VISSER DU PLESSIS coaxes the clutch pedal upward and the engine revs rise. It’s a coarse, almost harsh growl, rather like a giant hacksaw ripping a 44-gallon drum in two, and there’s a metallic quality which is so palpable I can almost taste it. I can feel it too, and a thrummy, zingy high-frequency vibration passes through the passenger seat of the Peugeot 207 as it edges forward.
And then, having just changed to second gear, Visser nails the throttle. There’s an explosion of sound and motion along with a series of shrieks from under the bonnet. Burpp . . .
buurp . . . buuurpp – in a vista-shrinking blur we’re into fourth and still accelerating hard, careering along a dirt road that twists and turns and duck and dives, pockmarked here and there by dips and troughs, some filled with mud red water.
It feels like we’re on a rollercoaster ride, the car rising and falling on long-travel suspension, Visser’s gloved hand a frenzy of motion as he pulls and pushes on a circular metal ball just an inch from the rim of the deeply-dished steering wheel. This is the column shift for the six-speed gearbox, not to be confused with a wand-like handbrake lever rising up from between the seats to almost meet it.
But that’s just peripheral stuff. Front of mind is survival and I’m thinking: no waaay!!! This is already completely insane and we’re only about 500 metres from where we left the crew who just seconds before had plugged me into the intercom and strapped me down with a six-point safety harness.
Visser said something about just warming up, I recall, but I’m no longer sure whether he meant himself or the 2.0-litre four-cylinder non-turbo engine mounted transversely under the bonnet. If that makes it sound like a hopped up Peugeot 207 then nothing could be further from the truth. This is a serious 4×4 rally machine with a fancy sequential gearbox and trick differential technology that’s likely to cost at least R3 million to replace. Why, then, is Visser driving it with such venom?
We’re into a tightening left-hander and he literally stands on the huge brake pedal and simultaneously bangs the lever down the box. For a moment I think he’s got it completely wrong and we’re about to shoot over the foot-high earth bank at the road’s edge and into the dry mielies beyond. But I’m mistaken: as we reach what looks like the point of no return, he tugs the handbrake lever for a fraction of a second and with the weight of the car already shifted forward onto the nose, the tail whips round a metre or two and he steps on the gas again, shooting us out the corner and onto the next straight, with a gateway approaching fast in the distance.
I realise I’m clutching the edges of my seat tightly, and I’ve hunkered down so that, despite my lanky frame, I’m peering at the largely standard Peugeot 207 facia. My eyeballs are getting a mix of the frenetic interior action – a flurry of feet and hands – and what’s going on outside – a cacophony of noise and flying red sand in our wake and a blur of mielie fields.
Eventually I start to assimilate things a little; including how incredibly agile the handling is, how punchy the engine is – even if it’s clear that the action only really starts to happen at the top of the rev range – and how astonishing the braking ability is. But the one thing that really impresses is how it soaks up the rough stuff. While I’m still gritting my teeth and turning knuckles white against the upholstery, it is now with less fear; instead I just feel slightly dizzy and lightheaded.
The wild ride continues until I’m eventually able to pay more attention to Visser’s actions, and start to notice other things: the elaborate chrome-moly rollcage, the amount of cabin paraphernalia, and the plethora of switches and buttons. Then Visser slides to a halt in a cloud of dust, and kills the engine. Now it’s my turn.
We swap sides but it takes a while before I’m ready, what with getting the compulsory HANS device (a head and neck support system which limits the helmet’s movement and which is in turn held in place by the seatbelts) on and getting plugged/strapped in again. I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience when I’m rudely awakened by the intercom.
Visser’s voice is so clear it’s like he’s inside my head: ‘Adrian . . . this is a thoroughbred machine, it’s twitchy and nervous, and you need to be very careful. If you get it wrong you can get into trouble really quickly . . . ’
His voice is deadpan, serious, but there’s no hint of malevolence, and I nod and swallow and mutter something arbitrary, like that I have no intention of going very quickly at all.
