Skoda: Rally Rather Good

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.

Comments (31) Join the discussion on the forum

  • bernies 11 Sep 2010

    I was at the IRC San Remo rally last year & stood watching the cars come through at this uphill hairpin..

    These cars may only have 280hp, but with tight & twisting tarmac roads, good viewing spots and an appreciative crowd, it was a great rally.

  • Ranger 6 08 Sep 2010

    300bhp/ton said:
    ...Suspect it's debatable for B and N tbh wink
    Nope - over the same stages GpA was faster two years after GpB was banned, now GpN is capable of faster times than GpA. Oh, yes and just because the SD1 and the 205 were in GpA they were still in different classes. Remember when JC won the BTCC in an Astra because he just kept winning his class against very little competition.

    I won't perpetuate the debate, if you have a look at what you're suggesting has been discussed many times and dismissed as unworkable.

    Armchair enthusiasts with a little knowledge should recognise that all this talk of "what it used to be like" is bks. Wake up and recognise the sport is dying while you folk pontificate and dream of wet nylon jackets in Kielder. There are very few people joining motor clubs, so while we see the youngsters such as Tom Cave doing well, where's the hoards of others thrashing round SV events? Simple, they're not. So the sport needs something new, something which will appeal to those who can come in and keep the sport going.

    I've been working on some rallies where we've had the same stage commanders for over 15 years - that isn't going to keep people coming up through the marshal structure encouraged when they see the old guard entrenched, they're going to do something else at the weekend where we should be training and bringing them on into positions where they can learn - who's the youngest working CoC in the UK? Who's the youngest MSA steward? etc etc.

    It's not just the cars the sport needs, it's the people....

  • bob 180 08 Sep 2010

    its nice to see everyone on here missing the point have a look at these clips its not the cars its the drivers that make the sport whether the cars are 1.6 or 2.0l the drivers will still be pushing the limits maybe even more so if there isnt so much at steak for the teams money wise.

  • ArosaMike 08 Sep 2010

    Great report smile A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to go to the service park at the German round of the WRC and, like you say, it amazed me how much the crew get done in such a short space of time. What was even cooler was that, as it was the recce day, my friend and I headed out onto the (now reopened) rally stage in my Octavia! Being a tarmac rally made life easier, but seeing all the scars on edges of the road where they'd been cutting corners was awesome!

  • Transmitter Man 08 Sep 2010

    Ranger said;

    "You should remember that GpN cars these days are faster than GpB ever was"

    Don't think Walter would be too far behind you: in whatever car you had.


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