enthusiasm is infectious and – after spending the afternoon behind the wheel of the Toyota – his eagerness for the addictive experience is completely understandable.
The full Brands Hatch RallyMaster experience - featuring two 20-minute sessions behind the wheel - costs £159 per person and every booking before Christmas comes with a free British Superbike or British Touring Car Championship 2018 ticket. Visit www.msvdrivinggifts.com or call 0843 453 1000 for details.
The 2018 Brands Hatch season will begin with the traditional Winter Stages Rally.
The event, to be held on Saturday, January 20, will take in part of the same stages used in the RallyMaster experience.
It will form part of the Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship, and will use the Indy circuit in both directions as well as the pit lane, paddock and access roads.
Tickets cost £16 on the gate, with children under 13 going free. Visit www.brandshatch.co.uk for details.
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