Isle of Man TT rider Guy Martin drives Ford Focus WRC car

Isle of Man TT bike racer Guy Martin tries his hand at rallying in a Ford Focus WRC car

A lot has happened in Guy Martin’s life since evo featured the Isle of Man TT racer with his V12 Vantage (click here).

The recent TV series, The Boat That Guy Built, has turned him into a household name. Oh, and there was that crash.

While leading the Senior TT at June’s Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, the 29-year-old lost the front end of his Honda Fireblade through the 170mph Ballagarey Corner. There’s next to nowhere you’d want to crash on the TT course, but if there’s one corner you really don’t want to go badly, it’s Ballagarey. It had already claimed one racer’s life that week. But Guy has some freakish, Spiderman-like ability. When most humans, even most top-level motorcycle racers, would be watching their lives flashing before their eyes, Guy was working on a plan. A plan that ultimately saved his life.

‘I thought, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it,’ Guy explains. ‘You sometimes get away with front-end tucks [when the bike is leant so far the front tyre eventually loses grip]. You save them on your knee, or give it a bit of throttle and it’ll come back to you. You don’t do anything major and you don’t panic because that’s when you come off. I went through all that process and thought: game over.’

He made these minute adjustments, processing the feedback and thinking of the next thing to try as he was heading for a drystone wall, just a few metres from the apex of Ballagarey, at 170mph or so. But there was no getting this one back. Guy slid down the road, hit a wall, bounced over the other side of the road and hit another wall. He was knocked out by the time his bike exploded in Hollywood-blockbuster style and he was in the middle of the five-metre-high fireball.

‘I didn’t think, this is going to hurt, just whatever will be, will be.’He broke three vertebrae and some ribs, punctured a lung and burnt his eyebrows and fringe. Feeling the tyre lose traction the instant it did and trying to correct the slide is what saved his skin. He held on to the bike long enough to ensure his trajectory was down the road, so he hit the walls at glancing angles, not head-on.

I spoke to him a few days later about his view on life and how it had altered. ‘It hasn’t changed a thing,’ he told me. ‘All I want to do is get fit and race again.’

Lunatic. But he did just that. In August, less than three months after breaking his back, Guy was racing in the Ulster GP on the Dundrod Circuit, which, thanks to it’s 133.977mph lap record, is the fastest circuit in motorcycling. Like the TT course, it’s a public road, but rather than riders setting off individually at ten-second intervals, it’s a mass start. Guy Martin came second in one of the weekend’s races and was in contention for all of them.

When you combine this skill and talent with a likeable, maverick character, somewhat caveman-ish good looks and no lack of charm, it’s not difficult to understand why things happen for, and to, Guy Martin. Which is why, a few months ago, I found myself up to my anklebones in slushy mud with a smattering of snow and sleet in a Cumbrian forest. Guy had been offered a test in a full WRC Ford Focus, run and prepared by Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport team. Not only that, but this was the last time the works Focus would be involved in a pre-WRC test, because after the Wales Rally GB (the final World Rally round of 2010) a few days later, the venerable hatchback would be retired in favour of the Fiesta for 2011.

So, there are two Focuses sat growling with an uneven tickover as marshals are marshalled. Mechanics in huge, blue oversuits stick their hands into the gaping bonnet vents to keep chills at bay, and there are unholy noises coming from the engines beneath, like a cement mixer trying to eat a socket set.

‘It sounds like the gearbox is trying to jump out of it,’ says Guy. ‘It’s a straight-cut gearbox, like a motorbike.’

The blue tarpaulin that mechanics have laid on the floor to work on is already soaking and filthy. Nearly everything is soaking and filthy, everything except the two official Ford car crews: 2009 runner-up Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen, and Ken Block and his co-driver, Alex Gelsomino.

After a number of tarmac rallies, the drivers are using this test to re-familiarise themselves with the squelch of the forest. This forest, Greystoke, is owned by M-Sport, and once the crew have their desired loop secured and marshal posts manned, Hirvonen and Lehtinen leave in an explosion of wastegate whistle and flung mulch.

When they return, the mechanics begin modifying the suspension. On top of the racket, the car now smells like a barbecued Labrador and has steam rising from its Pirellis. Guy takes the chance to pick the brains of the Finnish driver and his mechanics.

The rider has an incredible grasp of engines and what makes machinery tick – and a thirst for finding out more. He points to a knob in the cockpit and mechanic Tom Fowler explains its purpose: ‘It’s the pneumatic adjuster that varies the proportion of drive front to rear, via a break in the propshaft. When you’re in a slow, tight corner you want all the wheels to act independently like a shopping trolley, but when you’re doing 100mph down a straight you want the wheels locked together.’

‘What’s the engine management system?’ Guy asks next.

‘Pi, but they’ve just changed their name to Cosworth. So now it’s Pi from Cosworth,’ explains Tom.

‘Ah,’ says Guy, ‘they developed the strain gauges for racing bike quickshifters…’

After 15 minutes of Guy, Tom and Mikko talking technical turkey, I grab the Finn.

‘The boss told me Guy was coming and what he did, and for me those guys are crazy,’ says Hirvonen. ‘I’ve seen quite a bit of TT coverage. What they do is insane. Once we were testing on the Isle of Man and after the test we went around the course in a normal car. To imagine them going flat-out on a bike… That is crazy stuff. There’s no margin for mistakes whatsoever.’

