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Luke Barry had an embarrassing moment while driving the Clio Rally3
Photography by Alpine & DirtFish
Words by Luke Barry
So there I was, all chuffed with myself that I’d planned a dreamy intro for this feature. I’d write about being lost in the moment, struggling to believe that I was pulling the gears and chucking Renault’s new Clio Rally3 in sideways, I thought.
I was rally driving – that was never supposed to happen to me.
But let this be a lesson to you that tempting fate can really only come back to bite you. Slipping knees first onto the ground just after I’d put Renault’s all-new rally car off the road really wasn’t what I’d had in mind.
Circuit Andorra – Pas de la Casa was the setting for a big moment in rallying history. Saturday, January 14 was the first time the public laid eyes on the very first four-wheel-drive rally car to wear the famous diamond badge.
Homologation is to come in the spring and testing is already complete, but this was Renault’s chance to show the world the fruits of its labor.
It’s an important car not just for Renault and the Alpine Customer Racing division, but for rallying as a whole, as finally after two long years M-Sport Poland’s Fiesta Rally3 has a playmate. The world’s special stages will soon reveal who’s boss.
But January’s second full weekend was all about generating some media hype about one of the year’s most intriguing cars.
I had the chance to speak to chief engineer Yann Paranthoën at the back end of last year, and everything I’d heard about the car sounded promising – from its F1-engineered rear wing to the raspy four-cylinder engine and punchy styling. The car looked and sounded the part in the promo video Renault released, too.
But seeing is believing as they say, and I was won over straight away. Just setting eyes on it, it’s clear that the Clio Rally3 is a proper piece of kit. It just looks very well sorted. And I’m sorry to say it M-Sport, but you’ve got some work to do in the (admittedly fairly trivial when you boil it down) sound department.
The three-cylinder thrum of a Fiesta Rally3 has got nothing on the bark and growl of Renault’s 260bhp four-cylinder heart. Bonus points must be awarded for the canon-like exhaust resembling a bowl of Rice Krispies (as advertised, I’m never quite sure I believed it) as it crackled and popped on the over-run.
2021 RX2e world champion Guillaume De Ridder was the one entrusted with driving duties as Renault’s new creation broke cover. But his run on Saturday, completed after the conclusion of the passionately supported and rather entertaining Clio Ice Trophy for Rally5 spec Clios, was just a precursor for what lay ahead on Sunday.
Renault had been brave enough to let all the attending journalists have a go behind the wheel. We’d each get three laps alongside De Ridder before swapping seats and having a go ourselves.
But before we get to that, and how it went wrong for yours truly, Paranthoën was back on hand in the bitterly cold Andorra to offer some more words on the car rally coordinator Josep Ferrer described as “his child”.
“It’s a very important car for us because for sure we need to have a good business plan,” Paranthoën explained.
“For sure if we can sell quite a lot of Rally3s the business will be good and if the business is good for sure it will be easier to propose another project.
“When you do customer racing, particularly in Renault/Alpine, you need to make a profit. If the car is good, you will sell a lot of cars. You sell a lot of cars, you sell a lot of spare parts and the business will be good.”
But it’s about far more than just business. Renault has massively bought into Rally3.
“We are very happy with the regulation,” Paranthoën said. “We go to Rally3 project because we think that this regulation is very good for the customers and for us because technically you can do quite a lot of things, so for engineers it’s always interesting to work like this.
“And the regulations are very clear about the budget and the price cap, and when we do the business plan we think with the price cap in mind, and with the technical regulation, it will be a very good four-wheel-drive car.
“For sure when we do the first rallies compared to the Fiesta it will be very interesting. We hope to have more manufacturers because only two it’s not a lot, but we prefer to compete with other manufacturers than only Ford. Let’s see if other manufacturers will have the same decision as us.”
Manufacturers of the world, there’s your cue.
Renault though is unlikely to join a healthy list of automakers in developing a Rally2 car to complement its range of Rally3, 4 and 5 Clios. At least not for now.
