When I speak to Ekström on the phone afterwards, the first thing he says is: ‘Do you understand now why it’s my favourite? I never want to get used to that power. It is crazy.’ I spend some time speaking to Edward, too, who says that when he first gets back into a rallycross car, he doesn’t have any spare mental capacity to assess tyres or setup, he just has to concentrate on simply controlling the car. This is something of a relief, but I still can’t imagine what it must be like trying to race one, fighting for the same piece of ground as five other cars. As Mattias says, ‘You can see why there are some accidents!'

Despite having my capabilities in a car stretched to breaking point, I wanted to keep wrestling with the S1 all afternoon. The power is terrifyingly addictive. And in the moments when I did feel in control of it, when I was pinned to the bucket seat but sensing that I was actually manipulating the four spinning wheels underneath me in the way that I wanted, it felt as satisfying as any driving I have ever done.

Mattias Ekström – the former DTM champion who beat Sébastien Loeb at the Race of Champions – suggested that evo might like to drive his 565bhp World Rallycross Audi S1. How could we refuse?

words by HENRY CATCHPOLE  |  photography by DEAN SMITH

t couldn’t be a more impressive introduction. We’re approaching the small Maggiora rallycross circuit near Milan and the access road is providing us with a view directly down the barrel of the short start/finish straight. A pale, golden winter sunlight is cutting through the trees. In my mind’s eye I have captured the scene in Ultra Panavision, the camera slowly zooming in as a small ball of vehicular fury slides into the widescreen shot ridiculously quickly from stage right, trailing dust in its wake.

It’s an angry, four-wheel drift, only a hint of oversteer, mainly just sideways movement, every wheel spinning as the compact riot of arches and wings struggles to contain the energy beneath. It’s like an adrenalin-filled cartoon mouse running for its life on a polished parquet floor. I almost expect to see the motorised equivalent of Tom – a monster truck, probably – arrive a second later, scrabbling untidily into view and filling the screen as it gives chase. But it’s just Jerry today.

The drift turns to frantic forward acceleration and the Audi seems to cover the ground between us in the blink of an eye before the tiny ball of temper is sliding again. This time the nose is diving and the light rear end is adopting a few degrees of yaw as the S1 brakes hard for the upcoming corner. The sound – a buzzing, banging, compact cacophony – seems to have caught up now and it merely adds to the palpable rage. I’m in awe. Terrified awe. Because in mere hours I’m going to be right in the middle of all that fury, trying to steer it.

I

Last year I met Mattias Ekström. After chatting about all sorts of things, I asked him a slightly tame question about what his favourite car was out of the many and varied ones he had raced. I expected a non-committal answer citing different thrills from different disciplines, but his unequivocal response was his Rallycross Supercar. He then said, very kindly, that I should try it some time…

Walking up to the S1 in the Team EKS pits, it strikes me that there are, surprisingly, some inherited genes from the legendary 1980s Audi Sport Quattro S1. Catch it from some angles and those huge, distended box arches are like family bone structure passed down through the generations. Of course, many Group B cars ended up in rallycross events after they were banned from World Rally stages in 1986, and if ever there was a car that could claim to be a modern Group B car in ethos, this is it.

Open the boot and you’ll find fans and radiators. Look under the bonnet and you’ll see the engine sitting transversely, just as it would in a normal hatchback, but here mated to Sadev’s almost ubiquitous six-speed sequential gearbox. Every RX car runs a 2-litre, in-line four-cylinder turbocharged engine with a 45mm restrictor and they all put out around 565bhp and a frightening 600lb ft of torque. That’s in a car geared to just 120mph in top and designed to weigh a mere 1320kg including the driver, which today is Edward Sandström.