Ahead of me there’s not very much and I’m confused for a second or two – there must be a rev counter here somewhere. Above the hub of the steering wheel there’s a matchbox-sized LED display and this will tell me the gear I’m in. Where the instruments normally reside there’s a cluster of warning lights but the one to pay attention to is bright green, lighting up at 8 300rpm to remind the driver to tug the shift lever to select the next gear before the 8 500 limiter intervenes. So that’s what I could see out of the corner of my eye flashing furiously when Visser was at the wheel!
I fire it up – it takes almost immediately – but it feels like there’s no flywheel. If there was a rev counter the needle would positively whip round the dial with each prod of the acceleratorStill, I manage a stall-free getaway despite being half in and half out of a soft field and we’re soon grumbling down the road driven earlier. As usual I’m playing myself in slowly, trying to get a feel for things, and start to build up a little speed, using more revs, but I still don’t see the green light.
The engine doesn’t have a great deal of torque and I soon realise that I’m in and out of the powerband, so I add more rpm and try to figure out which gear I need where. Visser is doing navigator duty alongside: ‘Keep right . . .,’ ‘Keep left . . .,’ ‘Slowly – this one really tightens up!’ and at least once, ‘Brake, brake!’ In the really tight stuff he’s also using the handbrake to help me around the hairpins and I’m starting to feel a little more confident, and so a bit of speed is building. Eventually I get the green light coming on by maxing it in fourth gear on a long straight section with mielies flashing by forbiddingly close.
Upshifts are executed without the need for the clutch pedal; it’s just a case of keeping your foot planted and tugging the ball decisively, and in the low gears that means almost as fast as you can do it. When I see the green light I shift from fifth to top, and if I had kept my foot down until the limiter in sixth, we would’ve been doing somewhere between 175 and 180kph – on a bumpy dirt track not much wider than the car.
Eventually I’m really starting to enjoy myself, so much so that at one point Visser’s left hand makes a beeline for the steering wheel. I’m on the left of the car so maybe I was too far over to the right of the track for comfort, or maybe from the confines of the nav’s pew (which is much lower than the driver’s) it just seemed that way.
Nevertheless, we complete a lap without mishap and make it back to the service area, and like most rollercoaster rides viewed
retrospectively it had ended too soon, despite the initial terror and trepidation. I’m feeling almost euphoric, maybe more so than in any competition machine I’ve driven.
I’m hugely impressed, not only with the car but by the guys who drive them on the ragged edge. You have to be almost inch-perfect – not so much in mielie fields or sugar cane plantations where an error may result in an impromptu harvest, more so in the forests of the Eastern Cape or Mpumalanga where an off can mean an unguided trip down a mountain or a terminal altercation with unyielding trees. You also clearly need to be smooth, because the relatively modest power delivery makes it all too easy to lose speed if you take the wrong line and use too much steering input. You can feel how momentum is lost when going sideways on ‘grabby’ surfaces.
That’s also why Peugeot Sport South Africa, under the aegis of preparation outfit ADF Motorsport, has done some successful development work on the engine, improving both mid-range torque and the top end. They’ve also been working on getting the chassis set-up right for South Africa’s control Dunlops.
These Peugeots, of which nearly 100 have been produced (#96 is the sister car of Hein Lategan which finished fifth in the event in which Du Plessis recently finished seventh), are built to a tight set of international regulations which ultimately led to the 2011 WRC rules for 1.6-litre turbo cars. But affordability remains the crux of the S2000 formula, though even with our ‘cheapie’ tyres Visser estimates it costs about R1 000 a kilometre to run this car. So our little play session down a bunch of dirt roads at Rallystar near Bapsfontein would’ve cost well over R20 000. Which makes me particularly pleased that – literally and figuratively – there were only green lights to be seen, and not any red ones