“Personally, for sure I would like to do a Rally2 car,” Paranthoën confessed, “but to be honest it’s not possible in Alpine Racing as to do a Rally2 car actually we need a lot of budget [allocated to customer racing] as we need to do a lot of test session to be competitive. And to do a car to try and beat Škoda or Citroën, I think it’s very, very difficult.
“And we don’t have the staff for this. We are only four or five engineers, actually only two designers, only two mechanics, so we know that we cannot do everything.
“Alpine Racing is focused on Formula 1 and LMDh [World Endurance Championship] and I think Rally3 will be the last car for now.”
For my final question, I decided to ask Paranthoën why he was so bold and elected to let media hacks have a go at driving. And I promise I used the phrase “idiots like me” in my question, not realizing how prophetic that would prove to be.
“Because it’s a customer car,” came the reply, “so we need to present a car and we need to have good media for sure, so it’s always a good day!
“We explain our project, we explain our car, it’s always a pleasure to work like this.”
To his credit, Paranthoën meant that. After I’d sheepishly returned to the pits and snuck out to the back after hanging my head in shame in front of my fellow media colleagues, I shouted “I’m sorry!” in his direction. He smiled, and simply wanted to know what I thought of the car.
What did I think of the car? Truthfully, I don’t really feel qualified to give a proper answer as I had no frame of reference. Rallying may be my area of expertise but driving a rally car most certainly is not. Before this trip I’d only ever traveled in three rally cars before and none of them from the driver’s seat.
But what I can tell you is that the Clio Rally3 is confidence inspiring. From as early as the first sweeping hairpin I found my feet in the car, tugging the handbrake and modulating the resultant slide with the throttle. It probably didn’t look very impressive, but I felt like a legend.
Renault has taken its time to develop a car that people actually want, and it’s been smart in how it’s gone about it. Over 30 different drivers got behind the wheel during the car’s testing phase. No one driver was responsible for development. And for a car that’s being pitched squarely at customers – with no works-supported team to speak of – that’s a shrewd move.
Turn-in was crisp, although conditions on the day were icy to say the least. Michelin’s X-Ice North tires, and the 190 studs that protrude from them, helped keep skidding to a minimum – but not completely!
And the power was addictive. I must confess I was never always fully sold on the concept of Rally3, but getting a first-hand taste of it makes those year-old thoughts feel ridiculous. These are proper little cars that are easy to drive and (relatively) affordable. Win-win.
Last year’s WRC3 runner-up, Jan Černý (who’d made a cheeky stop on his way to Tenerife to try the car that rivals his 2022 steed), assured me of this when he returned from his run and could sense the apprehension in my demeanor.
“You’ll be OK,” he said, well aware that I was about to lose my rally driving virginity.
“It’s really easy to drive. The first corner is a bit slippy but other than that it’s fine.”
“But you can’t see nothing.”
Ah, thanks mate.
He wasn’t wrong though.
De Ridder made it look easy as I tried to balance enjoying my first ride in a rally car on snow and ice while absorbing the information he was telling me about the car and the conditions.
“You can handbrake through this one,” he said, locking the rear wheels on cue and sliding beautifully through the bend.
“Or not,” he added next time around, using the ancient art of the Scandinavian flick to guide the Clio on its way.
Suitably impressed but quietly bricking it, soon it was my turn.
I didn’t really know what to think or what to expect from myself. This was just about taking an incredible opportunity, trying to play it cool in front of De Ridder and, above all else, not crashing the car.
“Please, drive carefully,” we were warned in the pre-event briefing. “The last thing we want is for there to be a problem that stops the others from trying the car.”
Whenever you hear that, you never think it’s going to be you. It’s something you take in but basically bat away milliseconds later because, well, that’s just obvious. Isn’t it?
I was driving in group two of three, I was originally supposed to be in three but I pleaded my way into two due to the timing of my flight home.
But in doing so, the weather gods had decided to play a trick on me. Snow and ice isn’t the surface I’d have picked for my first taste of rally driving, but I was dealing with the added curveball of a fresh bout of fairly heavy snow.
I was warned as such before we set off: “Conditions are a bit difficult now,” De Ridder commented, “but I’ll guide you through it.”
Happily managing not to stall the engine, we gently pull away.
