Ford Fiesta WRC (2019) review
We get the ride of our lives in the brutal Ford Fiesta World Rally Car.
Matt Robinson
Matt Robinson

Published on September 6, 2019

I can assure you that I'm not a nervous passenger. It takes a lot to scare me in a car, although rank ineptitude from the driver is normally always a trigger. But, through this wonderful job, you get the chance to be bolted into all sorts of motorsport machinery for fast laps of a circuit or suchlike.

And don't get me wrong, it's normally very impressive stuff. You get to witness first-hand what makes the difference between a fast road-based driver who thinks they're quick and a competitive professional, which is namely how late they brake for corners (it's always many metres on from where, in your head, you've started desperately pressing an imaginary brake pedal) and how few needlessly excessive movements they make behind the wheel (the best drivers always look like they're doing nothing, with a few notable exceptions).

But you can become... somewhat inured to speed. Especially when your day job involves driving things with six, seven hundred horsepower and enough torque to flatten the Great Wall of China at a stroke.

So, you bolt into these racing cars as a passenger and the driver sets off quickly and you very much enjoy your brief passenger run in the vehicle and then you get out and walk away and that was very much that. Ho-hum.

That's not the case now, though. I am terrifically excited as I sit, squashed (it would appear this code of motorsport was not in the least made for the, um, big-boned like myself) into a supermini, sitting on a soggy bit of Cumbrian road. And I'm also, much to my own surprise, a little bit nervous. Because this car sounds primevally angry, like nothing I've heard before. Because this car looks preposterously and magnificently aggressive; all overblown bodywork and stocky proportions. Because I can barely move an inch, thanks to a restrictive six-point harness bisecting my balls, a HANS device around my neck (this is 100 per cent necessary here and the first time I've ever worn one) and a bucket seat that was built for someone about six stone lighter and several inches narrower than I am. Because the squally weather outside is typically Lake District atrocious, even though summer has only just departed by days, and the road in question is not a road at all, but a sodden, narrow gravel track leading into a mist-wreathed, forbidding-looking forest. Which, like so many forests, is full of trees. Big, hard, unyielding trees.

The chap in the driver's seat of this vehicle is Gus Greensmith, a former Manchester City youth goalkeeper. Not the ideal credentials, you might think, to be behind the wheel here, but his other skill is driving. He was a karting ace as a kid and then made the step up into rallying, progressing - with rather impressive haste - to driving the mighty Ford Fiesta WRC in a few rounds of this season's championship. He's only been competing for six years, mind.

And it's a Fiesta WRC we're sat in now, courtesy of M-Sport Rally Team and Ford Performance. M-Sport is based just outside Cockermouth in the UK, about 50km away from Greystoke Forest, which is where the WRC sits, burbling menacingly, awaiting instructions. Gus very cheerfully explains that the only difference between the Fiesta WRC we're sat in right now, pointing up a mild incline at a 35-degree right-hander fringed by small trees in the middle distance, and a genuine competition version that would be entered into the WRC is that the paddle-shift on the car we're in isn't working. Apart from that, this is the 'full beans'; no turning down of the turbo's wick, no needless weight ballast (apart from my hefty self, of course), just a Fiesta WRC and 3.2km of Cumbrian forest to go at.

M-Sport and Ford Performance has already laid on a Ford Ranger Raptor and Junior WRC ace Tom Williams for a 'sighting' run on the route we're going to take, and the affable Williams - himself no slouch - has put on a great show. But the Raptor, as impressive as it is at going very fast off-road and as expertly as Williams drives it, makes this three-kilometre course feel a bit, well, tame. It feels like driving the Raptor rapidly along there is something you could do to a reasonable degree yourself.

Back in the Fiesta, Greensmith has flicked the wipers up to maximum as the rain lashes down. He finished his preamble, slots the tall, thin upright gear lever backwards, fiddles with something on the WRC's no doubt super-expensive and complex-looking steering wheel, and then plants the throttle with his left foot on the brake. The revs rise to a fury of loud 'BRAPS!' and I realise that the Ford is in its full anti-lag, launch-control, coiled-spring crouch, ready to burst out of the blocks. And then Gus sidesteps the brakes.

