Unlike a large section of the population, I didn’t learn to drive in a Nissan Micra. I learned in a rather more powerful Renault Megane turbodiesel, which encouraged me to be confident about passing other vehicles from an early stage in my driving career. Still, despite the lack of Micra-ness in the formative months of my driving life, I think of the Micra mainly as something you drive at either end of your automotive career – first of all when you have a big plastic pyramid of ‘L’s top of the car, and then again when you’re wearing beige and proceeding to the shops at fifteen miles per hour.
I certainly don’t think of it as a vehicle you’d ever want to use to go anywhere quickly – but an experience at the weekend has gone some way to changing that. Sitting on a rally display at the Perth Motorsport Show was a shiny red Micra, all ready to go and take on the stages. And after a chat with the car’s owner, I found myself warming to the concept behind the car and eager to have a shot.
This might have been a Micra intended for rally driving, but that didn’t mean it had been pimped up to high heaven. Unlike the Micras I saw racing at a SuperGT support race in Japan last year, where super-tuned multicoloured screamers bearing as much resemblance to roadgoing cars as I do to Russell Brand hammered down the main straights at upwards of 120mph, this rally car was a Micra through and through. Apart from a set of chunky tyres and alloy competition wheels that raised the car’s ride height a little and gave the impression that it meant business, only a few stickers sprinkled over the scarlet bodywork set this car apart from something you’d see in Tesco’s car park.
The rallying Nissan was, then, pretty much bog-standard on the outside. And under the bonnet. The 1000cc engine remained standard save for the addition of a performance air filter, and even the rear drum brakes had been retained, much to the surprise of one of my fellow motor club members who took a wander round. The interior of the car had been stripped out in the way one would expect a rally car to be – seats out, fire extinguishers and rollcage in, competition seats in, sports steering wheel on. This example was clearly the product of some effort on the inside, featuring a flocked dashboard to cut down glare from the sun, a chunky weld-in cage and carbon-fibre door cards. The elephant’s-backside-grey window winders and handbrake lever remained, however, serving as solemn reminders that this was a car built to get involved in rallying as cheaply as possible.
“Aye, it’s probably a car that’s more fun for those in it that those outside of it,” conceded Jim Aitken, the car’s new owner and brother of World Ladies’ Rally Champion Louise Aitken-Walker. “I mean, this thing’s only got fifty five horse power. At that level it really encourages you to keep the speed up through the corners and to be neat and tidy.” And that, it turns out, is the whole essence behind cars like the Nissan Micra that are competing in this new Formula 1000 class. The series is aimed at new – particularly young – rally drivers eager to get out on the stages for the first time, with the aim of keeping the car specification (and thus costs) as tightly controlled as possible. Belts. Seats. Cage. Fire extinguishers. Off you go.
The rather unfair comparisions I had made with a driving school car actually turn out to be not too wide of the mark. What the Formula 1000 Micra is is a car that encourages you to get the basics right before applying more power. It mirrors a conversation I had a while back with a mountain biker, who told me the best way to learn to ride is to start slowly, get the technique right and then take that technique to speed once you’ve got it nailed. “One of the best instructors down south will just have you going round the same stage again and again until you’re perfect,” Jim continues. “What he wants to do is get consistency out of you, so that instead of being perfect after going round four or five times, you’re coming straight into the car at the start of the day or after a break or whatever and being on the pace right away.”
Jim already has decades of experience behind the wheel on the stages, but his enthusiasm to get out in the forests in his new purchase easily matches that of a seventeen year-old who’s got a rally licence four days after their birthday and is sitting on the start line of their first stage. Aitken has contested several Scottish Championship rounds this year in a hired Micra, but after a couple of successful outings he’s taken the plunge and brought a car up from Wales. His main aim is to raise the profile of Formula 1000 north of the Border, having spent the last few years ferrying daughter Martha down to deepest darkest Wales to compete in the category. At the moment there are no other cars in the 1.0-litre class in the Scottish series, but Jim is hopeful that the presence of the car on the stages will gradually generate interest.
And generate interest it does. Four passing youngsters are drawn to the car, and the somewhat disingenuous nature of their questions leads me to believe they don’t have a great deal of experience – if any – behind the wheel. “What size of engine does that have?” one of them asks me pointedly, rapping the Micra’s bonnet with his knuckles.
“One litre, one thousand cc,” I reply.
“Is that it,” another singgers.
“Yep, fiffy five horsepower,” I conform. “But believe me, when the trees are zipping past you at seventy miles an hour for the first time, that will be more than enough.”
“Aye, I suppose,” the original question asker concedes.
The Formula 1000 Micra might not be the fastest thing ever to hit the stages, but it’s certainly one of the most appealing. As we look for ways to make motor sport more cost-efficient, attractive and above all environmentally friendly, a basic blueprint like this might be just what’s needed. If it means more emphasis on skill and getting the fundamentals right, that surely can’t be a bad thing.