The Barrable lightness of steering
THERE HAS ALWAYS been something slightly madcap about the world of rallying. While circuit racers operate within the confines of asphalt and gravel traps, rally drivers must contend with the vagaries of gravel, snow and God’s own trees. Success requires an enviable blend of talent and fearless commitment.
Right now Robert Barrable is showing plenty of both. He works the wheel of his Skoda Fabia S2000 as the rear does a jig. He snatches a gear, we crest a brow and, for a moment, we’re airborne. The landing is surprisingly soft; Barrable is back on the brakes and we dart left, skirting a row of trees that feel uncomfortably close to my codriver’s seat.
Through the intercom he inquires about my health. I’m dandy, thanks, just regretting the coronation-chicken sandwich that might reappear sometime soon. He tugs the handbrake and the little Skoda does a neat pirouette. It barks and we’re off again for another lap of our private test track, hidden away to the southwest of London.
Barrable recently contested the Circuit of Ireland Rally, where he finished fifth in an event that doubled as a round of the hugely competitive International Rally Challenge (IRC). For the 25-year-old native of Swords, Co Dublin, it’s another signal of intent. After starting his motorsport career in go-karts and single-seater racing cars, Barrable has taken to the forest stage with considerable aplomb. In 2010 he became the Irish Citroën Racing Trophy Champion and won the prestigious Billy Coleman Award for young rally talent.
The success allowed him to step up to a four-wheel-drive Skoda Fabia S2000 rally car with support from Skoda Ireland. With manufacturer backing come new responsibilities. Last weekend Barrable represented Skoda at the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed, where he spent a long weekend throwing his Fabia around Lord March’s country gaff. But right now he has a responsibility of a different type. He has to teach yours truly how to drive his car. Having shown me how it should be done, he may be about to get a lesson in how it shouldn’t.
The S2000’s exterior is still recognisable as a Fabia, albeit one that’s spent too much time at the gym. The interior, though, bears absolutely no relation to the humble hatchback with which it shares a name. A giant Sparco rally chair sits low in the chassis to optimise the centre of gravity. Scramble in and you’re met by a tiny steering wheel that feels unnaturally close. Two levers by your right hand control the sequential gearbox – push to change down, pull to change up – and the handbrake. There’s also a battery of minor switches at floor level.
“Don’t worry too much about those,” says Barrable as I eye them suspiciously. “The trick is to be as neat as possible,” he explains. “It’s all about conserving momentum. The engine revs to 8500rpm so don’t be afraid to work it.”
He slams the door and I’m left alone in his office. I prod the throttle and the Fabia growls. I dip the clutch and with a jab of the gearstick we’re away. It’s noisy, and the rough expanse of metal gives it a brutal immediacy, but the Fabia isn’t about straight-line thrust. Its 2-litre engine develops 265bhp in a car that weighs 1,200kg.
In road-car terms it accelerates about as hard as a Porsche Boxster S, but, come the twisties, the sports car wouldn’t have a chance. Lotus’s engineers often talk of “think steer”, by which they mean a steering system that’s telepathically linked to the driver. This Fabia has it. Twitch a wrist and the Fabia responds instantly. Away from a race circuit I’ve never driven a car this responsive. The days are long gone when rally cars were hurled from corner to corner in a flurry of glorious power slides. The Fabia’s tail won’t wag without provocation, and it’s definitely not the ideal technique.
As Barrable says, it pays to be precise, and he admits his racetrack experience has proved invaluable. What you don’t get on the track, though, is a handbrake like this. The giant lever locks the back wheels and has the Fabia pivoting about its nose. It’s cartoonish and hugely addictive.
“There’s no denying that competing in rounds of the IRC has meant a big step up in class,” he says. “It’s just the sheer effort that goes into everything, from your pace notes to your personal fitness. Everything has to be done exactly right. The commitment is huge.”
For now Barrable and his Skoda will be concentrating on completing more rounds of the IRC as he pursues his ultimate ambition.
“I want to be a professional ‘Works’ rally driver,” he says emphatically. “That is the goal.”