Monday 11th April 2011


RIDDEN: SHOTGUN IN THE NEW FIESTA WRC CAR

Dan Trent deletes the virtual from reality on a ride round Battersea with WRC star Mikko Hirvonen


Time was when video games sought to emulate real life. Now it seems the reverse is true. Having come up with a virtual Battersea power station for the new gymkhana section in DiRT 3, Codemasters - with a little help from Ford - has brought the game to life with YouTube phenomenon Ken Block and WRC star Mikko Hirvonen.

'Mikko, how does it feel to give PH a lift?'
'Mikko, how does it feel to give PH a lift?'
Block has now added a few startled commuters on their way into London's Victoria station to the astonishing 90 million people who have watched his gymkhana videos as passengers on the trains trundling past Battersea's industrial landmark get a first-hand view of an online sensation in action.

And in an obvious tie-in, DiRT 3 now features gymkhana in addition to its staple of beautifully realistic 'proper' rallying, the latter honed over the 13 years since Codemasters first launched the Colin McRae series, from which DiRT has evolved. Rallying is still at the core of DiRT 3 too, with 60 per cent of the gameplay and a choice of cars going back to Monte Minis and Group B classics underlining the game's roots.

At the launch event in Battersea, ranks of flatscreen tellies and games consoles give the lifestyle folk (wonky DC caps, self consciously conspicuous tattoos and skate accessorising much prevalent) a taste of what it's like to hoon a rally car sideways around Battersea power station, but we walk right past them. The game looks impressive but when you've got the chance to do it for real, virtual doesn't quite have the same appeal.

Thumb is up, but the eyes are scared...
Thumb is up, but the eyes are scared...
Under the umbrella of Ford the contrast between Block's Stateside grandstanding and Hirvonen's rally-to-the-core competition breeding make for an interesting showdown. Block should be in his element here though; the course arranged outside the power station takes in gravel and tarmac and various obstacles around which the drivers will fling their WRC-spec Focus (in Block's Monster World Rally Team livery) and works Ford Fiesta respectively. Containers, skips, an American big rig and skeletal portacabins are scattered around the sun-baked arena, the course around them plotted on diagrams pinned to the side of the Monster Energy team truck.

Block's the centre of attention, but it's just a bit of fun for Hirvonen, a break from the hectic WRC schedule and a rare opportunity to show off rather than ruthlessly chase tenths in his pursuit of Loeb and a first WRC title.

Block's first to go, stuttering engine echoing off the surrounding fancy apartments as he holds it on the brakes and the back end of the Focus squatting on its soft gravel set-up before erupting in a shower of gravel and dust.


Block threads his way around the super-tight obstacle course with trademark precision, the air thick with dust and tyre smoke by the time he handbrakes back into the paddock area. Hirvonen, who's already confided he's no idea where the course goes, follows and looks immediately faster and, for a man usually fixated with stage times rather than showmanship, totally comfortable pirouetting around oil drums and handbrake-turning under the big rig's raised trailer.

Initially disappointed not to have scored a ride with Block on this showing I reckon my seat alongside Hirvonen might well be the dream ticket after all.

As I'm strapped in Hirvonen, whose usual deathly pallor seems to have been replaced with a more rosy complexion, is cheerful and relaxed as he asks me if I've ever done anything like this before. I tell him I haven't, he grins and says "No? Me neither..."


Like any proper rally car his Fiesta RS WRC sounds like a bucket of bolts at tickover, flimsy bodywork flapping violently from the engine's vibration, wires and black boxes zip-tied to the rollcage around me and the view out limited by my low-set co-driver's seat.

There's a horrendous clunk and a shudder through the Fiesta's body as Hirvonen tugs the long shifter to his right and with a whine of diffs we trundle out to the arena. There's no showy launch control start, just a business-like tweak of the settings and - holy cow! The transition is startling and my brain struggles to keep up with the Fiesta's sudden shift from 30mph trundle to 100mph-plus drift around the first set of obstacles.


Approaching the far side of the arena the jink left completely wrongfoots me, Hirvonen instead flicking the Fiesta right with a nonchalant tug of the handbrake lever and plenty of right foot.

My head has barely caught up and we're already heading straight back into the dust cloud we've just created before flicking right and then left through a gap between two conspicuously solid-looking containers that seems barely longer than the Fiesta.

It's difficult to know where to look, so I decide to try and keep up with what Hirvonen's doing. His feet are dancing around the pedals, his hands the same between wheel, gear selector and handbrake and his eyes already computing the next move long before the current one is even over. What's obvious is that to him this is all happening in slow motion, the obstacles we're drifting around seemingly close enough to touch. Scratch that, actually close enough to touch, were I not firmly strapped in.


For all the sliding and tyre smoke it's the neatness that really impresses. Sure, the car is moving around a lot, but when Hirvonen needs to place it in a gap with inches to spare he's absolutely bang on, his face impassive as the cabin fills with the stench of burning rubber and the sound of mechanical mayhem.

Block's evolution from YouTube sensation to front-line WRC driver has proved a challenge, but on this showing Hirvonen's found it somewhat easier to move the other way and his day of hooning has obviously gone down well. "The closest thing I've done to this is the super-special stages, but this was good fun, I've had a really good day," he grins before jetting off to Jordan for the next round of the championship.

Me? I'll have to live it up on my PS3.

 

 

Author: Dan Trent