My turn in the car isn’t until after lunch, once the important testing is done. Despite the sunshine it’s bitingly cold, so I bung on a big coat and set off for a walk round the circuit to try and soak up as much useful information as I can. It’s immediately obvious that the track is quite narrow, and there isn’t much room for error. Not good. The car heads out for short stints of probably no more than ten laps at a time, but after a while I notice that no two laps are quite the same. If this was a test session for any other top-flight series, you would see the same line being hit with metronomic, almost laser-guided precision, time after time. The little Audi, however, is clearly such a potent handful that line choice is a bit more unpredictable. A kick of boost and instant wheelspin can move the car by feet at a time on the exit of a corner, leaving the driver wrestling with a different line into a jump. This then sets you up awkwardly for the next braking zone, the weight balance pitched in a marginally less than ideal way for the following right-hander, which now requires more throttle earlier, which again has the car thumping forward slightly indiscriminately. And so it goes on. It is still balletic and deeply impressive in skilled hands, but it strikes me that it must be a bit like trying to ride a rodeo horse round a showjumping arena.

Over the last decade of doing this job, I have gradually found that there are a few things that help me approach cars that make me nervous. Firstly, I tell myself that it is just a car, with fundamentally familiar controls. Breathe. Secondly, I try to think through the basic dynamics of what this particular mechanical layout should mean at the limit, so that I instinctively do the right thing – no point lifting off when you should be hard on the throttle. Breathe. Finally, I try to remember how it felt to drive anything that I think might be similar – in this case a WRC car. Breathe.

It’s no secret that I’ve had a bit of experience with dashing down lanes and through forests, but I’ve never had a go in a rallycross car before. To me rallycross has always seemed like rallying’s curious cousin. A sort of hybrid of gravel rallying, circuit racing, DTM and NASCAR condensed into a neat, fascinating and insane package. I say neat, but actually it’s a bit confusing as there are two codes of Rallycross, or RX – World and Global. World Rallycross is the FIA championship, with rounds mostly in Europe (and, for 2016, a certain Sébastien Loeb among its drivers). Meanwhile, a little like baseball’s World Series, Global Rallycross is confined to the USA.

Cars in both championships run to the same technical regulations. The only differences are that the fuel used in America is of a higher grade, and while the Global championship uses a Yokohama radial slick tyre, the World Rallycross cars, such as Ekström’s Audi S1, must use a Cooper crossply with moulded tread. These tyres somehow have to cope with both tarmac and gravel.

‘If ever THERE was a car that could claim to be a modern group b CAR in ethos, this is it’

‘Driving this hard feels like something beyond concentration. It’s more primal’

Normally some passenger laps would help me acclimatise and put me more at ease, but they go past in a blur. Even as an interested sack of ballast with nothing to do other than observe, the physicality of the acceleration is hard to comprehend. I can’t imagine what it must be like when you are the one in – and I use the term lightly – control. Only one way to find out.

The AP Racing clutch is mercifully friendly and will take a bit of slipping, so reversing out of the temporary garage isn’t too much of an ordeal. The steering is light, too, and with the anti-lag system turned off the trundle from the truck to the circuit is actually calm enough to lower my heart rate below 200bpm. Then Edward tells me to press the blue button on the steering wheel, which turns the anti-lag system on and promptly rearranges my perception of ‘fast’. A few seconds later, as I’m braking (early on the tarmac) for the slippery first corner, I realise that it was futile trying to prepare myself for this. How can you prepare when the ferocity is so far beyond what your previous reference points have been? Veyron? Don’t be silly. WRC car? Not even close.

I still don’t feel very calm but it’s better than just panicking, and I’m at least feeling a bit more primed and focused before I’m given my briefing. ‘Be careful on the first corner because it is very slippery,’ says Sandström. ‘Remember to brake much earlier than you think on the straight because it switches to gravel halfway through the braking zone, so you need to be wiping off speed while you’re still on the tarmac. The fourth corner has a strange bit of tarmac just on the inside, so be careful. We’re not jumping the car much today, so please lift before the two crests. Do you left-foot brake?’

My head still swimming with instructions about how to tackle a circuit I’ve never driven before, I try to remember whether I do or not. I decide that it must be like a WRC car so I nod. ‘OK, well just remember that you can flat-shift on the tarmac but you need to use the clutch when you are on the gravel.’