If you've watched countless videos of rally cars launching over the years, or if you're a proper fan and you get to plenty of rounds of the WRC, you'll have seen this explosion of acceleration many times before and possibly wondered what it feels like to be inside the car as it catapults off into the scenery. Well, let me tell you, it is demented. Your brain struggles to compute where the blazes the Fiesta is summoning any form of traction from, because it squats its back end down and fires at that right-hander like it's sitting on pristine tarmac and sticky racing slicks. Three backwards tugs of the lever and Greensmith is already into fourth and piling on outrageous pace... and then that first right-hander gets closer, and closer, and closer.

And far from braking where I feel I would have started depressing the pedal, given the gravel is going to elongate deceleration distances, Greensmith then grabs fifth. We keep accelerating to what is clearly the point of no return, before Gus gives the brakes some serious hammer, banging his sequential gear lever forward to punch the Fiesta WRC into fourth while I hang helplessly against my harness, before he slings the Ford's nose in at the apex of the right. The Fiesta spikes quickly into a big stance of oversteer, before holding as Greensmith gets on the power before the apex and four-wheel drifts the WRC through the bend. He's into fifth again and flying past 160km/h before I can even comprehend how we got around that corner in one piece.

What ensues is three kilometres of perfection. A fast left at the top of the next hill, taken at what feels like a 110km/h drift, leads us into more densely wooded territory, before a jump sees us get a tiny bit of airtime as Greensmith accelerates hard through fifth and into sixth. A long sweeping downhill right is framed, on the left, by colossal piles of felled timber, which would seriously hurt if Greensmith were to get the fractions slightly wrong and plough into them, but of course he doesn't and we barrel past them, disdainfully spraying gravel, mud and rainwater all over the tree trunks.

And then he hits the brakes harder than ever, slams down several gears to second and reaches for an even longer lever, which is the handbrake, flicks it into the sharpest right on the corner and then bounces the car off its rev limiter while it slides gracefully sideways through the apex, no wasted movement or slop in what he's doing. As we accelerate away from this near-hairpin, the WRC is pulling 1g; a truly remarkable amount on such a surface. It's at this point that I realise it's all I can do to concentrate on the scenery whizzing past the rain-smeared windscreen and that I'm sitting stock-still, not moving an inch; how the devil you're supposed to read useful pace notes out to the driver in this situation, I'm not quite sure.

So monumental is the noise and this experience that I almost don't hear Greensmith communicating over the intercom, his Lancastrian voice stupendously calm as he says: "This corner up ahead is one several WRC drivers have crashed on. I'm not going to be one of them." Funny, because we appear to be approaching it at what must be 160km/h and more, and the angle of the car doesn't feel at all correct. But again, his reactions and his inputs are both rapid and measured in equal amounts, and the Fiesta bites its way through the tight second-gear right and the next opening third-gear left, before he pins the throttle through a series of right-left-right curves at a ferocious pace. One more harder left with a big swing of oversteer later, the little service area tent for the Fiesta WRC comes into view and with about ten car lengths remaining, Greensmith finally decelerates the car firmly down to ambling pace, then slots into the tent.

I could not have enjoyed being a passenger in a car more. Never has 3.2km passed so quickly or so excitingly; timing gear wasn't fitted but, trust me, Greensmith got that WRC round the route in comfortably less than two minutes of pure exhilaration. And it confirmed, for me at least, what I've always said: while all racing drivers are seriously talented individuals and I understand the incredible skills involved to drive a front-running F1 car or a Le Mans racer or a BTCC entrant, rally drivers are another level again. To drive at that speed in circumstances where mere mortals like us would think twice about breaching walking pace is just phenomenal. Or, put another way, I'll remember that passenger ride for the rest of my waking days.

Nervous? No, I was never nervous. Well, not much, at any rate...


Tech Specs

Model testedFord Fiesta WRC 2019
Pricingapproximately €700,000
Engine1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmissionsix-speed sequential manual developed by M-Sport and Ricardo, mechanical front and rear differentials with active centre differntial, four-wheel drive
Body styletwo-door World Rally Car
Top speedmore than 200km/h
0-100km/hless than 4.0 seconds
Power380hp at 6,000rpm
Torque450Nm at 5,500rpm
Weight1,190kg minimum, approx. 1,350kg with crew