JAN 26th 2015

A BMW M3 on a forest stage... Chris Harris heads back to Wyedean

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The racing season begins early when you have a dip at some gravel rallying. I’m about to sort my 2015 license in preparation for the Wyedean forest rally. I’ve competed in it for the past two years and didn’t finish either attempt. And I can honestly say that it was mechanical failures and not me interfacing with large trees.

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Before: Take one appreciating BMW M3…

However much circuit racing I do, and however poor the driving conditions are, it never fully prepares me for my very occasional outings on a British forest event in the depths of winter. Those first few stage miles are magnificently intimidating for me – it takes a while to trust in the grip level and begin to push. When I see the on-board videos of some of the loons in Mk2 Escorts fully-committed into the very first blind turn on the first stage, I’m truly impressed.

Next week we’ll go to Wales for a shakedown and then we should be ready to run. My summer outing didn’t quite go to plan when a control arm failed and I had a minor shunt at Sweetlamb, but Neil Yates and his team at Rally Prep have fixed the car and it’s ready to go.

“Why an M3? Because the whole world has an Escort, and a good Escort has become a very, very expensive machine… it’s a complete hoot to drive, sideways everywhere, and not especially competitive”

What is the car? It’s a rather unusual choice for a gravel machine – a proper E30 M3. I’ve detailed, in another place, how the car was built, but I suppose the question I now have to ask myself is, taking into account the crazy market conditions since I bought a donor car back in the summer of 2013, do I regret butchering a nice E30 M3?

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Not a bit. I could probably have turned a profit on the donor, but that was never the point of the exercise. The thought of owning a proper M3 which will fit an FIA appendix category soon and therefore be usable in rallies all over Europe, is far more exciting. And besides, the cost of a donor M3 now would make a new build so much more expensive that you’d have to assume some of that increase transfers across to the rally car. Well, I’d hope so anyway.

Why an M3? Because the whole world has an Escort, and a good Escort has become a very, very expensive machine. I was never going to take this rallying seriously enough to try and beat any of the regulars, so I just fancied something RWD and a bit more interesting. First thought was just a bog narrow-bodied E30 with a 3.0-litre six from the early E36 M3, but as ever things got out of control and I soon required a car that might offer a broader set of uses.

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That’s why we chose a real M3 and ended up with the machine you see here. It’s a complete hoot to drive, sideways everywhere, and not especially competitive. Compared to a 900kg, 300hp Escort it’s an 1100kg, 240hp sloth – but to return to my earlier point, it’s still feels insanely rapid on a narrow, slippery forest track inches from trees.

Mods for this event are a slightly faster steering rack, but the removal of the power steering – I should really be lifting a few weights in anticipation. We’re running some nice sticky Pirelli rubber and we might just design a livery for what has always been a plain white machine.

We’ll make a little film from the event, and post an update after the test this week. Wish us luck, and if ever you feel inclined to try some gravel rallying I can only assure you it is as much fun as it looks. I miss the racecraft of sharing a circuit with other drivers, but driving from notes and reading the road is the perfect counterpoint. I’m a complete novice really and don’t expect too much of myself, and I think it’s enormous fun.

The Wyedean is my local event. It draws huge crowds and proves that rather than garnering a vast anti-motor-car sentiment, this type of sport can really work for small rural communities. And, because I tend not to finish, I can walk home and drown my sorrows in my local.

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