(Rally) Stage Struck

Get behind the wheel of a GT86 rally car at a Brands Hatch Rallymaster experience

A career on stage has always appealed to me. The thought of an audience being utterly in my thrall has always been attractive. I also reckon I can carry off the crash helmet look quite well. You see, I’m not talking about a stage with curtains and footlights, I’m talking about one that threads itself through the landscape and has lots of ‘natural furniture’ that you really don’t want to interact with at high speed.

That’s why I find myself at the Rallymaster School at Brands Hatch, Kent, feeling ever so slightly apprehensive about following in the footsteps of giants. In my formative years, I was gripped by the antics of Toyota rally stars such as Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol, world champions all. Now, I’m also going to be driving a Toyota rally car, one of a fleet of new Toyota GT86 coupés that have been converted to rally specification for the school. Me? Nervous? Well, I haven’t felt much like eating today.

The school is run as a partnership by died-in-the-wool rallyists John Wood and John Caryl, both of whom have that relaxed, healthy air that a lifetime succeeding in your proven motorsport discipline seems to bring. As our group signs on they bring a light-heartedness to proceedings, relaxing us all using gentle humour.

rally master results
Red GT86 Rally Master driver

We’re ushered into a briefing room, and given a full rundown of what to expect. John Caryl is still entertaining, but now there’s a serious edge underlying everything. Safety is paramount. We’re all novices, so we’re told to forget all we know about driving. There are no gravel traps here, as one chap on a previous course found when his talent gene zigged when it should have zagged and his GT86 ended up on a grass bank.

Red GT86 Rally Master driver on track
GT86 Rally Master interior
GT86 driver preparations
Red GT86 Rally Master dirt track

Briefing over, we wander outside to the cars. They look remarkably standard, if you can ignore all the rally school graphics. The changes aren’t huge, and comprise fitment of a full roll cage, four-point safety harness, underbody protection, new exhausts, rally-spec suspension and a fly-off handbrake. Unlike a normal handbrake, this has no ratchet – pull up to activate it, but let it go and it releases immediately to help with handbrake turns at the hairpins. The school knows that people perform better when they’re comfortable, so the cars even have operational climate-control systems.

We’re each assigned an instructor (poor Tom doesn’t know what he’s in for), strapped in, and off we go. The group is split into two, with two groups of three cars heading for each of the two stages. That way everyone gets a cleaner run with no queuing.

Once back at HQ, it’s clear that everyone has had a hoot. Chelsie Crayden was given a stint at the school as a 21st-birthday gift, while Aaron Gomez was given one for his 30th. Both are buzzing. Chelsie says, “The car’s really powerful, and lets you do lots of skids! I want to do it again!” Aaron is similarly enthused, “The car handles brilliantly, and it’s grippy. Not too grippy though!” 

We’re given a final briefing in which JC critiques our performance. Apparently, I was steering so wildly the marshals thought I was waving at them. It’s all good fun. 

It’s also obvious that apprehension has given way to elation, and that everyone has learned skills that will be invaluable should something untoward happen on the road. It’s a testament to the staff at the school, and also the car, all of whom brought out the best in everyone without even seeming like they were trying. Give it a go – you’ll love life on the stage.

Red GT86 Rally Master dust

Going to a rally school is, first and foremost, fun. However, the lessons learned there can translate to the road. Here are five ways rallying can make you safer:

1. Encourages you to look farther ahead for dangers and to read the road better
2. Gives you better car control skills
3. Instills confidence and reduces nervousness behind the wheel
4. Teaches you to have better mechanical sympathy
5. Increases awareness of how steering inputs and surface changes affect the car’s behaviour

Find out more about Rallymaster events at Brands Hatch and Oulton Park, Cheshire. Configure your own GT86 road car at toyota.co.uk/GT86

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