Team O’Neil, Left Foot Braking, Roller Coasters, and the Ford Fiesta

By Peter Dushenski

Rally aspirations don’t really suit the Ford Fiesta.

It’s no Subaru WRX, no Mini Countryman, not even a Citroen DS3. It’s a subcompact bought by teenagers and retirees. For this exact purpose it needs to be fuel efficient, safe, easy to see out of, and logical to operate. It can even have a dose of fun, just to raise it above the pack, but not so much that it overwhelms the Fiesta’s calling card – it’s a small car that feels bigger and more mature than it is. See our earlier review if you don’t believe us.

Rally cars, on the other hand, are AWD, sequentially shifting, turbocharged purveyors of the kind of fizz more commonly found in alka selzer. The Ford Fiesta that you and I can buy is none of these things. But defeat the ABS and TC and the Fiesta gains a cool unflappability on gravel that makes it a shrewd tool for hills, crests, and sweeping forest gaps that define rally courses. Of course, the car alone isn’t enough to conquer the shifty surface. For that, something called “technique” is relied upon.

Which is what brought CarEnvy to New Hampshire and the Team O’Neil Rally Driving School with a bunch, nay, a fleet of seemingly unsuitable Fiestas. The technique du jour? The black art of Left Foot Braking, also known as LFB.

LFB is exactly what your parents and high school driving instructor warned you to never so much as utter under your breath. Your left foot is supposed to be for clutching – all crude, coarse, and on/off – while your right foot is the more delicate and responsive instrument, asked to deftly modulate the throttle and brake. Even the idea of rev-matching downshifts, where the right foot pivots between the throttle and brake as the left foot clutches, seems elementary and intuitive in comparison. Left Foot Braking is a hockey player learning ballet and “the talk” with your parents, all wrapped into one awkward gesture. As it turns out, this awkwardness has a purpose on loose surface driving. And primarily on loose surface driving. It serves to pivot the vehicle around its z-axis while maintaining full throttle, giving greater driver control and higher exit speeds from a corner.

Easily said, more challengingly accomplished, even for someone with more than a few dancing lessons under his boyishly small belt. Even after I got my left foot to cooperate and attend to the braking, my right foot lifted off the throttle in coordination with the left foot easing into the braking, negating any benefit realized by the unorthodox technique. My natural give-and-take approach was slower, and more importantly, less dramatic. The Team O’Neil driving instructor, ever-present in the passenger seat, was quick to voice commands, but his commands only made for even more of a high-wire juggling act, if a truly thrilling one. Still, when trying to react to a foreign driving surface, the inputs of an unfamiliar car, a truly heretical braking technique, and the marching orders of an instructor, cerebral overload isn’t far away.

Until the pig-headed conscious brain is finally, blessedly overpowered and induced into finding the delicacy needed for LFB, real progress on the gravel and clay of Team O’Neil’s hinterland paradise is frustratingly slow. Eventually, we’re reminded, LFB melts into the background and the driver’s mind is freed to focus on pointing the car in the desired direction. A demonstration of this was made available to us in a Ford Fiesta R2 piloted by a guy with a French-sounding name who ironically didn’t speak a lick of it.

The grin-inducing, bowel-loosening experience lasted scarcely more than a minute, but made the most of every second. Sixty seconds after we set off, I wanted to take back everything I’d every considered about “rally aspirations not suiting the Fiesta”. It was like a roller coaster ride without the confident guiding hand of the rails. Roller coasters, for me, are usually fairly visceral and a nod in the direction of death, but I’ll never again take those security blanket rails for granted. Without them, trees, ditches, and boulders are all fair play – and scarcely a millimeter of poorly applied driver input away. At the end of the shotgun ride, I was tingling from head to toe. Adrenaline and self-preservation instinct coursing through my dilated arteries and veins, opening my bronchioles, expanding my pupils, and kick-starting my lazy heart. It was enlightenment on gravel. It was fucking awesome.

As was our time behind the wheel of the normal Fiesta. We scratched the surface of LFB, discovered the challenges of a new surface, gained new appreciation for the Fiesta, and shared an amazing experience with fellow students (including CarEnvy alumnus Mark Atkinson). The varied backgrounds of the instructors allow each driver to find the coach best suited to their learning style through a series of driver and passenger swaps between increasingly testing drills. Our one-day course was designed to provide a sample of some of the techniques taught over their usual 4 or 5-day courses, so we were intentionally overloaded so that we could experience as much as possible. And experience we did!

It was our first trip to the sparsely populated state of New Hampshire, and we’ve now added a new pin to our frequently stabbed world map. But more than that, we became more confident, safer drivers and came to see the diminutive Fiesta for what it is: A badass little rally car.

One thought on “Team O’Neil, Left Foot Braking, Roller Coasters, and the Ford Fiesta

  1. […] ago at a time when I’d never so much as set foot on a road course and had only very limited driver training and some entirely innocent karting under my belt. Fast-forward to present-day and […]

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