I ask if he thinks someone can cross over from bikes to cars (six times MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi has shown impressive pace on some special stages). ‘He seems like a really nice guy and he’s very interested in the technical side of the car,’ Hirvonen explains. ‘For me it helps when you understand what is happening with the car. It helps with set-up and testing as well. Sometimes you have problems when you have to work on the car as well.

‘I’m certain he’ll have a feeling for the car. With a bike I would think you have to feel how much grip you have, it’s all based on feel, and I think it’s similar with the rally car.’

Meanwhile, not everything is going according to plan in the forest. Ken Block has skidded off and bent his Focus. The test is held up for an hour while it’s retrieved. The car is taken straight to M-Sport’s Cockermouth HQ for assessment. The mercurial American returns to the makeshift pits, collects his bag and clears off. An opportunity to put a lot of miles in has just slid into a sodden ditch.

I’ve watched World Rallies on the tarmac of France and in the snowdrifts of Sweden, but I am British and this is rallying to me: gritty tools, caramel-coloured mud, woolly hats, misery… Bad luck, Ken.

Ford’s number one driver makes no such mistakes. Hirvonen repeatedly disappears into the forest, returning with the brake discs glowing red and requesting another change to the suspension set-up.

Guy is getting excited about the wishbones, which are machined from solid billets of aluminium. ‘I thought they’d start with a Focus and modify it, but they build it from scratch,’ Guy exclaims. ‘They don’t even start with a shell. It all comes flat-pack. One of the mechanics told me it only uses 80 parts from Ford and 50 of them are in the doors! It’s a £650,000 car!’

News comes back from M-Sport HQ that there’s no way to mend Block’s Focus before the weekend’s rally. The dash tube is bent. That means the third car, the one Guy is just about to lose his WRC virginity in, is going to be the car Block will compete in at the weekend. An air of tension is palpable. None of it is emanating from Guy, of course.

The bike racer is now in Matthew Wilson’s Stobart race suit. No sooner has he climbed into the co-driver’s seat next to Hirvonen for some fast laps than they’re gone.

‘It’s shifting. Not out-of-this-world quick, but fast considering we’re on a dirt track,’ says Guy when they return. ‘We’re in third gear, hitting a crest, and the whole thing’s going light. At first I was like a rabbit in the headlights. But I wasn’t scared. I was filled with confidence. This is what Mikko does. He’s super-calm. There’s no panicking, no “Do you know who I am?”, no cock-measuring.’

Guy being Guy, his attention soon switched from the rapidly approaching scenery to Hirvonen’s technique behind the wheel and the car itself: ‘Once I got over the shock of how fast we were going, I started to take in what his hands and feet were doing and to notice all the gauges. The fastest I saw was 169kph. Once you’ve set off you don’t need the clutch. Mikko said the pace was faster than a World Rally stage because he knows this forest absolutely inside out. We had a big moment, but he says you must keep trying to go forward, not to give in to the slide, and it might just come back to you. Like it did then. It’s like me having a slide. It’s what happens, you get used to it.’

Mechanics are getting antsy as Guy’s time to drive nears. Hirvonen has changed out of his fireproof suit. ‘Aren’t you going in the car with Guy?’ I ask. ‘No, I was happy to, but the boss says I shouldn’t,’ he explains almost apologetically. Malcolm Wilson has obviously seen the fireball photos. What’s the point in risking your number-one driver?

A mechanic gets into the co-driver’s seat as another says, ‘If he doesn’t stall it three times I won’t believe it.’ Mechanics have been stalling the recalcitrant car all day. Guy climbs behind the steering wheel and familiarises himself. The co-driver sits a good foot lower to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible.

Guy leaves the pits without stalling. I smile. He pulls onto the ‘stage’ and prepares for his first racing start. The car clunks into gear and then does nothing for a few seconds. It turns out he has ten seconds to launch before the car’s brain smells a rat and resets itself, aborting the launch and demanding the process be gone through again. On nine seconds Guy launches. The rear of the Focus squats and the car fights for grip and disappears.

Because the car is now needed for Block, the test isn’t as long as scheduled, but Guy still has time for a few laps of Greystoke Forest.

The mechanic looks a little shaken when they return, but describes Guy’s first drive as ‘very good. He’s a natural. Not many people can do a launch first time and get it right.’

Guy takes his helmet off, his newly rebuilt smile is broad (he smashed his teeth out and demolished his top jaw a few weeks before while filming The Boat That Guy Built, his recent TV series for the BBC. What was I saying about things happening to Guy Martin?).

‘There isn’t a lot to do,’ he says. ‘You engage the clutch, put it in gear, press the launch control, let go of the clutch, hold your throttle flat to the floor for four seconds while holding the handbrake, let go of the handbrake and that’s it, you’re away.

‘It’s fast, but there’s not a lot of braking,’ he says, continuing his staccato assessment. ‘If it’s going to slide, don’t give in with it, hang it out till the last. That’s what Mikko was saying and I can see where he’s coming from.

‘This needs to happen,’ he says, before expanding on the subject. ‘A proper go at this. You couldn’t just go, “Right, Rally GB this weekend.” I’d need a solid week to build up and get the feel, but at least I’ve been in with a proper driver and I know what it’s capable off. The pace we did here is more than he would do on a World Rally stage because he knows this forest so well. I didn’t feel “I could never do this.” No way in the world. I think I could.’

And knowing how things are going for Guy at the moment, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that someone will take a punt and give him a seat in a good rally car. If they did, one thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t be boring.

Click here to meet Guy Martin and his Aston Martin V12

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