“You can press the stage mode button,” I hear down the intercom. I avert my eyes toward the steering wheel and there it is – this beautiful, big blue button that turns everything up to 11.
Stage mode engaged, I give it my best shot.
The aforementioned handbrake-induced slide was definitely a highlight of the session – but I did casually forget to mention that I was see-sawing a bit on the exit, over-correcting as I made that classic mistake of shuffling the wheel like you would in a road car.
But the back end of the circuit was my kryptonite. In the haze that was my view through the windshield, making out some of the corners was a near impossibility. I hadn’t stood and watched anybody through this part of the track, and that was probably my biggest mistake.
The corners I particularly didn’t like were a quick left-right sequence before another sweeping left hairpin. The hairpin actually could be forgiven – I did manage to get a nice slide through there on one of my later laps.
But the left-right will be living rent-free in my head for years to come.
Again, carrying over habits from road driving, I wasn’t pressing the brakes hard enough. The left turn was after the longest straight on the circuit where you’d get up to fourth gear before stamping on the anchors and threading the car through.
Twice I got my braking wrong. My third time through the corner was the worst as I ran off-line, understeered and nosed it into some snow. Down to first gear. Power. Nothing was happening. I began to feel worried.
Embarrassingly, I didn’t know how to find it. But once De Ridder had explained that I needed to press the red button atop the gear lever, I got the car free.
For all of about five seconds.
Back on the road, frustrated at my off and dazed by the white-out in front of me, at this point I’m completely disorientated. Crawling, I try to work out which way the road goes. De Ridder quickly picks up on the fact that I’m not exactly oozing confidence.
“Right!,” he says.
But it was too late. By this point, I’ve wandered off straight-on and this 260bhp rally-bred monster has tip-toed into another clump of thick snow.
I repeat the same process as before.
First gear. Nope.
“Ah, I think we are stuck now,” says De Ridder.
I don’t know what to say – or what to do. It’s a moment of pathetic fallacy as I freeze up and just sit there like a total plum, fearing I’m in for a right old bollocking.
De Ridder gets out and it’s clear that the car wasn’t getting out under its own steam. It was barely off the corner, but far enough off for the bank to have gobbled it up and robbed it of any traction.
“It’s not your fault,” De Ridder says, rallycross driver turned counselor. “There’s nothing you could have done.”
I’m not sure I believe him, but the sentiment is respected all the same. Soon I’m also out of the car, and the Renault guys appear from the white wall of weather as our rescue aid, later followed by the circuit’s tractor that makes light work of pulling the Clio free.
I catch one of the engineers grinning to himself as he takes a picture of my downfall.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, reading the shame etched on my face. “Nothing is broken, at least now you are a real rally driver!”
Fair play to the entire crew, as none of them held it against me. They could see that the conditions were challenging – particularly for a complete novice – and the car was absolutely fine, so no harm, no problem.
I can’t say I felt the same. Clambering into the co-driver’s side once the car was free as De Ridder drove us back to the pits, he once again reassured me: “You can’t see anything. You are literally guesstimating every corner.”
But as we pulled up, I had the walk of shame to face. On the other side of the door stood my media colleagues who were all well aware something had gone awry.
As soon as I got out, I was into a debrief. Journalist mode fully switched on, I got a chance to experience another side of life as a rally driver when the media hounds you. A huddle began to swarm as all anybody wanted to know was: what happened?
Once I’d delivered my explanation, Spanish media ace Nacho Villarin helped me see the funny side: “Now you are ready for your first Rally Sweden!,” he patted me on the back, before explaining his own story of rolling a Yamaha buggy at an event last year at Nasser Al-Attiyah’s racing camp.
At least his off-road excursion was cool! Mine was just pathetic.
Hats off to Renault though. It was an amazing opportunity and, although we’re yet to get the final proof, what it’s produced looks to be a very fine rally car indeed
I’m fully convinced it’ll be a winner, so long as I’m not driving it.
DirtFish https://www-dirtfish.imgix.net/2023/01/ALPINE_00001664_0127.jpg?fit=scale&fm=pjpg&h=520&ixlib=php-3.3.1&q=70&w=780&wpsize=entry-main January 29, 2023
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