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Tuesday 7th September 2010


SKODA: RALLY RATHER GOOD

Riggers gets on his bobble hat, fills up his Thermos flask and heads for the Czech Republic

It was the way the service crew managed to change a rear differential in less than a quarter of an hour that opened my eyes. I am not one of nature's mechanics (I recently bought How it works: The Motor Car, an old Ladybird book, and found it to be genuinely instructive), but I know enough to understand that the changing of the diff was a work of efficient mechanical genius.

Into service...
Into service...
Up until this point I had never really understood the popular appeal of a rally service park, but watching the Skoda crew service rising British rally star Guy Wilks's Skoda Fabia was genuinely fascinating. The diff was changed, a left rear door replaced (after the car hit a deer) and the gearbox ratios adjusted all in a 45-minute service window - with ample time to get the car washed and sponsor-friendly.

And the average rally fan can get within feet of the action - I was there as an 'official' Skoda guest, but aside from there being no physical barrier between me and the car I was hardly any closer than the rest of the fans.

...down to work...
...down to work...
I was an 'embedded journalist' (sounds better than freeloading hack, don't you think?) for the weekend to get a Skoda-eye view of the Barum Rally Zlin, Skoda's home event and the Czech round of the IRC (there's more about the IRC at the bottom of the article). And to record - Skoda hoped - its claiming of the IRC manufacturer's crown.

But the key to rallying's appeal is that VIP hospitality treatment gets you barely any closer to the action than regular fans can get. It is motorsport that you can see, touch and smell, where little more lies between you and the action than a line of plastic tape and a man with a hi-vis tabard. And if you happen to be in the right place at the right time there will be as much drama as you'll find in any soap opera.

...and a new diff within 15 minutes. Genius
...and a new diff within 15 minutes. Genius
Last weekend that drama happened right in front of us. Czech driver and rally leader Jan Kopecky - Skoda's lead factory driver and understandably the crowd favourite - reappeared in the Skoda garage area barely half an hour after having left service for the final time to the cheers of hundreds of Czech fans.

He had spun out of a 26-second lead with just three stages left to run and then, trying to make up lost time, braked too late for a left-hand corner, beaching the car on a large branch. The anguish of Kopecky and co-driver Petr Stary were plain to see - and Kopecky's girlfriend was in tears, knowing that dropping out of the lead had effectively killed his championship chances.

Helicopter ride: brilliant but not slumming it
Helicopter ride: brilliant but not slumming it
The drama wasn't over though. The win looked to be slipping from Skoda's grasp as Skoda's Belgian dealer team driver Freddy Loix had already conceded second place to the charging Peugeot 207 of Bryan Bouffier. But Bouffier lost the lead to Loix again after he damaged his rear suspension on the last stage but one. Bouffier would then end his rally in a ditch on the final stage, courtesy of a broken water pipe leaking water onto his tyres.

Bouffier's misfortune promoted the works Skoda of Juho Hanninen into second and private Skoda entrant Pavel Valousek into the third podium spot. But with Kopecky's retirement it was a bitter-sweet one-two-three that secured Skoda its hoped-for manufacturer's title. A Hollyoaks script writer couldn't have devised a more dramatic plot.

How to turn an artic into a grandstand
How to turn an artic into a grandstand
As for Wilks, he soldiered on with a dicky rear differential (the replacement part so effortlessly installed was little better) to take his effectively front-wheel drive Fabia home in a commendable seventh place.

So just what is IRC?
IRC stands for Intercontiental Rally Challenge (the word 'international' would be just too obvious) and is a 12-round global championship for Group N rally cars (production-based cars along the lines of the Mitsubishi Evo) and Group A vehicles.

The top-spec cars - such as our friend the Skoda Fabia - are based on S2000 regulations, which means a normally aspirated 2.0-litre engine giving around 265bhp, a six-speed sequential gearbox, four-wheel drive and two mechanical differentials.

Dramatic, but slow...
Dramatic, but slow...
But what makes the IRC really interesting is that it offers a glimpse at the next generation of WRC cars, wich will hit the stages next year with an all-but-identical specification, save for a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine which will push out a little more power and more torque than the IRC cars manage. Whether this is a good thing or not, we'll leave for you to decide.

Author: Riggers