It was 10 years ago now that a Skoda Octavia vRS romped into the Bonneville record books, setting a new 227.08mph maximum for the G/PS production class. It went as high as 228.642mph and claimed with it a little bit of history. Bonneville and the world had never seen anything quite like it - a front-wheel drive Skoda hatchback at almost four miles a minute. The Octavia was built to celebrate 10 years of the vRS in Britain; now, 120 months down the line, vRS is 20 years old - it was time to get the record breaker back in business.
The car you see here is that Bonneville car, albeit ever so slightly tweaked as part of its recommissioning - the Millbrook bowl presenting a slightly different challenge to the salt flats. So it's now running Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres instead of the Bonneville-specific rubber, roadgoing wheels so brakes can be fitted (seriously, it only had rear rotors alongside a parachute for the record), and the power has been turned down a tad for the longevity of the engine. So think nearer 600hp rather than the 700hp...
On hand to guide us through the drive was Ricky Elder, who helped build this incredible Skoda. Even 10 years later he's insatiably enthusiastic about the project and the challenges that were overcome. Getting 600hp from 2.0-litres is hard at the best of times; the vRS task was made more difficult by a change of engine. Back then, a facelift of the Octavia had just been launched, of which the donor car was one. But the revision saw the EA113 that the community (and Ricky) knew so well replaced with the EA888; now ubiquitous in VWs, Skodas, SEATs and Audis, but an unknown quantity back then. All the off-the-shelf parts lined up for the build wouldn't be suitable, and they had to start from the beginning. As in sending a pair of ECUs off to Revo because nobody knew how to work with them in 2011...
Still, Ricky and his team got there in the end, through some quite extraordinary measures. To comply with the production car class rules, the engine had to remain close to standard, so the block, pistons, valves and crank are as you'd find in a contemporary roadgoing vRS. The conrods were upgraded, and a ginormous Garrett GT3562R fitted, but the engine is closer to a regular one that you might think. For Bonneville, the gearbox from an Octavia Greenline was fitted (its eco-friendly long ratios meant a higher top speed), as well as a limited slip-diff to help find some purchase on the salt. Now it has the original 'box back in, though still with the spindly branch of a gearlever extending from the centre console.
Even in its more modest state of tune, this is a hugely intimidating Skoda Octavia. There's something you won't have read before. The car is red under the wrap, meaning climbing through the cage feels like clambering into a letterbox, and a metal bucket seat ensures it's little more accommodating. There's nothing inside that doesn't need to be, the inside of the Octavia as plush as a skip: pedals, wheel, digital dash, fuel pump switch, ignition switch and the one that makes the engine go kaboom. Everything else is bare red metal or a sheet aluminium 'dash'.
This might be the loudest car I've ever driven. Even through what looks a modest single pipe, it blares and drones and grumbles like nothing else. The 2.0-litre engine was certainly effective, though it's a long way from musical. Then begins the scariest bit: manoeuvring without stalling using a tough four-paddle clutch. Which goes ok, only to be followed by tailing a Millbrook hand towards the bowl; he knows his car, where he's going and what he's doing. The Skoda driver knows none of those things. In its defence, however, the Octavia bimbles well enough, even with a rock solid, unservoed brake pedal, more noise at 30mph than a Caterham at three times that and the worry that's always there driving unique, priceless cars. Even the five-door, hatchback ones.
The bowl would be the chance to really let rip, to feel what more than 300hp per litre feels like... up to 80mph. Sorry, there was a speed limit. Skoda wants to protect their asset and Millbrook have risk assessments to do. So there were no 200mph runs. But even up to 80mph (or so) the Bonneville car is extraordinary. And, to be frank, my eardrums wouldn't have taken much more.
There's turbo lag, and then there's 600-or-so-horsepower-from-2.0-litres turbo lag. Despite the racket the Octavia really isn't doing an awful lot for the first few thousand revs, pulling hard enough but not exactly with record breaking conviction. At about 5,000rpm it rockets into life, and once the shift lights start at 6,000rpm this definitely feels like a 220mph Skoda Octavia, thanks very much. For all of 1,000rpm or so, the powerband shockingly narrow. Changing up really dulls the violence, too, as it's back towards 4,000rpm or so and off boost. It's Russian roulette on four wheels, an explosive everything or pretty much nothing, except you know when the bang is coming. And it's hard to resist going back for more - and more and more. There's some fight in the steering to know just what the car is coping with, though the Skoda seems to deal with three times the power of standard impressively well. It's hard not to imagine what it might be like past 100mph, 150mph and even 200mph. Loud, undoubtedly, but also immensely exciting. Because speed always is, and especially when delivered in such an unlikely form.
Resisting the temptation to flout the speed limit - who's going to catch the 200mph Octavia? - the Skoda is soon back with its minders, including a relieved Ricky. A labour of love probably sells what was achieved here embarrassingly short. That the vRS is actually so user friendly really is a testament to their work, especially given it's been dormant for a decade. Though 200mph in a Skoda may have to wait for another day, the old Octavia has done more than enough to secure Hero status at little more than a third of its top speed. Which is what the most memorable cars always do. And nothing will live much longer in the memory than a 600hp, FWD Skoda - even once your ears have stopped ringing.
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