Hillclimb Challenge: Ford Focus RS

Ford Focus RS in the Doune paddock.

The identity of the car I’ll be driving in each hillclimb this season is generally kept secret until a couple of weeks before the event. This leads to wild speculation (precisely as intended) and often to unusual requests. “How about a big SUV?” is a popular one, as is, “Why not a Rolls-Royce Phantom?” By far the most common, however, has been, “Please get a Focus RS!”

I kept quiet about it, but the fact is that Ford itself started talking about providing one nearly a year ago. And it so happened that the most suitable slot in everyone’s diary coincided with the Primo plc Multi Vehicle Insurance / Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes Hillclimb Challenge’s sixth round at Doune in central Scotland.

No venue could have been more suitable, and none so worrying. Only 1476 yards long, Doune is nevertheless a monster, requiring you to drive as hard as you can round blind corners with no run-off area whatever. Many times since the first event in 1968, it has caught out the unwary, the unskilled and the unlucky, reducing their cars to scrap almost before they realised things weren’t going their way. Simply driving up Doune, never mind trying to do it quickly, can be terrifying.

On top of that, the opposition in the Road-Going Series Production Cars category at this particular event was formidable. In my camp was Alisdair Suttie, making his first competition appearance of the year. Against us was the Subaru Impreza originally bought and campaigned by Grant McLellan but now shared with George Emmerson, an old rival of mine from the days when his Ford Fiesta and my Vauxhall Nova were among the front runners in the old 1300cc Road Saloons class.

Ford Focus RS on the start line of the Doune hillclimb.
Photo copyright Paul Hunter.

Last June I lost out to Grant in a Fiesta ST but beat him three months later in a Honda Civic Type R. With more power than the Civic, and four- rather than front-wheel drive, the Focus RS should have won easily this time if Grant hadn’t modified the Impreza, but there was always the chance that he might have done.

And indeed he had. Although the car looked the same as before, it was now producing 350bhp rather than the previous 280, and was running – perfectly legally within the class rules – on trick suspension. It took him about a day and a half to admit to this, under close questioning based on the observation that his times seemed to have improved spectacularly over the winter, but of course he was under no obligation to do so and I thought it very gentlemanly of him that he did.

The first two practice runs, which took place on a damp track, were nevertheless encouraging. I was comfortably ahead in both, Alisdair and Grant were setting very similar times and although George admitted he was finding it difficult to re-adjust to driving a road-legal car after many seasons in “proper” racers it wasn’t going to be long before he sorted this out.

Profile action shot of the Ford Focus RS competing at Doune.
Photo copyright Paul Hunter.

The tarmac dried out fully for the third practice run on Saturday, and suddenly the whole business started to look a lot more complicated. Running before lunch, Alisdair clocked a personal best of 51.16 and George leaped into contention with a 51.50. After lunch, in warmer conditions, I did a 50.84 which seemed very encouraging until Grant, running immediately behind me, clocked a 50.67. It was the first time he’d ever done better than a low 52, and I could hear him whooping with delight while he was still driving his car into the paddock at the top of the hill.

My 50.84 run had been quite clinical, and with all four of covered by less than nine tenths of a second it was clear that this sort of thing wouldn’t do. Doune demands respect, but respect doesn’t have to mean bowing down in submission. You can fight respectfully too. On Sunday, I was going to have to do that.

I overdid it on the final practice run first thing that morning. I lost more than half a second through the armco-lined Esses just before the finish, and briefly thought, while the Focus RS was sliding left just as the tarmac was beginning to curve right, that I was would be leaving Doune in an ambulance. Not long before, I’d taken a massive cut on the apex of the righthander at the top of the ludicrously steep East Brae; I’m sure I saw the traction control warning light come on and felt the engine struggle to pick up, losing more time.

Ford Focus RS climbing East Brae at Doune.
Photo copyright Paul Hunter.

(In the Race Track mode Alisdair and I were both using, traction control is supposedly disabled, so this led to speculation that I might have selected Normal by mistake, but if I’d done that the damping would have been 40% softer, and I’m sure I’d have noticed that. Perhaps Race Track includes a small element of traction control that Ford doesn’t talk about.)

It was a messy, horrible run, but there were two good things about it. First, it showed me how much was too much, which was very useful information, and second, it was the quickest in the class at that point. There were grounds for optimism.

The first of Sunday’s two competition runs was mighty. With the exception of a tail slide round the first corner (which the RS’s traction control was allowing me to reach very quickly) everything went well, and I set personal best sector times all over the place. The time was a 50.50, 1.35 seconds faster than a standard production car had ever achieved in competition at Doune.

I was pleased with it, but also concerned. In the top paddock I hauled on the handbrake almost before the Focus had come to a halt, leaped out and ran to the timing display to see how Grant was doing. As it clicked over to 46 seconds it seemed that he was ominously hard on the throttle, and my fears were reaslied when it stopped at 49.75. This time I could hear his whoops even before he’d turned off the track.

It was game over. I thought there might be another couple of tenths to come from the Focus, but I knew I wasn’t going to get near a 49.75. This was Grant’s day. Yes, he had a car advantage, but he hadn’t had this handed to him on a plate. If he had been on anything other than absolutely top form, I would have beaten him. It wasn’t so much that he had a quick car, it was the fact that he knew exactly how to use it that earned him the win.

Fair play to the Focus RS, though; from Junction (roughly the mid-point of the hill, where the roadside obstacles briefly vanish and you can start to take liberties) to the finish line it was actually quicker than the Impreza. I got through that sector 0.13 seconds quicker than Grant, which said a lot for the Ford’s set-up. The problem was that he got to Junction 0.88 seconds sooner than I did, having blitzed the lower part of the hill, and there was no way I could close that gap. If I’d tried, in a car weighing at least 300kg more and running on standard road tyres rather than the Impreza’s super-sticky Toyo 888s, the RS would now be in a scrapyard.

Ford Focus RS at rest in the Doune paddock.
Photo copyright Paul Hunter.

The rest of the event was an anti-climax. The Subaru jumped out of gear just as George was starting his final run, which he had to abandon. Grant went out again but lost all gears before the finish line. Alisdair and I both thought we were quicker than before but were in fact slower, which is usually a sign that you’re already at the limit.

Still, it had been a great event: very hard, very competitive but, once it was all over, something to look back on with pleasure. And the unofficial Doune record for unmodified cars was a big bonus. I have a feeling it will be a long time before another standard hot hatch goes up Doune as quickly as the amazing Focus RS did.