TheTeam O'Neill Rally School is also the home base for Canadian driver Andrew Comrie-Picard's championship-winning Ford Fiesta rally car.
Who knew there's a school for aspiring rally drivers? Or that the humble Ford Fiesta, which is one of the key tools of the trade at that school, is a giant-killing, championship-winning rally car in the US of A. The baby Ford has won the 2WD class of the Rally America series two years running. Memorably, the near-stock Fiesta ST even ended the 2014 season with an overall podium position, right up there amongst the much-more-powerful, mostly AWD open-class cars.
Unlike WRC (World Rally Championship) cars that look like mutant caricatures of the production cars they’re based on, the Rally America 2WD-class Fiesta ST is pretty close to stock on the outside (apart from the wacky paint job). The engine is unmodified apart from the engine-control module, but the rules do allow a sequential gearbox. The stripped-out interior includes a full safety cage and racing seats.
The winning Fiesta was driven by Canada’s own Andrew Comrie-Picard. “ACP” gave up a career as a New York entertainment lawyer to pursue his love of driving. Besides a rallying career that includes winning the 2009 North American Championship, he has hosted and produced TV shows, written about cars, and worked as a movie and TV stunt driver.
ACP’s Fiesta is prepared and run by Team O’Neil. The team is based in the remote White Mountains of New Hampshire, where team owner Tim O’Neil – a former multiple US rally champion – also runs the Team O’Neil rally school. ACP learned his craft on the 560-acre property, which features miles of gravel roads as well as skid pads and open areas where rookies can practice car control with plenty of space for, er, navigational errors.
The school’s car fleet includes AWD Subarus and Audis and RWD BMWs, but most are Ford Fiestas. Prior to the Fiesta’s North American debut in 2010, Ford brought over a bunch of European-spec models for in-house use. After they were done with, they would normally have had to be scrapped, as they weren’t certified for sale or use in North America. But in this case O’Neil managed to snag a few dozen of them for his school. Illegal on public roads, they live out their days as driving-school cars for wannabe rally drivers. Poor things…
The Fiestas are basically stock apart from safety harnesses, a roll cage, Bilstein dampers and Hawk performance brake pads. O’Neil commented that the pads may not be ideal for use in the winter conditions we experienced, as they don’t warm up enough for full effectiveness. The fleet also includes some newer Fiesta STs, with which the O’Neil team found some issues during our session: over-strong front brakes made it harder to induce tail slides under braking. Did we mention that rally driving is a whole other universe?
The school offers courses up to 5 days in duration, but our press program is condensed into just one day. We can’t wait to get sideways in the snow, but first there’s a classroom session. Instructor Travis Hanson explains how conventional paved-road cornering lines don’t work, and “you run out of road and talent at the same time.” The correct Rally line involves a very late apex, which lets you see further round the corner and power out sooner with the wheels already straight. In other words: slow in, fast out, or as rally great John Buffum used to say, “in like a lamb, out like a lion.”
Getting into and out of corners quickly in a FWD car seems like an exercise in contrarianism: brake with your left foot … apply the brakes after you start to turn … stay on the throttle while you’re braking … start a left turn by first steering sharply to the right (or vice versa). There’s a lot of old habits to unlearn. But going sideways isn’t the problem, it’s the solution … well, most of the time!
Unfortunately the left-foot-braking/throttle-on technique isn’t an option on newer cars. After the spate of alleged runaway acceleration incidents some years back, most late-model cars are programmed to shut down the throttle while the brake is applied. In the O’Neil-school Fiestas, that and all other active-safety aids – ABS and stability control – are de-activated so everything is up to the driver.
First on a round-and-round skid pad, and then through a slalom, we are taught to turn in first, then almost immediately lightly brake with the left foot while keeping the throttle constant. Braking shifts weight to the front wheels, which get more grip, while staying on the throttle means more braking goes to the rear wheels, which slide out to help you round the turn and set you up for the next pylon. It’s complicated, but when you get it right you know it works because it looks something like this…
… and not this. The purpose behind getting the car sideways is to avoid what a FWD naturally wants to do, which is run-wide understeer – terminal understeer in this case, where the wheels are cranked fully left and the car still isn’t going to make the turn. This is where (at speeds below 50 km/h) O’Neil recommends hand-braking with the hand-aka-parking-aka-emergency brake to bring the rear end round and get the nose pointing in the desired direction.
When the road is narrow and you don’t know what’s around the corner, a pendulum turn (aka Scandinavian flick) is used to initially set the car up in the opposition direction and use that energy to make the car rotate in the desired direction without losing momentum. Here, approaching a tight left turn, the driver has pitched the car sideways by flicking right and dabbing the brakes.
When the car regains grip, the counter-steer from that first slide combined with the initial fishtail effect (O’Neil calls it counter-skid) help bring the car around in the intended direction (i.e., from the driver’s viewpoint, turning left).
If necessary, brake lightly and/or counter-steer to keep the car lined up with the exit from the corner and then accelerate smoothly to pull the car straight and down the next straightaway. And throughout, remember the Gold Rule: look where you want to go. As one O’Neil instructor put it, “Your eyes drive the car. Your hands and feet are just puppets.”
From Toronto to Amelia Island and back in Chrysler’s elite new hybrid minivan
In 2017 Macan Turbo form with an optional Performance Package, yes it can!
New powertrain combination poses interesting decision for F-150 buyers