Circuit Training: Ford Focus RS Test Drive

Circuit racing the new Ford Focus RS

I am not a fast driver. This might seem like an odd admission from a motoring journalist, but I can contemplate it without embarrassment.

It must be something to do with how my brain’s wired up. To be a quick, smooth driver you need to assimilate a lot of information about what the car is doing, through the pedals, steering wheel and even your backside. You also need to be aware of what’s happening in the outside world, from where the road is heading to what other people are doing. I can deal with all of these things individually, and put them together at normal road speeds, but speed them up on a race track and stuff starts to go awry.

The new Ford Focus RS

So when Ford asked me to drive its 165mph Focus RS on the motor racing circuit in Valencia, Spain, various bits of my anatomy tensed somewhat.

The car has four selectable driving modes: ‘Quite Bonkers,’ ‘Utterly Demented,’ ‘Like a rat up a drainpipe’ and ‘Sideways’ (actually they’re ‘Normal,’ ‘Sport,’ ‘Launch Control’ and ‘Drift’). The last one turns off a lot of the electronic aids that keep this spectacularly fast car nailed to the road, so that it can be made to go very sideways. We would also be experiencing the Launch and Drift functions. I greeted this news with a similar sense of modified rapture.

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The Focus RS is not a car for introverts. Bits bulge, there are huge vents and air intakes and a pumped up rear spoiler. Massive low profile tyres surround expensive alloy wheels, behind which enormous brakes and calipers can be seen. This very European car was partly developed in America by blokes who look like ZZ Top roadies, but it isn’t an essay in brute force and ignorance. The thing has computer controlled four-wheel-drive, and sophisticated differentials that monitor and individually send power (almost 350bhp of it) to whichever wheel they think needs it most. Its computers can also do things to the steering response, alter how hard the dampers are, and even change the way the car sounds.

The new Ford Focus RS billboard

Yet you could go shopping in an RS, or do battle with the traffic on the South Circular Road. The ride is very firm, slightly unsettled on poor motorway services, but otherwise surprisingly OK, and slightly sharp clutch aside, the car is deceptively easy to drive. It has a forgiving nature that flatters its driver. The steering is sharp and responsive, throttle action instant, the six-speed gearbox (no sissy paddle shifts for the RS) solid, but accurate, the brakes haul off the speed with ease. It can be punted into bends and flung out of them with confidence, and yes, even your sluggish correspondent found it fun.

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So what happened at the racetrack? The ‘Launch’ facility was indeed impressive, although I suspect my car didn’t manage the official 0-62 of 4.7secs on the first go, because I’d forgotten to release the handbrake. The instructor managed not to laugh.

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We then tried the Drift button. Some of my colleagues quickly got their cars to do shrieking pirouettes in a fog of tyre smoke. Despite the instructor’s entreaties to ‘boot the throttle! Boot the throttle,’ I went a bit sideways then slunk away.

After that came the circuit driving, where our party took to the track in batches of five cars. Oh dear. I started at the back of a batch, from which I was soon detached, as everyone else roared into the distance. As my nerve failed the RS coped brilliantly with the funny lines I took through corners, the strange places I applied the brakes and changed gear. A car should ‘flow’ on a racing circuit, but somebody had turned off my tap, and I quickly dribbled back in to the pits for fear of getting in everyone else’s way.

The new Ford Focus RS

If you like in your face, grown up hooligan’s hot hatches, then you’ll love the Focus RS. It’s brilliant at what it does, but apparently I wasn’t brilliant at making it do those things.

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