I decide there and then that I won’t be left-foot braking today. I feel like I’ve psyched myself up for a bungee jump only to be told while standing on the platform that I’ll have to tie the rope to my ankles with a very specific knot – on the way down. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

With the ALS on, the throttle has turned into a trigger, seemingly firing all 600lb ft through the transmission as soon as you touch it. Out of the first right-hander the car spits sideways and I have to correct with one hand as I’m frantically pulling gear after gear. There are no shift paddles here, just a sturdy, high-mounted lever that you pull back to go up the ’box and push away to go down. There literally isn’t time to put your right hand back on the wheel between shifts. Never have I been in something that eats through revs and demands gears so quickly. Bang-bang-bang. I pile on the ratios as fast as I can yet still it feels like I’m lagging behind the angry rainbow of shift lights in my peripheral vision. An analogue needle would snap under the duress within the first half lap.

I forget to lift for the first jump, apologise, then brake and punch down two gears for the next corner, which changes from tarmac back to gravel on the apex. Up two gears, down two gears, tight right-hander, short straight, up three gears, back down three for the left with the tarmac strip, up three gears round a long gravelly left-hander (clutch) with a jump, then brake and down two for a long opening tarmac right, sliding and changing up (no clutch) constantly as you feed back onto the start/finish straight, by which time you’ll be up to fifth or sixth, depending how good your exit was. A lap probably takes slightly less time than this last paragraph took to read.

I’ve never experienced such a surfeit of power. It dominates the experience. Never mind that the S1 has a short wheelbase and an almost square stance, so feels quite twitchy. That feels like the least of my problems. Instinctively I know that the four-wheel-drive system should help me if I’m on the power, but such is the ferocity of the delivery that it’s hard to see the throttle as your friend. It doesn’t help that every violent flare of revs is accompanied by a sound like hornets massacring wasps with chainsaws.

I think it is towards the end of the fourth lap that I spin. I’d love to tell you how or why, but to be honest my brain has felt in need of a healthy RAM upgrade, or possibly its own ALS, since the first corner. It’s early in a right-hander, there is a flash of revs, we’re round in our own length, the clutch is out, I’m on the brakes, and as we stop safely in the middle of the bend I suck in some air for what feels like the first time in minutes. As I find reverse and point us back in the right direction, I realise that I’ve been straining every last iota of my mental capacity just to keep up with the S1.

Driving this hard feels like something beyond concentration. It’s more primal and more immersive, and I think I probably just ran out of processing power. All I can say is that I haven’t spun any of the WRC cars I’ve been lucky enough to drive, nor have I felt close to doing so. But I will spin this rallycross Audi twice more in the next ten laps or so.

Initially I do a couple more laps then head back to the pits. I’m not a big user of superlatives, but this car has me overdosing on hyperbole as I try to describe in a hyper-speed stream of consciousness what it was like to the people asking. I’m not really one for swearing, either, but a single, heartfelt expletive is all I can manage at one point.

Then it’s back out and I try the car without the ALS for a few minutes. This makes it much easier, as although it’s still rabid, you can feel the swell of boost and give yourself just a bit more time to prepare for the arrival of the grenade. I realise I’ve actually adapted to the constant surface changes relatively well, and the tyres have a surprising balance between the gravel and tarmac. I almost feel like I’m getting to grips with it and begin craving the ALS, so I turn it back on. Within two seconds my head is threatening to overload and I’m on the back foot once more as the throttle reverts to detonating the 600lb ft bomb instantly under the slightest pressure. I fear nothing will ever truly feel quick again after this.

AUDI S1 EKS RX Quattro

Engine In-line 4-cyl, 2000cc, turbo

Power 565bhp  Torque  600lb ft

Transmission Six-speed sequential, four-wheel drive

Front suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adjustable dampers

Rear suspension MacPherson struts, coil springs, adjustable dampers

Brakes Four-piston calipers front and rear

Wheels 17in front and rear

Weight 1320kg (including driver)

Power-to-weight 435bhp/ton (including driver)

0-62mph 1.9sec (claimed)

Top speed 120mph (claimed)

evo rating ★★★★★

'It is still balletic and deeply impressive in skilled hands...'

'Despite having my capabilities in a car stretched to breaking point, I wanted to keep wrestling with the S1 all afternoon.'